At two o’clock on the morning of Tuesday 14th July 1903 a long black-painted train steamed into the Burrows Sidings at Swansea’s East Dock Station. Already a thousand people had gathered in the darkness to witness the arrival. The train stood silent on the tracks. Another train arrived, and at half-past three the third and final long load of vans arrived. Still there was no sign of life. The crowd had grown to two thousand. All of St Thomas was awake.
At four o’clock, to mounting excitement, a solitary cowboy emerged from the first train. He slowly surveyed the crowd in the early morning summer light. The cowboy raised his arm, held it high for a moment, and as it fell there was a mighty crash as every door on the trains flew open.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had come to town!
A Red Indian Chief in full finery led the way as a horde of cowboys, Red Indians, Rough Riders, sharp shooters, mustangs, broncos, wagons, the famous Deadwood Stage, gauchos, cavalrymen and even Cossacks and Desert Arabs poured out of the train and across the New Cut Bridge to Swansea’s Victoria Park. Within hours they had erected a tent with covered seating for 20,000 spectators, stabling for 600 horses, a tepee village, and were serving sizzling steaks to hungry cowboys in an 800-seat mess tent. The doors of the arena opened at one o’clock that afternoon. At two o’clock prompt Buffalo Bill himself in buckskins and Stetson rode into the arena on a white stallion and the Wild West Show burst on Swansea.
William Frederick Cody was born in 1846 in Iowa. A genuine man of action of the Old West, he earned his nickname by killing 4,860 American bison in eight months while supplying construction workers on the Kansas Pacific Railroad with meat. At the age of eleven he rescued his father from an anti-abolitionist mob (the Cody family was staunchly and outspokenly anti-slavery) though his father soon died from his stab wounds. As a young teenager Cody was a scout in the bloody Utah War. When he turned fourteen he was struck by gold fever, but while heading for the gold fields he signed up as a Pony Express rider. At seventeen he was a teamster in the Union Army as the Civil War raged over its final even bloodier years.
Cody spent his early twenties hunting buffalo and scouting for Indians in the Plains Wars. He killed at least one white bad man with his pistol or rifle as well as an indeterminate number of Indians, though he was never prejudiced and later campaigned for the rights of American Indians. He always claimed he fought in self defence, though he had a shrewd understanding of the reasons for attacks. “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.” In 1885, now widely known as Buffalo Bill, he said of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, “The defeat of Custer was not a massacre. The Indians were being pursued by skilled fighters with orders to kill. For centuries they had been hounded from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again. They had their wives and little ones to protect and they were fighting for their existence.”
In 1872 Buffalo Bill made the trip to Chicago that led to him becoming the legend we remember today. He was signed up by Ned Buntline, the famed dime novel writer, for one of the original Wild West shows. Soon the deadly former lawman and practising gambler Wild Bill Hickok joined them in a play called Scouts of the Plains. Hickok and Cody had met when Cody was a twelve year old scout and Hickok was a member of the notorious vigilante “Free State Army”, the fearsome Red Legs.
Hickock once took exception to a theatre show in New York City and expressed his dissatisfaction by discharging his pistol at the stage lights. He refused to submit to arrest until he judged sufficient peace officer had arrived to take a character of his notoriety into custody. He was never bested in a face to face gunfight, shooting upwards of twenty men dead, more or less legally, before himself being shot in the back of the head while playing poker in Deadwood in 1876. Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill must have made a formidable combination.
By 1883 Buffalo Bill was firmly established as a showman. He founded “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” in North Platte, Nebraska, and starting touring. In 1893 the show (though the word ‘show’ was never used – Bill always regarded his enterprise as educational rather than sensational) was renamed “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” as it gathered in performers from outside the United States.
In 1887 Buffalo Bill brought the show to Britain for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The Queen saw the show twice. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) was so taken with it he saw it three times and even rode in the Deadwood Stage during the show. In 1890 Buffalo Bill met Pope Leo XIII (he was baptised into the Roman Catholic church on his deathbed), and in 1891 200,000 spectators saw the show over a single week at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West continued touring in various forms until his death in 1917. He was buried on Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado, on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, where he would forever have a view of his beloved mountains and Great Plains.
