Five Stars of the Wild West


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: I'm Sarah Dowdey. You remember a little while ago, we talked about famous battle horses.

Katie Lambert: Like Incitatus.

Sarah Dowdey: Like Incitatus and remember how at least half of them seemed like they had been stuffed. If you're the kind of person who keeps up with the latest in stuffed horse news!

Katie Lambert: I am.

Sarah Dowdey: You've probably heard this. Roy Rogers' trustee steed Trigger just sold for $266,000.00 in New York City.

Katie Lambert: His dog, Bullet, sold for about $35,000.00. I think this would make a difficult decorative scheme in one's house. I'm not very good at interior decorating.

Sarah Dowdey: Bullet on one side of the door and Trigger on the other maybe. The cool thing is before the sale we received this note and photos from people at Christie's Interiors. They're fans of the podcast. They also auctioned off the memorabilia. They told us that Trigger, Bullet, Buttermilk and "too many cowboy boots to count" had all been stored in their warehouse for about five months. Understandably, they were kind of sad to see the stuff go. They'd gotten a little attached to it. They sent a request for an episode on famous cowboys in honor of their sale.

Katie Lambert: We're responding with, of course. How do we decide on who to talk about? Sarah was saying the first cowboys that she thought of weren't really cowboys at all.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, they're outlaws and hustlers and lawmen. We've talked about a lot of them before. Wyatt Earp, that kind of fellow. The next ones we thought of were like Roy Rogers. They're TV stars, film cowboys, stuntmen, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, that type. We wanted something that's a little bit between those two eras; something that's not yet so far removed from the real open range, real cowboys.

Katie Lambert: Our answer was the traveling Wild West Show, which is a little bit vaudeville for our vaudeville hungry listeners. A medley of horse tricks, gun tricks and humor! First, how did we get from the actual Wild West to the Wild West show in just a little more than a decade? If the cowboy is not the outlaw gunslinger we know from movies, what does he really do?

Sarah Dowdey: To give you a definition before we start, real cowboys are horsemen who handle and drive cattle; pretty obvious. They also do other tasks like branding and castrating the animals or they break horses. They obviously still exist today. Their real heyday was pretty short. It's 1867-1887, only 20 years of hard-core cowboy times.

Katie Lambert: Their techniques using horses and lariats to herd cattle were picked up as early as 1820 by pioneers observing Mexican vaqueros. By the end of the Civil War, we've got a pretty big cattle industry in Texas, which is centered around the Texas longhorn steer, a hybrid of Spanish and English cattle. But we have a problem.

Sarah Dowdey: That's getting the beef of Texas into the railroad where it could be shipped to Northern cities where there are a lot of hungry people. That's where the cowboys come in. Their job was to, in the Fall, round up the herd, brand the ones that are unmarked or collect any unowned cows, then they'd watch over them through the winter; make sure nothing terrible happened. In the Spring, they would drive the cattle on trails out of Texas to the railheads in Missouri and Wyoming and Kansas.

Katie Lambert: I didn't know what a railhead was. If you want to explain because I thought it was just an insult.

Sarah Dowdey: It does sound like an insult. It's just a rail terminus or the end of a line, a place where you go and ship your cattle off to the cities. Within about a decade, this cattle ranching spreads across the Great Plains all the way to Canada as far West as the Rockies and so do cowboys.

Katie Lambert: But by about 1890 or so, fenced ranches for place open grazing railroad stops are often closer to the cattle and ranching becomes a big business. Cowboys aren't needed as much.

Sarah Dowdey: You don't need as many of them. They're not covering these huge long distances. But by this point, the cowboy has already entered American mythology. It doesn't matter that we don't need tons of cowboys anymore. The public can't get enough of this mythological sort of glamorized idea of -

Katie Lambert: The rugged young man.

Sarah Dowdey: Of cowboys, yeah. The stagecoach robbers, the railhead brawls. We end up making up more news. That's dime novels about the Wild West. They become really popular. You can just imagine kids in big eastern cities reading about their famous western counterparts.

Katie Lambert: But what's better than reading about cowboys is seeing a real live one.

