Friday, 20 January 2012

1885 - The Wild West Comes to Hamilton

For many Hamiltonians, August 26, 1885 was a day they would not soon forget.
It was the day that Buffalo Bill, Chief Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley, and a huge supporting cast came to the city for a performance of the Wild West Show.
At the time W. S. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, was the most famous person in the world, not just the most popular entertainer. His Wild West Show was something new in public entertainments and played to immense crowds all over North America, and later in Europe.
Chief Sitting Bull was arguably the most famous of the aboriginal leaders of his day, while Annie Oakley was just beginning her rise to fame - she would ultimately become just as well-known and popular as Buffalo Bill himself.
As was the case whenever the Wild West Show came to town, there would be a street parade. 
When the Wild West Show procession passed the corner of King and James on that day in August 1885, the police had a tough time containing the excitement of the immense crowd, particularly the small boys who were delirious to see their hero in person.
The actual show was held at Simon James' race track grounds in the east end where there was enough room for all the action. The track was also readily accessible to both the railroad of lines of the Hamilton North and Northwestern and Grand Trunk railways. Both railway lines put on special trains to carry the thousands of Hamiltonians who wanted to see the show to the track.
Here follows the complete Spectator coverage of the Wild Show in Hamilton (personal note - I could never in my dreams compete with the excellent writing shown in this article!)

1885-08-27 Spectator

"Wild Western Scenes : Buffalo Bill’s Great Show in Hamilton”

       Buffalo Bill is here. The town is flooded with white sombreros and red paint.  Shut your eyes and a string of mustangs, mules, cowboys and Indians float before them. Open them and the strange procession is still there. Thousands of people thronged the streets yesterday to watch the procession. Barnum’s circus never drew a larger crowd. The corner of King and James streets was almost impassable. It would have been entirely so had it not been for the policemen.

          Buffalo Bill himself headed the procession. A hack full of Indians came next. Nate Salsbury was not among them. More Indians on horseback. A band. Some cowboys. Some pack mules. A pretty girl on a pretty horse. A dilapidated coach drawn by six mules and carrying a couple of Indian women. Then Indians and cowboys in single file to the end. Some of them carried banners. Hundreds of small boys followed the processionists. They yelled like mad and flung their hats in the air. The fever was upon them. Last night they dreamed of shooting Indians, and rescuing fair maidens from the clutches of the reckless dime store denizens of the boundless west.

          The afternoon was chilly, but the air was bracing and the sun shone brightly. It was a bad day for an open-air exhibition, and a big crowd went down to the Simon James’ driving park to see the Wild West show. The special trains over the Great Western Railway and the Northern and Northwestern railway lines were crowded, and a great number of people drove down.

          When the show began, there must have been between three and four thousand persons in the park. Before the performance, the crowd strolled about the ground examining the horses and mules and steers and the rickety Deadwood stage coach  and the other paraphernalia of the show, watching, at a respectful distance, the three buffalo and the elk, and peering curiously into the tents and wigwams, a score or more of which were erected at the east end of the park. The wigwams were the greatest objects of curiosity. Most of the Indians who inhabited them were stretched at full length, apparently asleep; others were arranging their toilet, bedaubing a few more artistic touches of paint on their faces; while in one or two lodges, several braves were absorbed over a game that looked like dominos. But no matter what they were doing, they all regarded with stolid indifference the spectators who intruded on their privacy.

        The performance was given on and inside the track, in front of the grandstand which was packed with humanity as it had never been before. It was exciting and interesting all through, and to many who had read romantic and thrilling tales of the wild west but had never seen anything of the kind, it was instructive. It is a bold and original idea, this, of reproducing, in mimic, the scenes which have furnished material for numberless romances to fire the souls and disturb the dreams of English-speaking youth in both hemispheres, but, as most bold and original schemes are, the scheme is successful; and Buffalo Bill has already made a fortune of his Wild West Show. He was himself the principal attraction, and came in for the lion’s share of the applause. When he dashed down the track on his handsome dappled grey pony, and suddenly stopping, wheeled around and faced the grandstand, it was not necessary for the “lecturer” to inform the people that was “Hon. W. F. Cody,” better known as “Buffalo Bill.”