Buffalo Bill’s entry to the arena was followed by a parade on horseback, each group of performers dressed in their colourful best. There were cavalrymen and cowboys, scouts and hunters, Red Indian chiefs and braves, gauchos, Mexicans and representatives of other horse cultures including Turks, Arabs, Mongols and Georgians. By 1903 Sitting Bull, one of the original participants in the Wild West, was long dead and Annie Oakley (nicknamed Little Sure Shot by Sitting Bull himself) had left the show the year before, but there were plenty to replace them.
There were races and side shows, trick riding the like of which had never been seen in Wales before, the Pony Express tearing round inches from the audience, cowgirls racing ponies round barrels, and of course sharp shooting. ‘Health and Safety’ was a way off in the future. The ammunition was live and there was plenty of it. Buffalo Bill himself on horseback fired his rifle at glass balls thrown in the air. If he ever missed there is no record of it.
In 1903 the star sharp shooter of the show was Johnny Baker, Buffalo Bill’s adopted son. Baker could hit targets from any position, including between his legs and standing on his head. A playing card thrown in the air ninety feet away was guaranteed plugged. The glass balls (they replaced live pigeons in the 1870s) did not stand a chance. He once fired at 1,016 of them thrown into the air in rapid succession and destroyed 1,000 in flying shards of glass. Maybe some of his spent bullets are still buried in the sands of Swansea beach.
The Cowboys’ Band serenaded the crowd without cease throughout the two hour show, not even ceasing their blowing when the Deadwood Stage tore full pelt into the arena pursued all the way to Cheyenne by whooping, hollering and shooting bad men. The shotgun guard perched precariously on top of the stage coach firing back, joined enthusiastically by the passengers. The arena filled with gun smoke and the crash of hooves and wheels until the victorious stage wheeled around the last bad man fallen to the ground and after a lap or two of honour tore at the same tremendous pace out of the arena. When the show was the last of the visit the passengers would be replaced by grinning papooses and head off to the station to be loaded onto a truck to the next town.,
Tours by big stadium bands like U2 and the Rolling Stones are huge multi-national logistical exercises, but they owe homage and admiration to the European and North American tours of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Contemporary newspaper reports were fascinated by the mechanics of moving such a huge show round the country. On Monday 13th July 1903 the South Wales Daily Post anticipated the show’s arrival in Swansea, appropriately at Victoria Park opened in 1887 in celebration of the Queen’s jubilee.
To feed, lodge and generally maintain a body of 800 men of mixed nationalities and, furthermore, exhibit them before the public twice a day in special performances, constitutes a task of some magnitude. But when, in addition, matters are so admirably arranged that the whole of them, together with the entire paraphernalia of the show, which includes about 600 horses and numberless weapons, can migrate from one town to another in a single night, it becomes a most remarkable feat.
To Buffalo Bill the task presented no difficulty whatever.
“Everything works as smoothly as if we were only a small theatrical company. This is owing to the fact that every department, no matter how small, has its own head, who troubles himself about nothing but his own particular work. The consequence is that when on tour every man knows what to do and does it without bustle or confusion.
“We carry a canvas arena in which can be seated 20,000 people, and which is used when a building cannot be found in a town large enough for a show.”
The Liberty Stadium seats just over 20,000. Construction took nearly two years. Buffalo Bill’s roustabouts and cowboys built, performed in, dismantled, transported and rebuilt their arena in 24 hours, week after week on their summer tours. Buffalo Bill went on:
“Canvas stables for 600 horses are also carried, in addition to a dining tent in which meals for 800 people engaged in the show are served three times a day by our own commissariat department.
“When the rough riders arrive, after having, perhaps, travelled all night, the dining tent is up and there is a good breakfast waiting for them. And it has to be a good one, for they are men whose appetites are simply enormous!”
