Buffalo Bill’s 1889 visit to France

William Frederick Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill,” was an American scout, bison hunter, frontiersman, and showman who took his show on tour in Europe during the late 1800s. He had supplied Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat and was purported to have killed 4,282 buffalo in eighteen months between 1867 and 1868, which is how he earned the nickname Buffalo Bill.

Buffalo Bill's 1889 visit to France

William Frederick Cody. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In 1889, Buffalo Bill spent six months in Paris during the Exposition Universelle before leaving for the south of France to visit Lyon and Marseille. Cody’s “Wild West” (which he refused to call a show) was lauded as one of the highlights of the Exposition, and, it, along with the Eiffel Tower, drew unprecedented crowds. Yet, before Cody left America, he was unsure how well his attraction would do in France.

He suspected that he might achieve success and before he left the states for France, he said, “if the Frenchmen who came over to London to see us are fair illustrations of the enthusiasm there, we’ll make plenty of money.”[1] His statement was due to the prior success he had achieved two years earlier in London when he had taken the Wild West to that city during the American Exhibition that coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. In preparation for travel to France, the Gloucester Citizen noted:

“Colonel Cody, ‘Buffalo Bill,’ has made the final arrangements for transportation of the ‘Wild West’ to Paris. … The show will be bigger than ever, and the ‘Wild West’ will embrace 245 people and 252 head of cattle. The people include the cowboys, lady riders, shooters, Mexicans, Indians, and attendants; the cattle include horses, oxen, bucking steers, mules, donkeys, and buffaloes.”[2]

Cody’s prediction of success in France was underestimated. His visit would in fact turn him into an international star. After scouring Canada and America to find the best performers, Cody and his troupe set sail from America for France on 27 April 1889 on The Persian Monarch. They arrived at Le Havre on 10 May, and curious French journalists could hardly wait to row out and board the Persian Monarch where Cody welcomed and introduced them to his “chiefs,” including Red Shirt (an Oglala Lakota chief, warrior, and statesman) and others.

Although Cody was not well-known when he arrived in France, Frenchmen knew of America’s wild West because of stories written by James Fenimore Cooper, who had also lived in Paris between 1826 and 1833. Frenchmen were also familiar with the paintings by George Catlin because he had given an exhibition in London and Paris in 1845 and had been accompanied by a group of Native American Indians.

Posters had also been plastered throughout Paris ahead of Cody’s arrival touting him as Colonel W.F. Cody to impress the French with his military credentials. One French poster showed him, President William McKinley, and two small vignettes – the first of Cody at the Omaha Exposition of 1898 and the second an image of his first cabin. Another poster had charging buffaloes in the background with Cody’s picture in the forefront and the words “Je Viens” meaning “I am coming.”

Cody’s poster in France stating, “I am coming.” Public domain.

When Cody finally reached Paris, several newspapers noted his arrival, or as the French sometimes called him, “Guillame le Buffle”:

“‘Guillaume le Buffle’ inaugurated his show at Paris on Saturday, by a private performance, which was honoured by the presence of the President of the Republic and by an immense concourse of invited guests, who were delighted to seize this opportunity of seeing a novelty for nothing.”[3]

Le Figaro also wrote about him on 16 April 1889 stating in part:

“Buffalo Bill, who will be our guest during the Exposition, appears to be somewhat like the Robinson Crusoe of the New World. He has the proportions of a hero of legend – and yet he has the inestimable advantage of being in the flesh. Adventurous and brave to the point of recklessness, his daring and his imagination show a strength and a flexibility that is really unusual.”[4]

In Paris, Cody quickly learned that the same things that intrigued his London audiences were not so popular in France.

“When Buffalo Bill’s show was the rage in London, the viva voce explanations given from a platform in the middle of the arena were thought to be one of the most curious attractions of the exhibition. On Saturday it was far otherwise. The foreign accent of the gentleman in question is of the most marked character, and the audience, after listening with constantly growing symptoms of impatience, at last called out Assez! Assez! [Enough! Enough!] in tones even louder than his own. The French are far too impatient to listen to such explanations, especially when they are delivered with a strange accent, and the orator’s description should at once be replaced by a printed account compiled in the shortest possible form and in the best possible French.”[5]

Despite this slight problem, Parisian audiences found Cody’s show exhilarating, and everyone wanted to see it. In addition, part of his marketing scheme was like that of Madame Tussaud in that the Wild West was promoted as an educational and instructional tool to help people understand history. He claimed the show did so because it recaptured the ideals of the disappearing “Wild West” due to Manifest Destiny and the desire to civilize the frontier.

French spectators were enthusiastic about Cody’s Wild West and they became more so when they watched what were termed “wild Indians” attack coaches or viewed the riding and roping skills of the American cowboys. Crowds were also amazed and entertained by “buck-jumpers,” the brave and rough cowboys who rode uncontrollable bucking broncos or steers.

Annie Oakley was part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West too. She was a female champion and trick sharpshooter who had first joined Cody’s show in 1885. She had a stellar reputation and in fact was so impressive Sitting Bull, the great Sioux chief, adopted her into his tribe after seeing her shoot in St. Paul, Minnesota. He gave her the name of “Little Sure Shot.”

Annie Oakley in the 1880s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Also, not to be forgotten was 43-year-old Cody himself. He commanded the show and represented youthfulness and masculinity. In fact, Le Figaro reported that he brought Cooper’s tales of the west to life. Cody did so partly because of his looks: He was six feet tall with curly hair that fell to his shoulder and a neatly trimmed mustache under his classic nose. One correspondent of the Daily Telegraph of Paris wrote of him:

“Buffalo Bill is a great favourite among the fair sex, as was General Boulanger* a few short months ago. The ladies love something new and original, and they are enchanted with the long locks, the drooping moustachies, and the broad-brimmed sombrere of the Honourable William. Some of the dames who patronise the Chief of the cowboys are facetiously called the Buffalistes, and after Guillaume has lunched with them the correct thing to do is to follow him in cabs and broughams to his extensive area at Neuilly.”[6]

A day later, The San Francisco Examiner published another tale of Cody’s appeal with woman and his success in Paris:

“Many beautiful women squabble for the honor of lunching with le charmant Guillaume. … The success of this curious combination of American scout and circus actor is all the more pronounced, as French society is not nearly so prone as the English to take up outlandish social lions. On Wednesday Buffalo Bill was invited to a lunch, given in his honor by one of the best-known Parisian society women, Countess Chandon de Brailles. A real genuine Princess and Mme. Hochar, a famous Paris beauty, were there, and these with many masculine samples of old French nobility, joined in homage to Colonel Cody and a pilgrimage to his circus which followed the lunch.”[7]

Buffalo Bill in 1875. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The more Frenchmen heard about Cody’s attraction, the bigger the crowds and the more publicity swirled around the Wild West. Papers quoted him saying that business was so good at least 10,000 people were turned away and that Parisians had never seen such large crowds. There were also claims that attendance at one of his Wild West productions broke all previous European daily records. One Minnesota paper who heard about Cody’s success called it a “bonanza” and published the following:

“The Wild West show is in its fifth successful month, and is turning people away at every performance. The Indians have been an attraction of great interest to the anthropological, medical, dental, historical and all scientific congresses. The attendance at the Paris exhibition now averages 150,000 daily.”[8]

Success wasn’t the only thing Parisians were talking about related to Cody’s Wild West. One story printed in London was that a “Indian half-breed” had just arrived in that city after eloping with the wife of wealthy French nobleman. Supposedly, her irate husband was hotly pursuing them, and they were attempting to board a steamer to America to escape him. One thing for sure was that two Sioux Indians (Chicken-That-Runs and Wounded Bear) were heading back to the U.S. after Cody discovered they were celebrating a little bit to freely in Paris and sent them home. A third amusing story was published in November:

“Two gentlemen and a lady – who is well known – entered the Deadwood Coach on Saturday for a ‘spin.’ While the six mules were galloping their best in order to get away from the Indians, the two admirers of the lady, who is a favourite blonde, fell to quarrelling. One of the rivals stood up in order to strike the other, and in doing so he fell off the coach. The prostrate ‘pale-face’ was immediately surrounded by the Indians, one of whom galloped away with his broken hat, while the other actually took his scalp, and carried off the capillary trophy on a lance. Buffalo Bill rode out to repress the exuberance of his Indians, and for a while the spectators believed that something tragic and terrible had occurred. Loud laughter, however, resounded through the show when the man who had fallen out of the coach was seen scrambling hatless and hairless towards his place in the Tribunes. Then it dawned on everybody that the poor victim had only lost his wig, and that the blood on his face and hands came not from his detached scalp, but from the cuts and bruises which he had received in his struggle and his fall.”[9]

