The Union Star described Cody as a “remarkable man,” a “hero of thousands of exploits,” and published a photograph of Cody with an extensive survey of his life and career as a guide, trapper, Pony Express rider, stagecoach driver, Civil War veteran, Medal of Honor recipient for gallantry, buffalo hunter (thus the nickname “Buffalo Bill”) and master showman.
Tributes poured in from presidents, prime ministers, generals, industrialists, and European royalty. Over 20,000 people attended the funeral at Lookout Mountain, just above Denver.
For over 40 years, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show traveled thousands of miles, performing in countless cities and towns throughout the United States and Europe. The show captivated audiences with sensational portraits of an American frontier that was retreating in the face of settlement and exploitation. One of these fortunate cities was Schenectady, which hosted Buffalo Bill at least six times from 1874 to 1911.
Shortly after the Civil War, Cody had a chance encounter with journalist-promoter Ned Buntline, who began turning out popular stories that transformed Cody into a national celebrity. The two men formed a Wild West acting troupe that included another scout-turned-actor, “Texas Jack” Omohundro, and his wife, Italian singer-dancer Giuseppina Morlacchi. When Buntline left the show, Cody and the remaining members formed the “Buffalo Bill Combination” which toured the American theater circuit.
On March 2, 1874, the Schenectady Evening Star announced that “The Buffalo Bill Combination,” featuring Cody, Texas Jack, and “the peerless Morlacchi” would appear that night in “Scouts of the Plains” at Union Hall, the second floor of a building that stood at the northwest corner of State and Jay Streets. The New York Herald described the show as “so wonderfully bad it’s good” and the troupe received glowing reviews for their performance the previous night in Albany.
There was another attraction on the bill that night at Union Hall that was guaranteed to draw a large and curious audience: James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Cody and Hickok had been friends growing up in Kansas, and Hickok had already made a name for himself as a gambler, gunfighter and lawman in some of the frontier’s toughest towns. As in Cody’s case, dime novels had transformed Wild Bill into a famous figure, and though he enjoyed his new-found fame, he disliked being stared at by strangers. Nevertheless, Hickok, after repeated entreaties by Cody and short on cash, reluctantly joined the “Combination” in December, 1873.
Standing just over six feet, and sporting shoulder-length hair, full mustache, frock coat, checked trousers, calfskin boots, black sombrero, and a pair of ivory-handled Colt revolvers tucked menacingly into a bright red sash around his waist, Hickok was an imposing presence wherever he went.
He was also a man of unpredictable moods, often tangling with citizens and law enforcement alike in the gambling dens, pool halls, and taverns that he frequented during his stint with the “Combination.” He was already creating problems for the show during its New York City dates, to the point where he began loading his pistols with live ammunition instead of the blanks he was supposed to use in the shows. Hickok startled the Rochester audience and enraged the theater owner by shooting out a stage light that he claimed irritated his eyes.
Despite Wild Bill’s volatility, the March 3 Evening Star reported that “Union Hall entertained the largest audience last evening that has been within its walls since the grand opening of the hall three years ago.” Hickok played himself, declaiming: “Fear not, fair maid! By heavens, you are safe at last with Wild Bill, who is ever to risk his life and die, if need be, in defense of weak and defenseless womankind!”
By the time the troupe arrived in Binghamton nine days later, Hickok and Cody had amicably agreed to part ways. Cody gave his old friend a $1,000 loan (about $17,000 today) and Hickok returned to his familiar haunts out West. Just two-and-a-half years later, Wild Bill was shot to death during a poker game in a Deadwood, South Dakota saloon. There is no indication that Wild Bill encountered any trouble during his short stay in Schenectady, but the vision of the legendary Wild Bill Hickok sampling downtown Schenectady’s nightlife in 1874 remains an intriguing one.
The “Combination” returned to Union Hall on February 2, 1875 to present “Life on the Border,” following appearances at Albany, Troy, and Cohoes, with the local press describing the show as “quite thrilling.” But the troupe was persistently plagued by financial difficulties, and it would be 20 years before Buffalo Bill Cody returned again to Schenectady.
In the interim, Cody developed the show that would be known thereafter as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.” With advice from Barnum & Bailey’s James A. Bailey, Cody’s show became an enormous undertaking, with its own electrical department and portable grandstand that could seat up to 20,000 spectators. Hundreds of cowboys, cowgirls, gauchos, Cossacks, Native Americans, African American “buffalo soldiers,” and Arab horsemen performed in races, sharp-shooting contests, reenactments of battle scenes, buffalo hunts, and stagecoach robberies which were presided over by Buffalo Bill on his white stallion.
During his eight European tours, Cody performed before Queen Victoria, the future Kaiser Wilhelm, King Edward VII, future King George V, and Lord Randolph Churchill, who introduced Buffalo Bill to his thirteen-year-old son Winston. Cody was also granted an audience with Pope Leo XIII in the Sistine Chapel. By the 1890s, he had become, according to one biographer, “the most recognizable celebrity on Earth.” It was with great anticipation and excitement when, in the spring of 1895, local newspapers announced that Buffalo Bill would soon be coming back to the Capital District.