And that is not to mention six tons of hay, two hundred bushels of oats, six hundred pounds of bran, and five tons of straw bedding every day for the horses.
On 17th July The Cambrian recorded its own impressions of the arrival and impact of the Wild West Show.
The great feature of the work was the silent manner in which it was done. A foreman did let out once: “That dumpety-dashed driver ought to be punched, I guess.” But as the driver deserved it, it doesn’t much matter.
The scene at Victoria Park, shortly after the arrival of the tent gang, was a wonderful one. In a miraculously short space of time the “guy” and his men had the great stretches of canvas in position, and by degrees the ground became covered into a huge show field. Mapped out on the ground with stakes beforehand, each structure rose as if by magic, and when the “braves” entered the park and put up their tepees the scene was romantic in suggestion and picturesque from every aspect.
Many schools and works in Swansea and the Swansea Valley were closed to allow children and workers to see the four mid-week shows.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO ABERTAWE
The appearance of the leading public thoroughfares of Swansea was a pretty clear indication that all rail and other roads converged upon Abertawe and the Wild West Show. There was an incessant moving to and fro of the human tide and it took no very keen eye to note that there were thousands of visitors from the Swansea Valley. The various railway companies ran “specials” and relief trains. In fact, the best evidence of the manner in which visitors poured into Swansea to see “Buffalo Bill” may be gathered from an observation of one of the railway officials. “Any number of excursion and duplicate trains,” he said, “the people are really wild. It is Saturdays intensified.”
In 2010 the railways cannot even put on a couple of extra trains for an international rugby match.
On 15th July the South Wales Daily Post, despite rain which fell on the performers but from which the spectators were protected in their seats, reported breathlessly on the previous day’s shows and the effect of Buffalo Bill himself on the ladies.
There was again a vast crowd at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on Tuesday evening. The greatest enthusiasm prevailed throughout, the performance, the daring riding of the Cowboys, Arabs, Cossacks, etc, who gave a marvellous exhibition of horsemanship, picking up articles from the ground while their horses gallop at full stretch, the battle of San Juan, and the unrivalled feats of shooting by “Buffalo Bill” and Johnnie Baker, the celebrated American marksman, being among a series of stirring things reproduced from actual life to the astonishment of the sightseers. It was generally conceded to be one of the most marvellous and at the same time constructive exhibitions ever before the public.
The lassoing of the Cowboys at the “Wild West” Show was a veritable “eye opener” to those unacquainted with prairie life.
Perhaps the most realistic of many life-like scenes of the “Wild West” was that on Tuesday evening, as in the light of the bivouac fires, the troops before the battle of San Juan indulge in songs reminiscent of the “Old Home.” It was a true picture of a “night before the battle.”
All the ladies who visited the Wild West Show on Tuesday are in love with Col. Cody. “A fine, handsome man,” they say he is.
Swansea’s takings on Tuesday exceeded the previous record in this country, viz. at Manchester on Easter Monday.
Over 50,000 people, nearly half of Swansea’s population, packed out the four shows over two days. Swansea has received many accolades over the years, but surely none compares with that from Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Col. Cody is delighted with his Swansea visit. “Swansea takes the blue riband,” he declared, on Tuesday night.
Swansea – Buffalo Bill’s Blue Riband Wild West Town!
This article could not have been written without generous help from the United States. Steve Frieson, Director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave in Golden, Colorado, kindly gave permission to use photographs from the museum’s archives. Montie Montana Jr., scion of four generations of rodeo performers, continues the tradition by touring “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” around the world. There is a warm welcome waiting for him in Swansea!
We will run more articles from the history of Swansea and we welcome the memories of our readers. We would be particularly interested to hear from anyone who attended the great travelling air shows that visited Parc le Breos and Vennaway Lane in 1933 and 1935, and especially anyone who had their first flight in an aircraft flown by Sir Alan Cobham or one of the other daring aviators. Drop me a line via the editor, or email John@GlobeSpinner.net. Now I am off for a nice relaxing walk after all the excitement of the Wild West!