Chief Red Fox

The text on the reverse of the card from which this image is taken reads:

Born at Thunder Butte in the Dakota Territory on June 11, 1870, Chief William Red Fox is a living page from history. He recalls the Custer massacre led by his Uncle, Crazy Horse. He has visited most of the countries of the world with the Buffalo Bill Show (sic), 101 Ranch and the U. S. Navy.

Red Fox’s story, including his alleged involvement in the later British tours, is known from two main sources; an article, I was with Buffalo Bill, co-written with Lenore Sherman (Real West, April 1968, Vol. XI, pp. 26-28, 64-65) and his subsequent purported autobiography, The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1971).

No other evidence of Red Fox’s participation in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West can be found beyond his own statements, according to which he was with the show from 1893-98 and again from 1903-08. In all the copious surviving records of Native American performers in the show, not a single reference to anyone by the name of Red Fox can be located. He commits the classic error of overplaying his hand. By his own account, he was not merely a ‘featured attraction’ (article, p. 27) but also the Lakota interpreter, in charge of the Indians. It is unclear where exactly this leaves the educated, lettered and articulate Luther Standing Bear, who was actually the interpreter on the 1902-03 tour and did not return to the show thereafter; the Red Fox narrative reduces him to the level of a grunting savage.

Aside from Luther Standing Bear, the two Indians whom Red Fox refers to by name are Chief Pine Bird and Charging Hawk. There was indeed a man named Charging Hawk on the 1904 tour; Pine Bird is not otherwise known.

First-hand accounts by Native American performers with the Wild West are thin on the ground - those of Black Elk and the aforementioned Luther Standing Bear are the only authentic ones to spring to mind - so that the Red Fox narratives are potentially of very great value indeed. Several of his descriptions of the show are very interesting, or at least would be, if any reliance at all could be placed upon them.

According to one particularly lively paragraph:

We would ride up to the coach with flaming arrows and place the arrows in cans of red powder that would burn and cause the coach to be bathed in red light that made it look like it was on fire. The Indians would climb upon the coach, and the driver and guard would fall to the ground. The Indians would stop the coach, and Charging Hawk and I would open the doors and hit the passengers on the head with a rubber tomahawk. They would fall to the ground as if they had been killed. At this point the cavalry came to the rescue and the battle was on. Of course, the cavalry always won. We always picked up the dead, put them in a wagon and drove out of the arena, and that was the end of the show.

These are of course interesting details but there is confusion here. It was the settler’s cabin which was set ablaze towards the climax of the show, not the stage coach. The gallant rescuers were Buffalo Bill’s scouts and cowboys, not the cavalry. He also claims that ‘The stage coach attack always closed the show’ but it is hard to identify any specific occasion on which it actually did. Unexplained anomalies like this make it an open question whether Red Fox ever even saw the show, let alone appeared in it.

However, it is with the timescale and venues advanced by Red Fox that the wheels really come off the wagon. Similar problems beset the equally absurd ‘memoirs’ of Frank T. Hopkins, although it must be observed in passing that neither makes any mention of the other and that the two sets of dates and venues are mutually irreconcilable.

Red Fox outlines his movements with Buffalo Bill in the article, as follows:

I returned home (May, 1902) and stayed until the spring of 1903. I then rejoined the Buffalo Bill show and stayed with it until 1908.

In the spring of 1903, Buffalo Bill was already on an extensive tour of England and Wales, which had begun in December 1902 and lasted until the following October. This statement would therefore require that he had travelled to Great Britian alone and joined Buffalo Bill in mid-season.

In the book (p. 138), he continues:

We traveled across the United States and Canada that summer and fall of 1904 and holed up in winter quarters in late October. Buffalo Bill was planning to take the show to Europe the next spring, and asked me to help in the preparations.

The great difficulty here is that the summer and fall of 1904 was precisely the time when the Wild West was on tour in Scotland!