Sarah Dowdey: Plus Indians, plus buffalo. Enter the first Wild West show; our first Wild West cowboy, Buffalo Bill.

Katie Lambert: One thing that makes the performers of Wild West shows so interesting, why we decided to go with this genre in particular is that a lot of the performers actually come out of the real Wild West. Most really worked as cowboys! Some even split their time between the stage and the ranch. They were still being authentic even when they were performers. William Frederick Cody born in 1846 in Iowa is definitely one of these. He is the real deal. He starts work as a messenger boy in Kansas at age 11 when his father dies. Interestingly, the firm that he works for is Russell, Majors and Waddell.

Sarah Dowdey: That sounds familiar.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, that's because these are the guys who financially backed the Pony Express.

Sarah Dowdey: As we'd mentioned, there are some people who think that Buffalo Bill was part of the Pony Express; some people who don't. He was definitely involved with the financial backers [inaudible].

Katie Lambert: [Inaudible] Pony Express.

Sarah Dowdey: There you go. He's also doing some horse wrangling and some hunting, which will prove to be valuable entertainment skills in his future. He joins the service for the Civil War. Then he continues to work for the U.S. Army after the war. He is a messenger and at times, a dispatch bearer and scout for troops out of Kansas.

Katie Lambert: His side job was hunting buffalo to feed the men building the Union Pacific Railroad. He earned his nickname, Buffalo Bill, by killing 4,280 buffalos, something that sounds kind of terrible today.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, not quite as impressive of a stat these days. Also terrible, 16 Indian attacks. Those are just some basic numbers for Buffalo Bill. His real reputation comes from scouting. He's got this near perfect spatial memory, which is something to be envied, I'd say. He's employed by the Fifth Cavalry as a guide because he goes somewhere and he can remember exactly where everything is, how to get there, trails. It's pretty a amazing skill.

Katie Lambert: The opposite of all of my skills.

Sarah Dowdey: His work earns him a Medal of Honor in 1872, which is later revoked since he was a civilian and then given back to him posthumously.

Katie Lambert: Make up your mind, guys. Newspapers loved Buffalo Bill; eat him up. Dime novels do too, which is weird to think of a real life guy being a character in dime novels.

Sarah Dowdey: It's fan fiction.

Katie Lambert: It is. That's another proto thing. Isn't it? When author Ned Buntline, who's real name is E. Z. C. Judson. I don't know why he -

Sarah Dowdey: Picture periods between capital letters. It's not like Ezc.

Katie Lambert: Buntline-Judson asks him to star in this drama called The Scouts of the Prairie that he's written. Cody signs on. He's realizing that this is gonna be a possibly good way to cash in on his dime novel theme. He's not the greatest actor in the world but he's really fun to watch. His stage tricks are good and he's a success.

Sarah Dowdey: When he's not acting, he's pulling a city slickers and taking rich guys and noblemen out west. He's got the best of both worlds going on here.

Katie Lambert: It's not long before he decides to stage his own show, a variety act. He'd have cowboys, rough riding, roping, shooting and bronco busting. There would be staged fights with Indians and recreations of frontier life. It would all be going down at your local canvas tents. [Inaudible].

Sarah Dowdey: It sounds like a good idea. It's not entirely a new idea though. Barnum had included a Wild West act in his show way back in 1876, which is the heyday of cowboys. Buffalo Bill and his partner, W.F. Doc Carver show is definitely beyond what anyone else has done. They call it the Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. Their first show is in 1883. These shows are nothing to laugh about. They are four hours long, which people must've had longer attention spans than they do today. I can't imagine a four-hour show.

Katie Lambert: No, and what you get in your four hours are a buffalo hunt, of course. You get to see other wild animals like elk, bear, moose and deer. There's a Pony Express ride, a stagecoach capture and eventually two big name stars taking part. Sitting Bull as in The Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley, who is the next star on our list!

Sarah Dowdey: Annie Oakley, she's really born Phoebe Ann Mosey. A fun, early story about her is that she paid the mortgage on the family farm at age 15 with her hunted game. She's obviously a sharp shooter. She had a pretty traumatic childhood. Her father dies early and her mother, who's left with too many kids to take care of, lets out Annie as a servant. She suffers from abuse but finally manages to work her way home and become the family breadwinner. You can imagine she's not willing to let anything happen to her again.

