OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
November 1, 1880
Among the iconic figures of the U.S. Wild West, the most famous must be William Frederick Cody (1846-1917), alias "Buffalo Bill."
Cody was born in Le Claire, Iowa, the son of Canadian Isaac Cody. As a young boy, he lived in Canada for several years, just outside of Toronto, before the family returned to the United States, this time settling in Kansas. (In the 1880s, a story circulated that Buffalo Bill actually hailed from Hope River, Prince Edward Island, where he supposedly still had relatives.)
Cody was only 11 when his father died and he had to go out and make a living, first riding as a messenger on a wagon train and subsequently as sort of informal scout for the U.S. army in Utah.
In his autobiography, Cody claimed to have joined the Pony Express at the tender age of fourteen. However, this may have been self-promotional hype. Some researchers suggest that he was a mounted messenger boy for the company rather than a long-haul rider delivering mail across the far west.
Too young to join the Union Army during the American Civil War, Cody was again a scout sometimes with Lieutenant-Colonel George Custer and was involved in the Indian Wars in the western United States where he burnished his reputation as an "Indian fighter."
After the Civil War, he shot bison (buffalo) to feed railway construction workers. He won the moniker "Buffalo Bill" for shooting 68 bison in an eight-hour competition. During his hunting career, he reportedly shot almost 5,000, doing his part to virtually exterminate the species and end the way of life of the Plains First Nations.
Buffalo Bill came into the collective consciousness when he was only in his early 20s, owing to author and publisher Ned Buntline who wrote often semi-fictious stories about Cody’s colourful life.
Buntline had met Cody on a train ride in California and the two became friends. In 1872, Buntline wrote a play called Scouts of the Prairie and asked Cody to star in it, thus launching Buffalo Bill on a show business career that was to last 40 years.
In 1874, Cody formed the Buffalo Bill Combination where he combined stage performances with scouting in the off season. In 1883, he established Buffalo Bill’s Wild West which toured throughout North America. The show also went on four European tours during the 1880s, and performed in Britain for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The Queen was particularly impressed when both Cody and his horse bowed to her at a command performance.
Cody and his troupe, which included cowboys and native-American warriors, were a sensation everywhere they went, re-creating (in a fashion) an exotic, and by now fast-vanishing way of frontier life.
Buffalo Bill, who always admired native-Americans notwithstanding his reputation as an "Indian fighter," gave a temporary home to a number of important First Nations’ chiefs, including the great Sioux leader Sitting Bull who had defeated Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1877.
Gabriel Dumont, the Métis leader who featured prominently in the North-West Rebellion with Louis Riel, similarly joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West after he had fled south into the United States after the 1885 Battle of Batoche. At an 1886 show in Staten Island NY, he was introduced as Riel’s lieutenant and "a man of ability and courage, who enlisted in what he and many others believe was a righteous cause."
Oddly, given the circumstances, when interviewed by Canadian journalists, Dumont called Sir John A. Macdonald, "the greatest man of modern times."
On Dumont’s return to Canada after being granted amnesty, the Quebec newspaper Le Canadien called him a farceur (buffoon) for his involvement with Buffalo Bill. Dumont replied in the newspaper La Justice that he had lost everything when he escaped to the United States and that he never took direct part in the show. He invited the editor of Le Canadien to come to his hotel and call him a farceur to his face.
In 1893, Cody’s show expanded into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.
As the name suggests, performances showcased both the American West and riders from around the world. The troupe performed throughout North America, including in Chicago on the periphery of that city’s 1893 World’s Fair. The company also went on four European tours in the early 1900s with performances before crowned heads and the Pope.
Owing to changing tastes in entertainment and rising costs, the company slowly faded, and went bankrupt in 1913.
"Buffalo Bill" died four years later.
Buffalo Bill and his company made two trips to Ottawa during his show business career.
The first brought him and his Wild West Combination to the Grand Opera House on Albert Street for three days, starting on Monday, November 1, 1880. Reserved seats were available for 75 cents. The price was only 25 cents for the matinee on the holiday Wednesday (Thanksgiving Day).
While in Ottawa, the troupe were guests of the Russell House Hotel.
On the morning of their first performance, Cody led a mounted parade of Cheyenne warriors, cowboys and his Serenade Band through the streets of the capital to promote the show. According to the Ottawa Daily Citizen, "The red men were rigged out in their war paint and feathers, and created quite a stir."
