May 11, 1887
Outside the London arena, William F. Cody sat astride his milk-white stallion, Charlie, and inspected his show’s performers. He had brought his entire outfit—two-hundred and eighteen performers, one-hundred and eighty horses, eighteen buffalo, ten elk, five wild Texas steers, four donkeys, two deer and a couple of bears, not to mention a stagecoach, a replica log cabin, canvas scenery, wagons, thirty-six brass instruments, rifles, saddles, and more bullets than a man could count—all the way from America. He’d come with hopes of striking it rich; of selling millions of tickets and making millions of dollars. But never in his wildest dreams had he expected this—a command performance ordered by Queen Victoria of England herself!
Cody had come a long way from herding cows at five dollars a week to performing for royalty. As he watched his troupe gather, his mind must have flashed back to the sad boy who’d been forced to go to work fulltime after his father’s death. Between his eleventh birthday and his fifteenth, Cody claimed to have freighted wagons across the frontier, survived a starvation winter at Fort Bridger, skirmished with some Indians and made friends with others, ridden the Pony Express, prospected for gold in Colorado and hunted buffalo on the Plains. And he’d woven all these adventures into his show. Giving them titles like “Attack on the Settlers Cabin,” “Buffalo Hunt as it was in the Far West,” and “Cowboy Fun,” Cody re-enacted the experiences of his young life for the entertainment of his audiences.
And tonight, his audience was the Queen of England herself!
His blue eyes swept over his troupers. All looked in order. There stood Annie Oakley, “Little Sure Shot,” her rifle slung over her buckskin-clad shoulder. Behind her, bushy bearded John Nelson perched atop the old Deadwood stagecoach—the one Cody had won in a coin toss—reins in his hands and ready to go. The showman looked for Lillian Smith. Lillian was good with a gun, too. But the flighty fifteen-year old sometimes arrived late for performances. Not today though. There she stood along with champion roper, “Tex” McCloud and bronco buster Harry Brannan, dressed to nines and raring to go. Behind them, already mounted on horseback, waited Buck Taylor, “King of the Cowboys,” along with his fellow riders. Those boys could ride anything they could get a leg across – bulls, buffalos, horses. And the horses were real buckers. “There’s nothing fake in my whole show,” Cody liked to say. There were Native Americans, too—more than ninety Lakota Sioux men, women and children. Wearing buckskin and feathers, a group of warriors sat bareback on their ponies, waiting.
Inside the arena, the Cowboy Band struck up a lively tune. It was time for the grand entrance. Whooping and hollering, the Lakota warriors galloped into the arena at breakneck speed, the pounding of their horses’ hooves echoing across the wide-open space. Right behind them—six-shooters blazing—plunged the cowboys, followed by Mexican vaqueros, grizzled frontiersmen, rifle-toting Texas rangers, and detachments dressed as the United States cavalry and artillery wildly waving the stars and stripes. Around and around the arena the performers looped until finally they formed a tremulous, colorful square. Falling suddenly silent, they turned and faced the queen.
There was a suspense-filled pause. Then…
A trumpet sounded.
And in rode Cody. Wheeling his prancing horse before the queen, he came to a quick stop. Charlie reared up on his hind legs.
In her seat, Queen Victoria politely clapped her lace-gloved hands.
Letting the horse down, Cody swept off his big sombrero. The long brown hair that he’d rolled up under it fell down around his shoulders.
Now, head held high, Cody’s deep voice soared over the grandstands. And even though the only people in the grandstand today were the Queen, her military escort and six ladies-in-waiting, he shouted:
“Ladies and gentlemen. Permit me to introduce to you—THE WILD WEST!”
Photo Credit: “Buffalo Bill Cody ca1875”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: