Wild West Shows

by Michel Lapierre

In 1885, after the imprisonment of Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont fled to the United States, where he was recruited by Buffalo Bill (given name: William Frederick Cody), creator of large-scale outdoor performances and one of the most prominent figures of the early days of mass entertainment. Launched in 1883, Wild West Shows were an exuberant mix of several forms of entertainment popular in the late 19th century, a hybrid of vaudeville, circus and rodeo.

These sweeping outdoor performances started with a parade through town and could last as long as four hours! Acts included shooting displays, horse races, and re-enactments of the bison hunt using real bison. There were tableaux of historical milestones (Custer’s Last Stand in 1876, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, etc.) and “thrilling” scenes of life in the West (a train robbery, a Sioux raid, etc.).

At the height of its success, Buffalo Bill’s company numbered nearly 1,200 people: cowboys, Indigenous people from various nations, Métis, and Mexicans. The shows toured extensively and required staggering logistics. The most ambitious involved transporting hundreds of people, horses and bison, as well as a collapsible arena seating up to 20,000 spectators. In the 1890s, the company was a hit in Europe and was featured at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Although the Wild West Shows look highly exaggerated to our modern eyes, their massive success was instrumental in shaping the collective imagination about the Far West. Eastern American and European audiences were captivated by the adventures of the bold adventurers who settled the West, a fascination that endures in America’s long tradition of popular entertainment.