Fifty tightly packed cars of the Delaware & Hudson Railway delivered “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” to Schenectady at 4:30am on May 15, 1895. Tickets ranged from 25 to 60 cents for each of the two shows, which took place at the Schenectady Driving Park (present day Hamilton Hill). The May 15 Evening Star reported that “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders” (a term later borrowed by Theodore Roosevelt) attracted a huge crowd.
The cavalcade moved across State Street and onto Brandywine Avenue to Union Street, down to Centre Street (now Broadway), then back to State and up to the fairgrounds. “No newspaper description can do justice to the big parade,” stated the Evening Star. It was led by Buffalo Bill in an open carriage, followed by contingents of Comanche, Sioux, Arapaho and the Royal Irish-English Lancers. The old Deadwood stage followed next, carrying 73 year-old John Y. Nelson, who had guided Brigham Young and the first Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley a half-century earlier.
“Women waved their handkerchiefs and strong men yelled themselves hoarse” as Cody doffed his hat in salute. The US troops in the parade “were cheered wildly by their fellow soldiers of the United States recruiting agency in the Union Hall block.” The show featured a buffalo hunt, an “Indian attack” on the Deadwood stage, and an exhibition of Buffalo Bill’s skill with various firearms while on horseback. But a main highlight was the appearance of Annie Oakley, whom the Evening Star noted “did the impossible with rifles and clay pigeons.”
The show’s stay in Schenectady was not without incident, though. Cody noted the following in his log for May 15: “At Schenectady, NY, in bringing the stock to the train, a buffalo cow got into the canal and was drowned.” Additional details were provided by the May 2 Daily Union: As the train was being loaded for the show’s May 16 appearance at Gloversville, the bison “became unmanageable and darted up the track at terrific speed,” followed by cowboys and Indians on horseback from “the Central railroad below State street,” who rode up and down the “track, jumping switches, etc…The loss to the Wild West management will be considerable.”
In addition, Cody was forced to fire two of the Irish-English Lancers who had been drinking heavily and verbally threatening spectators and Cody himself. Cody personally requested Schenectady Police Officer J. E. Van Vranken to arrest the two men, who were taken to the Wall Street police headquarters. According to the Weekly Union of May 23, both men were found guilty and were “sent to jail to serve a sentence of ten days each.”
The show returned to Schenectady on July 14, 1899 after two performances in Saratoga. Once again, thousands came out to cheer the parade and attend performances which again featured Annie Oakley. Cody also added soldiers from Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to mark the United States’ acquisition of those territories.
The show then moved on to Utica, leaving a minor incident in its wake. The Evening Star reported that 22 year-old Daniel Sutton had stolen a wagon wheel from Schenectady banker H.M. Wallace and sold it for $3.00 to one of Cody’s unsuspecting employees. Cody asked Detective James W. Rynex to try and recover the item.
Rynex, the first police officer to patrol Schenectady on horseback, and later the city’s Chief of Police, went to Utica, recovered the wheel, and returned to Schenectady to arrest Sutton, who received thirty days in jail. When the show came back on June 12, 1901, Schenectady Mayor John H. White formally presented Buffalo Bill with the key to city.
Cody’s “Wild West” appeared again in Schenectady on July 2, 1908, following a tour of Europe. The Schenectady County Fairgrounds, which for a time had been the site of the County Almshouse near what is now Emmett, Craig and Steuben Streets, had been converted to a 116-acre residential area to accommodate the city’s growing industrial workforce. This compelled the show to set up on “the old rugby (or circus grounds),” roughly bounded today by Rugby Road, McClellan Street, Grand Boulevard and Regent Street. Football had become popular, so Cody presented “football games” between cowboys and Native Americans on horseback.
The Daily Union announced that on June 19 and 20, 1911, Buffalo Bill would be doing his usual two shows at 2 pm and 8 pm on the Rugby Road grounds, but added that Cody “is making his last visit here today at the head of a great show depicting scenes of his early career on the plains.” Both performances sold out, but the growing popularity of motion pictures and professional sports were causing a general decline in attendance at Wild West shows.
Facing financial and health problems, Cody finally retired. The show itself continued under various owners, including heavyweight boxing champion Jess Willard, but without the charismatic Buffalo Bill, the show finally closed for good in 1917.
Buffalo Bill Cody’s exciting and evocative panoramic version of the “Wild West” made an indelible impression upon two generations of Schenectady’s citizens, and left a popular cultural legacy that continues today in our enduring fascination with the Old West.
Illustrations, from above: painting of Buffalo Bill; and William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Neil Yetwin wrote this essay for the Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 64. Become a member of the Society online at schenectadyhistorical.org.