When the Wild West came to Cumbria: Background (Maryport)

A programme from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West 1903/4 UK tour

The sound of six-shooters, war drums and stampeding bison once echoed around Cumbria. That was when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show came to visit.

Lots of Americans come to Cumbria each year, but no Yankee has ever taken the county by storm quite like William Frederick Cody, the legendary Buffalo Bill. He and his troop of Wild West performers wowed audiences around our region at the turn of the 20th century. 

A soldier and army scout turned showman, Cody was a superstar. The story of his celebrity is intriguing. He was born to a humble family in what is now Iowa in 1846 and eventually died famous in Colorado in 1917. The ensuing seven decades were transformative ones in American history. They were also horrific.

The phrase ‘manifest destiny’ was coined just a year before Cody’s birth. Those words were part and parcel of the belief that the US was ordained to spread over North America, ‘from sea to shining sea’. Acting on that belief proved bloody business, and Cody played an active part in it. He participated in the violent dispossession of Native Americans from their lands. 

Cody was directly responsible for the deaths of several First Nations people. After the Battle of the Little Bighorn (25-6 June 1876), where a coalition of Indigenous warriors killed Colonel Custer and routed the 7th U.S. Cavalry, Cody retaliated by killing and scalping a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hair. He claimed it was ‘the first scalp for Custer’.[1]

Cody made his most devastating contribution to the US’s genocidal campaign as a bison hunter. That is how he earned the nickname ‘Buffalo Bill’. The First Nations of America’s Great Plains had long relied on bison for subsistence. The US government knew that and adopted the tactic of massacring bison en masse. During an 18 month stretch in the late 1860s, Cody claimed that he personally killed no fewer than 4,280 bison.

Cody lived to cringe about these actions. He also formed respectful relationships with several Native Americans, including Sitting Bull, and employed them on fair terms in his shows. In later years, he even spoke out against scalping. Still, the violence of Cody’s early life was what won him worldwide fame.

By the 1860s, stories of his exploits as a bison hunter became popular. Journalists and dime-store novelists depicted him as the archetype of western manliness. Cody capitalised on this by starring in exaggerated stage shows, eventually establishing “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”, a touring circus-style spectacle that featured figures like Annie Oakley and Native American warriors and chiefs, including both Red Shirt and Sitting Bull.

The success of that show is what brought Cody to Cumbria. He and his troop came to Britain in 1887 as part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. The success of their show in London paved the way for performances in Manchester, and eventually, Cody made his way to the Lake District. He vacationed at the Lodore Falls Hotel in 1888.

It wasn’t until 1904 that Cody came back to Cumbria. When he did, he brought his whole entourage. By then his show had become Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. In addition to cowboys and Native Americans, it featured an array of exotic stunt riders, who were billed as ‘The Hero Horsemen’.

Notices printed in papers like the Maryport Advertiser give a fair sense of the spectacle, which promised audiences a muster of no fewer than ‘1,300 horses and men’. Transporting a troop of that size was no small feat. Apparently, it took ‘three special trains owned by the company’, which stretched ‘1,044 yards long’.[2]

Travelling by train was essential to keep to the show’s busy schedule. Between 15 and 22 September 1904, they performed in Carlisle, Penrith, Maryport, Workington, Whitehaven, Barrow and Kendal. According to the papers, thousands of people flocked to these performances and were thrilled by ‘bucking broncos’, ‘dexterous lassoing’ and re-enactments of ‘Custer’s last stand’.[3]

After the whirlwind tour, Buffalo Bill and his entourage packed up, departing Cumbria as swiftly as they arrived. They were bound for Lancaster and Blackpool, but their whirlwind visit remains a unique chapter in Cumbria’s past.

Text by Christopher Donaldson

To find out more about the history of Plumpton Wall township, click here

[1] See Paul L. Hedren, ‘The Contradictory Legacies of Buffalo Bill Cody’s First Scalp for Custer’, Montana: The Magazine of Western History, 55.1 (2005), 16–35; Richard White, ‘Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill’, in The Frontier in American Culture: Essays by Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick, ed. by James R, Grossman (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), 7­–65.

[2] Advertisement in Maryport Advertiser, 10 September 1904.

[3] ‘The Wild West Show’, Maryport Advertiser, 24 September 1904.