Katie Lambert: Soon, her shooting skills are worth more than the game she can hunt. She enters a shooting contest against Frank E. Butler, a vaudeville performer. He said to have laughed when he saw that his opponent was this tiny little five-foot girl. But she wins, which must've impressed him because in 1876, the two get married and tour the circuits as Butler and Oakley, a stage name she took from a Cincinnati suburb. In 1885, they ditch their own outfit. Butler switches to management and Oakley signs with Buffalo Bill, going by Miss Annie Oakley, the Peerless Lady Wing-Shot.

Sarah Dowdey: It's Sitting Bull who gives her the more famous nickname, Little Sure Shot. What can Annie do? Here's a list. She can hit a dime tossed into the air. She can shoot cigarettes from her husband's lips or shoot cigarettes from the future Kaiser Wilhelm II's lips.

Katie Lambert: Whatever lips are available.

Sarah Dowdey: I can't imagine his people would let him do that, but apparently. She could shoot a playing card tossed in the air full of bullets and she could split a playing card held on end at 30 paces. These are just a few of Annie's amazing tricks for you to contemplate.

Katie Lambert: They take her around the world. She even meets Queen Victoria in 1887 who saw the show three times in a row. She works with Buffalo Bill for 16 years, starring in the show except for one brief period when she left him for his rival, the next star on our list.

Sarah Dowdey: That is Pawnee Bill. Just a warning! I don't know how this happened but every man on this list is either named Bill or Will. Good luck keeping them straight.

Katie Lambert: It's better possibly than his real name, which is Gordon William Lillie. Gordon doesn't work well for a cowboy, I feel.

Sarah Dowdey: Or calling him Lillie, his last name, doesn't sound particularly great either.

Katie Lambert: Not to insult any cowboys named Gordon.

Sarah Dowdey: Lillie Pawnee Bill born Valentine's Day 1860. His family moves to Kansas after their flourmill burns down. It's there where he makes the acquaintance of the Pawnee people who were wintering near Wellington and they'd just been removed from their lands in Pawnee, Oklahoma. He works as a trapper in Indian Territory for a while with Trapper Tom McLean, not to be confused with the Mad Trapper. Supplements his income with waiting tables, working as a cowboy, picking up work where he can get it.

Katie Lambert: He continues his relationship with a Pawnee by teaching and interpreting for the U.S. Indian agent. In 1883, Buffalo Bill brings him on for his inaugural show to coordinate the Pawnee troop of entertainers. It's while touring with Buffalo Bill that Pawnee Bill meets a teenage Quaker girl named May Manning watching the show's parade. He marries her two years later. Then it's just mentioned in our source that she turns into a sharp shooter. I guess the marriage was going well.

Sarah Dowdey: It's a magical skill that can be acquired. Her family suggests that Pawnee Bill break out from Buffalo Bill and start up his own show. He does that in 1888. Surprisingly, you'd think with a sharp shooting wife and his own skills, it would do all right. It's a financial failure. He has other stuff going on.

Katie Lambert: Namely, opening up Oklahoma's unassigned lands. On April 22nd, 1889, he leads a land run of 4,000 men to claim the territory, which the plan is basically line up on horseback, stake your claim and there are tens of thousands of participants. His prominence with the Oklahoma Boomers makes him nationally famous, which means it's the perfect time to start another Wild West show.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, this time it's Pawnee Bill's Historical Wild West Indian Museum and Encampment. This one is a big success. May Lillie does her sharp shooting on horseback. By 1908, he's able to merge his show with Buffalo Bill; back to the original. They bill it as Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Great Far East Show. A note on Pawnee Bill, Buffalo Bill was not that great at managing his fortune. You'd think he would be a very wealthy man with this original Wild West show. It doesn't turn out like that. Pawnee Bill on the other hand is a very successful businessman. He gets into oil and real estate and motion pictures and banking. I kind of think of him as the modern western man. On the one hand he's very into preserving the old west. He gets into lobbying for buffalo protection. He helps establish the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. He's also the modern man. He wants to bring business into the West. He advocates for building highways. I think he even has a highway named after him at one point.

