In conceiving of the Wild West Show and the story of the frontier, William F. Cody sought to tell, he crafted an image of American Indians based upon his experiences in the West and a nostalgic romanticism of tribal life. But he was also heavily influenced by the Progressive intellectual currents of the era — theories of civilization, social Darwinism, the potential for change and reform, among other ideas. The Progressivism espoused by Cody, however, differed from the reform impulses that guided government and religious reformers. Cody can be considered an Enabling Progressive, one who allowed Indians to be Indians yet also saw a need for Indians to adapt to new lifestyles in order to survive. The adoption of new skills and ideas were not to be thrust forcefully upon Native peoples, according to the Enabling Progressive logic, but rather simply exposing Indians to the elements of "civilization" and introducing them to skills more suited to traditional Indian culture would go much further in equipping Indians for a modern world than boarding schools and religious education could ever provide. Government and religious reformers—we might call them Reformist Progressives—believed fervently in the ability of modern education, Christian religious instruction, and the tools of the national economy to encourage self–improvement and reform. The conflict between Reformist Progressives and Enabling Progressives will be explored in another section of the project—for now, knowing the roots of Cody's progressive ideas and how it influenced his narrative of the frontier is our present task.
Understanding the intellectual biography of Cody—by knowing his role as historian, as entrepreneur, and as Progressive—allows us to uncover the Progressivism present in his narrative of the West as well as his sympathy and generosity towards Native Americans.