          Mr. Cody is a splendid specimen of manly beauty. He rides his horse as if he were part of the animal, and in his embroidered magenta hunting shirt and white sombrero, and with his long hair flying in the breeze, he looks every inch the ideal  scout, and is a figure picturesque and attractive enough to make an artist’s eyes glow with delight and cause a woman’s heart to beat faster. Buffalo Bill’s record is well-known, and it is hardly necessary to say that he is the most famous and successful of the western scouts and frontiersmen since Kit Carson. But there were other personages in the show who were also regarded with interest. The old Sioux chief, Sitting Bull, was an object of great curiosity. He wore a crimson tunic, and his head and back were covered with tufts of eagle feathers. The famous old warrior didn’t take an active part in the performance, excepting to lead war dance. Buck Taylor, “the king of the cowboys,” was here with Dr. Carver last fall, was received with loud applause from the crowd. The people welcomed the big, good-humoured, dashing fellow as an old friend.

          The performance lasted nearly two hours and the interest never flagged. It began with a grand procession parade in which the whole troop of Indians and cowboys appeared, all mounted. Then the events followed without a pause. There was a close race between a cowboy, a Mexican and an Indian. Billy Johnson showed how quickly the pony express rider can change horses. A race between a mounted Indian and an Indian on foot was won by the latter. A general skirmish between Indians and cowboys occurred in which a great quantity of blank cartridge was fired off, and in the course of the combat, Buffalo showed how he killed Yellow Hand in single combat and took his scalp in 1876. Johnny Baker, “the Cowboy Kid,” did some wonderful rifle shooting at short range, holding his rifle in a dozen difficult positions and never failing to hit the mark. Miss Annie Oakley also did some clever marksmanship (or rather markswomanship) with both rifle and shotgun. But the best shooting was done by Buffalo Bill himself. He shot at 24 clay pigeons sprung from a trap, hitting 21 and missing 3 in one minute and 18 seconds. He also did some splendid shooting with his horse running at full speed. An Indian galloping alongside him flung about a dozen balls in the air in quick succession, and Mr. Cody broke every one of them. The riding of bucking horses by cowboys was greatly enjoyed.  One of the riders had a narrow escape from being injured. The horse reared so high that it was impossible for its rider to keep his seat and he tumbled on his back and came near being trampled on Buck Taylor gave an exhibition of his perfect horsemanship – leaning down and picking up his hat and handkerchief from the ground, while his horse was galloping at full speed. The Indian dances were grotesque and funny but rather tame. The warriors gathered in a circle, stamped their feet and jerked their bodies in time to the monotonous music from a couple of tom toms, keeping up a continuous falsetto squealing and looking as hideous as possible. The Indian war dance is peculiar, but does not bear upon the mind of the spectators a very vivid picture of the poetry of motion. The corn dance appears to be the war dance with the final wallop omitted. For this reason the corn dance is preferable to the war dance. If the exhibition of aboriginal terpsichorean art was tame, the attack on the Deadwood stage was just the opposite. The stage was attacked by a score of mounted Indians, and for a time, it looked as if the passengers and guards would be utterly paralysed by the tremendous noise of the blank cartridge and the terrific war whoops of the painted warriors; but presently a band of cowboys came to the rescue, and as they could fire the blank cartridge more quickly than the red men and could yell louder too, the red men were soon put to flight, but not before two or three of the painted savages had carefully dismounted and lain down and died. The stage coach was drawn by six mules and driven by a gentleman who, the master of ceremonies said, had been a bosom friend of the famed Hank Monk. At the end sat “Con” Grover, the cowboy sheriff of the Platte.

          The cowboy brass band was present throughout the performance playing most of the time. Everything the band played, it played well – excepting God Save the Queen.

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