Katie Lambert: Bill and Bill have another competitor, the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West show. Their star is the next cowboy on our list, Bill Pickett.

Sarah Dowdey: Bill Pickett is not -

Katie Lambert: Bill, Bill and versus Bill.

Sarah Dowdey: We'll have a Will coming up too. Bill Pickett isn't just your average cowboy. He's a bulldogger. In case you don't know what that means, this is what you do. You grab the steer by its horns and twist its neck and then you bite its nose or upper lip before flipping it to the ground, which is insane sounding. It seriously had dogs wrestle steer, which I didn't even know dogs were used to wrestle steer.

Katie Lambert: No, and I'm going to bring this up at my next Georgia Bulldogs football game, by the way.

Sarah Dowdey: Be a different kind of bulldogger, for sure. There's a modified version of this that still happens in rodeos today. If you're a rodeo fan, you should feel free to write us and tell us about it.

Katie Lambert: William Pickett was born in 1870 near Austin. He was one of thirteen kids, which is quite a lot of children, said me who's one of six. He was the descendant of American Indians and black slaves. After finishing the 5th grade, he started ranch work and did some tricks on the weekends in town. By 1888, he and his four brothers start a horse-breaking business. He entered his first rodeo in Taylor, Texas. In 1900, he got sponsored by the rodeo entrepreneur, Lee Moore. Soon, he's working with the Miller Brothers on the 101 Ranch in Wild West Show billed as the Dusky Demon.

Sarah Dowdey: He's really good at handling domestic animals, wild animals and doing those amazing bulldogging stunts. His quintessential performance comes in Mexico City in 1908. This was a great story. He wrestles a Mexican fighting bull for a full seven minutes. Finally, the outraged audience just freaks out that he's doing it wrong because you don't wrestle a Mexican fighting bull. You wave the red flag and you get out your sword. They're thinking he's doing it completely wrong; it's not bullfighting.

Katie Lambert: Nice try, Bill Pickett.

Sarah Dowdey: Still it must've been a pretty cool show. When he's not performing, he's working as a cowboy or appearing in rodeos. It kind of reminded me of those early baseball players we talked about in the Satchel Paige episode. It's not a part time job, not a seasonal job. You've gotta work year-round if you're in this business.

Katie Lambert: To appear in those rodeos, he's identified as Indian instead of black so he can compete against white people. Since the era of the Wild West show dovetails into film, Bill Pickett does some work out of Jacksonville starring in films like the Crimson Skull and The Bulldogger [inaudible]. But he dies from a ranch injury in 1932. I think was he kicked in the head?

Sarah Dowdey: Kicked in the head by a horse, yeah.

Katie Lambert: Finally, our most successful crossover star from Wild West to Wild West show to film is Will Rogers.

Sarah Dowdey: A Will instead of a Bill, at last. William Penn Adair Rogers was born in 1879 in Cherokee Territory; it's Oklahoma today. He was part Cherokee on both sides. He grows up on his father's ranch and at boarding schools. But because his father has some money, he's able to travel a bit, which is important for considering his later life. He gets a wonder lust bug pretty early. He even gets to see the world exposition in Chicago in 1893, which I have to imagine influenced his desire to become a performer. He's into the range, not into the classroom or settling down into the family business. At 18, he leaves his Missouri military school to move to the Texas Panhandle and work on ranches.

Katie Lambert: He may even have applied to be one of Roosevelt's Rough Riders, side note. But by about 1898, he goes home to manage the family ranch's cattle while his father works in banking and tribal politics.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, he was hoping his son would sort of take over the farm business and he could go off to the city and do his work.

Katie Lambert: That doesn't work out because Will cannot stay away from the action for long. In 1900, he and his friend, Dick Paris, go to South America. Their boat goes from Galveston to New York to London to Buenos Aires. When he can't find work there, he gets a job on a cattle boat bound for South Africa.