The article (p. 28), contains the following extraordinary (and ungrammatical) paragraph:

In 1904 the Buffalo Bill show went to Europe. We sailed from Philadelphia for Liverpool, England, on the steamship Nebraska, a J.P. Morgan steamship line known as the Red Star Line. We left the dock at the foot of Washington Street and arrived in Birkhead, England. where (sic) we unloaded the show and opened at New Brighton. We showed in all of the large cities, in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. We then went on to France and showed at all of the large cities of Europe.

This series of statements is loaded with a number of grave inaccuracies.

Firstly, in 1904 the show went to Great Britain only, not to continental Europe. Tours of France and other continental European countries would follow over the next two seasons, with return voyages to the United States in between times. Red Fox tells it like it was one big continuous tour.

Secondly, the facts do not fit what Red Fox says about the Atlantic crossing. In December 1902, the Indians for the 1902-03 season arrived at Southampton, on board the Saint Louis. The show returned to Liverpool on board the Lucania and Campania during April 1904, sailing from New York, not Philadelphia. In referring to the ‘Nebraska’, Red Fox clearly had in mind the State of Nebraska, which had famously been chartered in 1887. Needless to say, Red Fox’s name does not show up on any of the passenger lists. The above passage is also contradicted in crucial details by the book (p. 139). Like many a liar before him and since, Red Fox has great difficulty in keeping his story straight:

We had everything in readiness when on a morning in March, 1905 (not 1904!), we sailed past the Statue of Liberty (ergo New York, not Philadelphia!) on the steamship Nebraska, headed for Liverpool.

Thirdly, almost every town of any size or importance were played during the later British and European tours of 1902-06, not just the ‘large cities’.

Fourthly, the selection of New Brighton (near Liverpool) as the opening venue is quite astonishing. The 1902-03 season began with a lengthy season at the Olympia, London, from Friday, 26th December until 4th April. Where, if at all, this fact fits into Red Fox’s recollections is at best unclear. Certainly, his location of the London show grounds ‘on the west side of the Thames river, across from Westminster Abbey’ (article, p. 28), is acutely puzzling and should be certainly be approached with considerable caution.

The opening venue for the 1904 season, on 25th April, was Stoke-on-Trent. Insofar as can be determined from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West listing of dates and venues, the show did not at any time appear in New Brighton.

‘Birkhead’ is presumably a reference to Birkenhead, also near Liverpool. Red Fox claims to have been a seaman during a part of his early career, having enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Spanish American War of 1898, serving thereafter in the merchant navy until rejoining Buffalo Bill in 1903. This part of his story, if at least partially true - I do not profess to know - might account for his apparent knowledge of the port of Liverpool, although no mention of a transatlantic voyage is made in this connection.

Fifthly, it is stressed in both the book and the article versions that the Irish leg of this epic tour held a special place Red Fox’s affections. This is distinctly odd, as the BBCOW’s list of dates and venues fails to disclose any Irish venues on this or any other tour. It is conjectured that Red Fox’s seeming acquaintance with Ireland might also be the result of his maritime experiences.

Red Fox (in the article, at p. 64), garbling a real-life incident in the history of the Wild West show, recalls that when the horses died in France, the entourage was obliged to return home. For how much longer it would have stayed in Europe, in Red Fox’s estimate, had it not been for this misfortune, remains an open question:

All the performers went to Liverpool, England and sailed for Philadelphia on Washington’s birthday, February 22nd, 1908, and arrived home on March 7th. We sailed on the Haverford steamship of the J. P. Morgan Red Star Line.

22nd February is indeed George Washington’s birthday but once again the Red Fox account spectacularly fails to tally with the BBCOW listing of dates and venues, which gives the final venue on the European odyssey as Gand, Belgium, on 21st September 1906 - not 1908! The Haverford, as with the dates advanced, appears to have been selected at random. It is not otherwise known in this connection and on no occasion did the Wild West company return to England from continental Europe in order to join a ship bound for America.

The ostensible memoirs of ‘Chief Red Fox’ are a patent fabrication and their value to historians is effectively limited to the interesting comparison which they provide with the various other pretenders who have followed the well-worn path of counterfeiting a connection to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, long after anyone who might dispute their claims from personal experience was conveniently dead.


Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Great Britain