That evening, Buffalo Bill and his troupe put on a play called The Prairie Waif, described as a drama about frontier life. Besides Cody, the play starred Jule Kean as a very funny Dutchman who sang, danced and said witty things, and Miss Lizzine Fletcher as the heroine. The band of Cheyenne warriors performed a war dance while Cody did some trick rifle shooting. How he did this indoors is unclear.
It was standing room only at the Grand Opera House for the first performance. So packed was the theatre that many people who had bought tickets for the balcony went away to use the tickets at the following night’s performance. In attendance for the second night’s showing was the Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne, and members of the Harvard College Football team who occupied complementary boxes. The Harvard team had just played the Ottawa Football Club that afternoon on the Rideau Hall cricket grounds. Harvard won by one goal.
Buffalo Bill returned to Ottawa 17 years later in late June of 1897, for the city’s celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
This time it was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World consisting of 600 men and more than 500 horses. Along with three bands, it created a mile-long procession through Ottawa streets. In the parade were 100 warriors from the Ogallala, Brule, Uncapappa, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe First Nations, 50 cowboys, 30 Mexican Vaqueros and Rurales, 50 Western marksmen, 25 Bedouin Arabs, 30 Russian Cossacks, 30 South American Gauchos, and furloughed English Lancers, German Cuirassiers, and U.S. cavalry and artillery men.
As well, Miss Annie Oakley, "The Peerless Lady Wing Shot," was given prominent billing, as was Johnny Baker, "The Skilled Shooting Expert." Also in Ottawa for the show was "the only herd of buffalo on exhibition."
How Cody obtained his buffalo was not reported. By this time, the America bison was nearly extinct. Ten years earlier, it was estimated that in the United States there were only 200 bison left in Yellowstone Park, another 150 in Texas and a few others in private herds. In Canada, there were only 68 pure-bred bison and 18 hybrids owned oddly by the warden of the Manitoba Penitentiary. Cody had tried to purchase part of this herd but had been refused.
Needless to say, the exhibition was held outdoors. The massive company and its equipage arrived in Ottawa from Quebec on two heavily laden trains, and set up on the Metropolitan Grounds on the western side of Elgin Street across from the Canadian Atlantic Railway Station. Stands capable of holding 20,000 spectators protected from the sun and rain by a massive, white canvas shelter were quickly erected. There were additional tents for dressing rooms, and a huge meal tent. Apparently, the hundreds of participants consumed 1,500 pounds of meat each day, as well as mountains of potatoes, vegetables and bread. For the evening performance, the grounds were lit by 2,500 electric arc lights powered by a portable power plant. Ticket prices were 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children under 9 years of age.
Thousands of Ottawa residents came to gawk as the tents were raised at what the Ottawa Evening Journal described as "an exhibition of human nature which is only seen once in a lifetime." The newspaper’s reporter was awed by the exhibition that had clearly lived up to its advance billing. He called it more attractive than a circus, novel, and unique. He also saw the show as educational opining that "In the hurly-burly of American life, people are too apt to forget the history of their own country. They are apt to forget the toils and sacrifices of those who laboured to redeem the great West from barbarism."
This quote gives a big hint of the show’s character. The performance began with a covered prairie wagon drawn by mules bearing a mother and babies with older children riding outside. Suddenly, the unsuspecting pioneers are attacked by Indians. Just when things look their darkest, along come the cowboys led by Buffalo Bill who quickly disperse the marauders and save the day.
After this cliché of the Wild West, which would jar modern sensibilities, the programme shifted to the Exotic East, with Arab riders doing feats of horsemanship. Next on the ticket was Johnnie Baker shooting glass balls as they were thrown in the air, while he on his head, running, and looking backwards. Following Baker came the Cossacks standing on their saddles or hanging from one foot, and cowboys lassoing horses and breaking wild broncos. (The Toronto Star later alleged that the broncos weren’t actually wild but bucked because sharp spurs were driven into their bodies.) Finally, came the armies of Europe and the United States performing cavalry drills.
Buffalo Bill may have overestimated the likely crowds in little Ottawa, which had a population of less than 100,000 in 1897. The first day’s two performances brought in a respectable 15,000-20,000 spectators, though this meant that the bleachers were only about half full at best. On the second day, attendance slipped sharply to only 3,000-4,000 guests owing to inclement weather despite spectators being protected from the weather. After its two-day appearance in Ottawa, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World rode off into the sunset, heading for Belleville.