Sarah Dowdey: He ends up in South Africa and he gets another job driving a herd through the country. He's a really great example of good luck with your jobs, I guess. Just going out on a limb and something coming along! While he's driving this herd through South Africa, he runs into a Wild West show, of course, led by Texas Jack and gets a job as a trick roper. He's billed as The Cherokee Kid and works there for a while. He gets a glowing recommendation from Texas Jack when he finally leaves the show.

Katie Lambert: "I have the very great pleasure in recommending Mr. W. P. Rogers, The Cherokee Kid, to circus proprietors. He has performed with me during my present South African tour and I consider him to be the champion trick Rough Rider and lasso thrower of the world. He is sober, industrious, hard working at all times and is always to be relied upon. I shall be very pleased to give him an engagement at any time should he wish to return." Just the kind of recommendation you'd like from a former professor or boss.

Sarah Dowdey: Definitely. Will travels the world a little bit more and finally makes it back to Oklahoma in 1904, which conveniently is just in time for the St. Louis World's Fair where he does rope tricks. Cities on the stage in Chicago! At one show, he lassos a dog that runs up on stage.

Katie Lambert: Inverse bulldogging.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, exactly. He's performing in New York. His big break comes in 1913 when he gets a job at the Midnight Frolic.

Katie Lambert: That doesn't sound very nice.

Sarah Dowdey: It sounds a little sketchy but it's a show at a theater owned by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., which is obviously a big stepping stone to a career in entertainment.

Katie Lambert: He joins the Follies in 1916. This is very steady work for him, something he's able to come back to. He's also able to hone his jokes while he's there. What was once his routine of rope tricks is now interspersed with occasional commentary and becomes a comedy show? He bills himself as the Oklahoma Cowboy, the Great Lasso Expert, or the Lasso King. He begins starring in movies, moving his family out to L.A. and returning to work on the Follies when business isn't so great.

Sarah Dowdey: Of course, the early movies are silent movies, which isn't exactly suited to his style. So much of his routine was based on his spoken comedy.

Katie Lambert: Snappy patter.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, but he is able to write some of the cards that they show in silent movies. Obviously, it's a good transition for him to go into talkies. It's not just movies and Ziegfeld Follies performances that he's doing. He gets into speaking engagements, books, he writes syndicated newspaper columns. He's your every man for comedy. He's really folksy. He is able to make fun of everyone in a way that doesn't hurt anyone's feelings.

Katie Lambert: He has a motto we liked, "Lead your life so you wouldn't be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip."

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, he's full of little witty remarks like that. He travels the world some more, probably in a different style than he did when he was a young man. He befriends Calvin Coolidge. He mingles with Edison and Henry Ford and Charles Lindberg. Unfortunately, at the height of his fame, he dies on an Alaskan plane crash in 1935. It's not long after that that the age of the Wild West show is definitely over. It was certainly dying down long before it. The last of the big shows ends in 1938 with Colonel Tim McCoy's Wild West.

Katie Lambert: When it ended in 1938 that made me a little bit sad because these Wild West shows sound really cool to be perfectly honest.

Sarah Dowdey: They sound great. I think we mentioned this on our vaudeville episodes about how people didn't know what they were - they trade vaudeville for television. They don't know what they were missing.

Katie Lambert: Video killed the radio star. Seriously, as far as big spectacles go, I know the rodeo does come to Georgia. We have monster truck rallies.

Sarah Dowdey: And the circus.

Katie Lambert: True. We have nothing like a Wild West show. Neither does anyone else.

Sarah Dowdey: No, it sounds great but I guess if you know of any little Wild West shows, County fair kind of things, let us know. We'd love to hear about your own local variety if it exists.

Katie Lambert: You can also follow us on Twitter at Missed in History and keep up with what we're doing on a daily basis. Or join our Facebook fan page where we post a lot of links to cool history news that's coming out. If you're interested in other kinds of entertainment, we've got some great articles on sword swallowing and walking through fire.

Sarah Dowdey: Midway type stuff.

Katie Lambert: Exactly. If you'd like to search on our homepage at www.howstuffworks.com!

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