Cody as Historian
The narrative of William Cody's West embodied the progressive myth of the frontier. In his telling of frontier life that would be pronounced deceased by Frederick Jackson Turner ten years after the opening performance of the Wild West in Omaha, Nebraska, Cody sought to represent the realism of the West by using an authentic cast of characters audiences could identify with the region.
The Wild West Show, Cody wrote, would not "smack of a show or circus" but would "be on a high toned basis," and consist of "representations of life in the far west by the originals themselves." By incorporating "originals themselves," Cody could claim authenticity in his performances and lend credence to his assertion that the Show represented the "true" West. The employment of Native Americans, notes historian Louis Warren, was Cody's "boldest and most innovative move" because it made "Indians more visible, at the same moment that a consciousness of their supposed vanishing—along with all other vestiges of the frontier—became ever more pervasive."
Although Cody claimed to know much about Plains Indians, he in fact knew very few in the 1870s beyond a few Pawnee scouts attached to his Army command. Up until 1877, the Indians in Cody's shows were played by white extras. That year, Cody hired a translator, John Y. Nelson, a fur trapper that lived near Fort McPherson and was married to a Lakota woman, to accompany him to the Red Cloud Agency. Cody hired his first contingent of Indian performers there, Man Who Carries the Sword and Two Bears, an Oglala and Hunkpapa respectively. Cody's decision to turn to Native Americans as entertainers was not new. In frontier melodramas, Indians performed mock battles for wealthy individuals touring the West nearly ten years before Cody hired Indians for his theater combination. By the late 1870s, enough Indians were involved in entertainment that they could easily move among shows.
Cody's ability to hire Indians as opposed to white surrogates illustrated that Cody was somebody closely connected to Native peoples. The hiring of Lakota only served to heighten Cody's appeal and demonstrate the authenticity of his shows, in contrast to competing shows that used "supers" to play Indians. By marketing the Wild West Show as an authentic interpretation of the West surrounded by fakeries, Cody further cemented himself as a historian of sorts.
The chase to embody the frontier spirit and history through the persona of Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show was also plagued with detractors that questioned Cody's reliability. Audiences chose what they wanted to believe in Cody's story, but his fakery mixed with reality was so seamless that his reputation remained intact. Indeed, so skillfully had Cody crafted an idealized frontier life that newspapers had begun referring to the genre as "Buffalo Bill shows," and numerous imitators—among them Gordon "Pawnee Bill" Lillie, Nevada Ned, and "Mexican Joe" Shelley—espoused life stories and adopted appearances closely resembling Cody. Imitators only served to reinforce the image of Cody as the "original" westerner.
Just as the persona of Buffalo Bill claimed authenticity, so did Cody claim that the performances audiences witnessed on his stages and arenas were faithful representations of the Old West. Nate Salsbury remarked that the Wild West Show served as a lesson "about the trails of life on the frontier" and sought to "make the public believe that we were giving it something more valuable than an idea." Both Cody and Salsbury thought of the Show as creation a national narrative that represented the "true" West, what Salsbury called "an open–air interpretation of life in the American Wild West."
Cody presented his audiences with a living melodrama of the American frontier that carried an aura of authenticity. To back his claims, he contracted "originals" from the West—cowboys, Indians, vaqueros, among others—to illustrate the realism present in Show performances.