'Buffalo Bill' brought Wild West to Elizabeth City

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Buffalo Bill Wild West Show Poster.jpg
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By George Converse
for Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The first week in November 1916 brought grim news from overseas. World War I raged in Europe, with the Kaiser’s U-boats wreaking havoc at sea, sinking British merchantmen at will, and threatening to do the same to American shipping. The U-boat Deutchland called at New York City, hinting at what the United States could face if the country entered the war.

To break the stalemate on the front, the British Army introduced a fearsome new war machine called “the tank,” while nearer to home, General John Pershing pursued the army of Pancho Villa on horseback along the southern U.S. border. Woodrow Wilson was elected with a promise “to keep us out of the war.” But amidst the wearisome reports, a bright spot came roaring out of the west, the Buffalo Bill Wild West show!

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was an American legend: Pony Express rider at 14, private in the Civil War, buffalo hunter, Chief of Scouts for the Third Cavalry where he won the Medal of Honor in the Indian Wars, and a truly masterful showman. He organized Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, touring the United States and Europe with his old west extravaganza, highlighting wild Indians, cowboys, sharpshooters, rodeo events, horse races and Indian battles. A favorite was the parade of horsemen from all over the world, with Gauchos, Arabs, Turks, Cossacks, and Mongols. Many of his showmen were legends in their own right: Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Frank Butler, and Sitting Bull.

For one day, and one day only, the show arrived in Elizabeth City on Friday, Nov. 10 at the Exhibition Grounds, then located near the train depot, presenting two shows, at 2:15 and at 8:15 pm. Preceded by several days of advertising, advance ticket sales at Selig Jewelers, and the signature parade down Main Street, the shows displayed the “pluckiest cowgirls who gave vim to the festivities, rough-riding and cowpunching with the best of the men,” “stagecoach robberies,” “a buffalo hunt,” and “Buffalo Bill, himself, in the saddle.” The Sioux performers, led by Chief Flying Hawk, who had replaced Sitting Bull, executed Indian attacks. Also missing, unfortunately, were the lead stars of earlier years.

In keeping with the times, however, the 1916-season presented a show combined with a military spectacle called “Preparedness.” Consisting of active-duty servicemen from all of the military branches, the review and pageant showcased military drill and maneuvers on horseback, batteries of rapid-fire and field artillery demonstrations, charges by troops of cavalry, aerial fights by the flying corps, as well as demonstrations of the realistic and strenuous life on the frontier. The show grounds included a recruiting tent to enlist men for service with Pershing on the Mexican border.

Elizabeth City was one of the last venues for this great showman, who died on 10 January 1917. He was buried on Lookout Mountain overlooking Denver, Colorado and the show soon folded. The United States entered World War I two months later.

George Converse is a retired U.S. Marine and volunteer naval history researcher for the Museum of the Albemarle.