Buffalo Bill's Wild West
In December 1872 Cody traveled to Chicago to make his stage debut with friend Texas Jack Omohundro in The Scouts of the Prairie, one of the original Wild West shows produced by Ned Buntline. During the 1873-74 season, Cody and Omohundro invited their friend James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok to join them in a new play called Scouts of the Plains.
The troupe toured for ten years and his part typically included an 1876 incident at the Warbonnet Creek where he claimed to have scalped a Cheyenne warrior, purportedly in revenge for the death of George Armstrong Custer.
It was the age of great showmen and traveling entertainers. Cody put together a new traveling show based on both of those forms of entertainment. In 1883 in the area of North Platte, Nebraska he founded "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," (despite popular misconception, the word "show" was not a part of the title) a circus-like attraction that toured annually.
In 1893 the title was changed to "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World". The show began with a parade on horseback, with participants from horse-culture groups that included US and other military, American Indians, and performers from all over the world in their best attire. There were Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols and Georgians, among others, each showing their own distinctive horses and colorful costumes. Visitors to this spectacle could see main events, feats of skill, staged races, and sideshows. Many authentic western personalities were part of the show. For example Sitting Bull and a band of twenty braves appeared. Cody's headline performers were well known in their own right. People like Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler put on shooting exhibitions along with the likes of Gabriel Dumont. Buffalo Bill and his performers would re-enact the riding of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, and stagecoach robberies. The show typically ended with a melodramatic re-enactment of Custer's Last Stand in which Cody himself portrayed General Custer.
The profits from his show enabled him to purchase a 4,000-acre (16 km2) ranch near North Platte, Nebraska in 1886. Scout's Rest Ranch included an eighteen-room mansion and a large barn for winter storage of the show's livestock.
In 1887 he took the show to Britain in celebration of the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria. The show was staged in London before going on to Birmingham and then Salford near Manchester, where it stayed for five months. In 1889 the show toured Europe. In 1890 he met Pope Leo XIII. He set up an exhibition near the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, which greatly contributed to his popularity, and also vexed the promoters of the fair. As noted in The Devil in the White City, he had been rebuffed in his request to be part of the fair, so he set up shop just to the west of the fairgrounds, drawing many of their patrons away. Since his show was not part of the fair, he was not obligated to pay the promoters any royalties, which they could have used to temper their financial problems.
Larry McMurtry, along with some historians such as RL Wilson, asserts that at the turn of the 20th century Buffalo Bill Cody was the most recognizable celebrity on earth. And yet, despite all of the recognition and appreciation Cody's show brought for the Western and American Indian cultures, Buffalo Bill saw the American West change dramatically during his tumultuous life. Bison herds, which had once numbered in the millions, were now threatened with extinction. Railroads crossed the plains, barbed wire, and other types of fences divided the land for farmers and ranchers, and the once-threatening Indian tribes were now almost completely confined to reservations. Wyoming's resources of coal, oil and natural gas were beginning to be exploited towards the end of his life.
Even the Shoshone River was dammed for hydroelectric power as well as for irrigation. In 1897 and 1899 Cody and his associates acquired from the State of Wyoming the right to take water from the Shoshone River to irrigate about 169,000 acres (680 km2) of land in the Big Horn Basin. They began developing a canal to carry water diverted from the river, but their plans did not include a water storage reservoir. Cody and his associates were unable to raise sufficient capital to complete their plan. Early in 1903 they joined with the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners in urging the federal government to step in and help with irrigation development in the valley.
The Shoshone Project became one of the first federal water development projects undertaken by the newly formed Reclamation Service, later to become known as the Bureau of Reclamation. After Reclamation took over the project in 1903, investigating engineers recommended constructing a dam on the Shoshone River in the canyon west of Cody.
Construction of the Shoshone Dam started in 1905, a year after the Shoshone Project was authorized. Almost three decades after its construction, the name of the dam and reservoir was changed to Buffalo Bill Dam by an act of Congress to honor Cody.
Photograph Hand Color Tinted by Artist Margaret A. Rogers.