Congress of Rough Riders of the World 

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West eventually evolved into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West & Congress of Rough Riders of the World, an expanded, globalised concept combining the tried and tested core elements of the spectacular with military, predominently cavalry displays from all points of the compass. A comparative perspective was made explicit as Colonel Cody reversed his original premiss. Having previously taken the New World to the Old, he now undertook to entertain and enlighten the American heartland in a celebration of more ancient equestrian traditions betokening racial frontiers encountered elsewhere.

TV documentaries consistently fail to identify the timescale for this metamorphosis and at times appear to imply that these international elements had been original features of the show.

Don Russell, in an influential and widely-quoted paragraph (in The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1960, pp. 370-371), grandly misinforms us:

As organized in 1891, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West had 640 “eating members.” There were 20 German soldiers, 20 United States soldiers, 12 Cossacks, and 6 Argentine Gauchos, which with the old reliables, 20 Mexican vacqueros, 25 cowboys, 6 cowgirls, 100 Sioux Indians, and the Cowboy Band of 37 mounted musicians, made a colorful and imposing Congress of Rough Riders.
Where Russell obtained his information for this remarkable statement he unfortunately neglects to inform us. It is further regretted that this passage has been uncritically cited in book after book, resulting in serious and lasting confusion.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, as organised in the spring of 1891, remained a Wild West show pure and simple, whose human performers, with peripheral exceptions only, were cowboys, Indians and Mexicans, from the United States’ western frontier. Following an almost exhaustive study of the saturation press coverage and the programmes for the relevant period, I have failed to source a single reference to the international elements listed above. The show format for the initial part of the Glasgow winter season of 1891-92 was The Drama of Civilization, Steele Mackaye’s pageant of the American West; it is hard to visualise what sort of contribution Germans, Cossacks and Gauchos could have made. The conveniently rounded-up figure of ‘100 Sioux Indians’ is likewise ill-informed; it is taken directly from the Wild West’s inflated advertising claims.

It would certainly make perfect sense for a fundamental change of direction to have been charted at this time, as the continuing supply of Native American performers was under threat following the catastrophic events of the previous season, over the course of which around seven had died through a combination of disease and accidents, both in and out of the arena. No doubt, therefore, such an adjustment must have been in serious contemplation.

However, the first occasion on which extraneous elements were incorporated into the Wild West came on the evening of 31st July 1891, when a benefit performance was given in Manchester, England, in aid of local Crimean War veterans.

In Glasgow, a new and experimental version of the show, boldly entitled A New Era in History, was unveiled to an invited audience on Friday, 15th January 1892, and to the general public from Monday, 18th, until the season’s conclusion on Saturday, 27th February. This involved ‘Stupendous Additional Attractions’, specifically thirty members of the Central African Schulis tribe, a herd of six performing Burmese elephants and English Lancers.

For the London 1892 summer season, the show briefly reverted to its original and classic Wild West format, before the ‘Cossacks’ (actually ethnic Georgians), on Wednesday, 1st June, and gauchos, on Thursday, 23rd, were introduced in stages.

Buffalo Bills Wild West & Congress of Rough Riders of the World was not unveiled under that name and in its concluded form until Chicago, in 1893.

The foregoing is consciously intended as a challenge to orthodoxy; anyone who believes that they have evidence which refutes my position, please let me know.


Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Great Britain