Although the Wild West production created a draw, it was Cody that mesmerized Frenchmen as he seemed to parallel France’s past hero, Napoleon. His heroics on horseback were memorialized in 1805 by Jacques-Louis David’s painting, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” and Cody was also being thought of as hero on horseback. He had served as a civilian scout for the U.S. Army during the Indians Wars, and, in addition, he seemed to represent to the French their ideal of a military hero, just like Napoleon. Perhaps, that was why Cody so quickly achieved success in France. Of his success there it was noted:

“Our old friend Buffalo Bill is having a rare time of it in Paris. He is piling his dollars in many heaps. Of course the Americans go to see their compatriot. … But William yesterday had the Far East represented at his Western sports. The Grand Duke George, second son of the Tzar, with a lot of other grand dukes standing in remoter relation to the Russian Emperor, went through rain and shine to see Bill’s Mexicans, and a very great start they got. Of course, the mail coach went off as usual with its professional freight of tourists; and the letter-bags were delivered, and the driver cautioned, and the wild Indians approached; and Bill on his white charger – looking rather like W.G. Wills – rode up magnificently to the rescue, and every heart throbbed with generous emotion, and the Grand Duke Alexis remembered that when he made his expedition across the Far West with General Sheridan, Colonel Cody had been his companion.”[10]

Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Buffalo Bill eventually left Paris and then France. However, his Wild West toured Europe eight times in total, with the last tours happening between 1902 to 1906, and he returned to Paris for a second time in 1905. While Cody’s show brought an appreciation for American Indian culture and what life was like in the west, the wild West he promoted in his show was far different from the one that existed in the early 1900s when he returned to Europe. The west had change dramatically over the years: Barbed wire fenced it in, the once-threatening Indian tribes were confined to reservations, and even the buffalo which had once been innumerable were threatened with extinction.

Fortunately, as the west disappeared, Buffalo Bill’s legendary reputation as a frontiersman did not. Throughout his lifetime he faithfully embraced the romanticized version of the west and the larger-than-life persona that he inherited. It remained intact when he reached the end of the trail and died on 10 January 1917. Likely no one was surprised when world leaders such as George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and President Woodrow Wilson paid tribute to him.

William Frederick Cody was the stuff of legends, and upon his death The Richmond Item recounted how he made it so:

“[When] Cody was induced to visit New York … his eastern friends … took him to see a theatrical performance. Much to Cody’s amazement, he saw on the stage an actor who was gaining tremendous applause by impersonating the scout himself. Cody watched this characterization from behind curtains that shielded him from the view of the spectators. The actor, of course, was unaware of the presence of the frontiersman. When Cody observed the interest with which the audience received this impersonation, he immediately decided that if he could himself get before the public in his own person, just as he was, fortune awaited him. That thought was the turning point of his career. Opportunity came shortly after when E.A.C. Judson, a story writer … who wrote under the nom de plume of Ned Buntline, was induced by his publisher to go out west and ‘find a man’ to write his fiction around.”[11]

The man Buntline chose was the memorable “Buffalo Bill,” a man who encapsulated the romance of the time and turned it into the marvelous attraction he called the Wild West.

Image of Buffalo Bill. Author’s collection.

*General Georges Boulanger was a French general and an enormously popular public figure during the Third Republic. He placed himself at the head of a coup could have topped the government, but the moment passed. Shortly afterward the French government issued a warrant for his arrest for conspiracy and treasonable activity, and to the astonishment of his supporters, he fled on 1 April.

References:

  • [1] The Inter Ocean, “Buffalo Bill’s Paris Show,” February 16, 1889, p. 7.
  • [2] Gloucester Citizen, “Buffalo Bill to Visit Paris,” March 26, 1889, p. 1.
  • [3] Birmingham Daily Post, “Buffalo Bill in Paris,” May 21, 1889, p. 8.
  • [4] Le Figaro, “Buffalo Bill,” April 16, 1889, p. 1.
  • [5] Birmingham Daily Post, p. 8.
  • [6] Liverpool Echo, “Buffalo Bill in Paris,” June 1, 1889, p. 4.
  • [7] The San Francisco Examiner, “Buffalo Bill in Paris,” June 2, 1889, p. 1.
  • [8] Saint Paul Globe, “Buffalo Bill’s Bonanza,” September 14, 1889, p. 8.
  • [9] Bristol Mercury, “Buffalo Bill in Paris,” November 13, 1889, p. 3.
  • [10] Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, “Buffalo Bill’s Success in Paris,” September 2, 1889, p. 4.
  • [11] The Richmond Item, “Boys, Here’s Accurate Story of Buffalo Bill’s Thrilling Life,” January 27, 1917, p. 4.

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