Derbyshire in the life of Bufalo Bill - the remarkable visit of William Cody's Wild West Spectacular
PUBLISHED: 00:16 28 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:58 20 February 2013
Peter Seddon recounts the remarkable visit to the county of William F. Cody and his Wild West spectacular
When it comes to a colourful story, truth really can rival fiction. Picture the scene. It is 3am at Derby Midland Station on 22nd October 1903. Out of the blackness arrives a special train from Loughborough. Soon three more have followed it. By first light there has emerged from the carriages and wagons the most remarkable assemblage ever
to decamp in the town. Even Royal visits could scarcely match the spectacle. The townsfolk of Derby
are in for a rare day.
Eight hundred men, women and children alight onto the platforms along with a staggering count of five hundred horses and a host of wagons and equipment. These are no everyday people most speak in the distinctive drawl of the American west for that is where they are from. Some with tar-black hair and skins the colour of desert earth speak in tongues never before heard in Derbyshire. The station porters look on with an alertness not usual for the hour curious, perhaps even wary, but eager to absorb the drama of the singular scene unfolding.
With a swiftness born of frequent practice military in precision, resembling an army on the move scores of cowboys, cowgirls and general hands emerge into the dark Derby morning. Then in the manner of a huge wagon train they move steadily down Midland Road towards the Osmaston Park showground on London Road where they will later entertain an excited throng of paying spectators. With them are a posse of US cavalrymen and one hundred Native American Indians chiefs, redskin braves, squaws and papooses from the Sioux, Cheyenne and other fabled tribes not long removed from real-life combat. Finally the star of the show steps from his carriage then billed the most famous man in the world United States soldier, bison hunter, cowboy and showman Colonel William Frederick Cody the stuff of legends Buffalo Bill.
That remarkable day is now beyond living memory but only a few decades ago family sages could regale their grandchildren with the tale that sounded all too tall but was in fact the truth the one about the day the great showman Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West extravaganza to town.
William Frederick Cody was born in Le Clare, Iowa, on 26th February 1846. After a spell in Canada the family moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, when Willie was seven. Four years later his father died, and at the age of just eleven Cody left home to herd cattle and to work as a driver on a wagon train, crossing the Great Plains several times. Though still a boy he lived a mans life. Both restless and adventurous of character, he had spells as a fur trapper and gold prospector before in 1860 joining the Pony Express mail company as a rider. After fighting in the American Civil War (1861-65) he married in 1866 and scouted for the army part of that tough role was to fight Indians who posed a threat. He also landed a contract to supply Kansas Pacific Railroad workers with buffalo meat, and killed so many bison that he gained the Buffalo Bill moniker that he took to his grave. He died in Denver, Colorado, on 10th January 1917.
Codys 70 years embraced many varied passages, but the one that ultimately prevailed was his self-created persona of showman and entrepreneur. And long after the authentic Western life had in truth passed into history, Cody perpetuated its seductive drama for sheer entertainment, touring both America and Europe with his spectacular travelling show for fully 30 years, and with it creating the romantic legacy of the Wild West which prevails even today.
He had first taken to the stage in Chicago in 1872 then aged 26 his charismatic character and daring exploits had become well-known and were thought worthy of dramatizing for an audience. Cody joined the company and performed as himself. Fact and fiction merged the legend had begun.
A year later he formed his own company the public lapped up his shows and in 1883 in Nebraska he founded Buffalo Bills Wild West spectacular. He first took it to Great Britain in 1887 as part of Queen Victorias Golden Jubilee celebration and Her Majesty was amused. In 1891 Cody was back in England he took the show to Nottingham complete with sharpshooter Annie Oakley some travelled from Derbyshire to witness the spectacle, but it was not until 1903 that Cody finally decamped here.
By then he had re-branded his company Buffalo Bills Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World so among the arrivals on Derby Station were also Gauchos, Mongols, Cossacks, Arabs and Turks all of whom later rode in exotic garb before a rapt audience.
Even some heavy showers failed to dampen the occasion, for every single seat of the 14,000 capacity arena erected by the company that very morning was under cover. A large crowd enjoyed the afternoon show at 2pm so too the 8pm repeat under floodlights specially erected by the company. The horsemen of the world led the opening grand parade. Wagon trains were attacked by marauding Indians, fierce shootouts enacted, bucking broncos ridden, horseback races contested, a settlers cabin besieged by whooping braves, and the Deadwood Stage ambushed. Trick-shot performers fired bullets from every angle, lassoes were hurled and twirled, and in the midst of it all Buffalo Bill galloped across the arena shooting at glass balls tossed into the air. He seldom missed.
Exhilarating it certainly was and no doubt draining for performers and hands alike but as soon as the spectacle ended work began to remove the entire assemblage and re-load the train. Everyone knew their role and by the small hours the locomotives steamed from Derby station to convey their exotic cargo to Burton-on-Trent where later that same day the whole process was repeated, the Burton public witnessing the farewell show of the 1903 mammoth run.
As part of the same tour prior to the Derby and Burton shows there was also a performance at Chesterfield, and in the 1904 season both Ilkeston and Glossop further enjoyed the treat but more than that, they had witnessed a veritable triumph of collective manpower, the speed and logistics of the entire operation a credit to the company ... could such an undertaking be completed today? In 1903 alone the company performed 333 shows! And so it continued, throughout Europe and America, until the final show in 1913.
Although the passage of time now precludes first-hand accounts, a number of curious stories with a local flavour have passed down the years. It was said that in Chesterfield two of the Native Indians died, and were buried in Boythorpe Cemetery one for the graveyard detectives. At Burton Buffalo Bill relaxed with a pint of Bass ale perchance a fancy of the brewery publicity department, but peddled shamelessly as fact all the same.
But strong liquor certainly played its part in Derby an hour prior to the evening show an Indian in full native costume was found worse for wear in Victoria Street, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. Apprehended by a policeman, Charlie Little Soldier slept it off in the lock-up and appeared next day in court. Unable to understand a single word, he was treated leniently and conveyed to Burton to re-join the troupe!
Yet arguably the most curious snippet of all concerns Codys ancestry. In his memoirs he states that his mother Mary Ann Bonsell Laycock descended from the Bunting family in England, who were early converts to the Quaker faith. Pioneer members of the Bunting clan left England in 1682 on voyages closely following the historic sailing of the Welcome which took William Penn to America. The Buntings settled in newly-founded Darby in Pennsylvania the state named after Penn leaving behind their native Derbyshire for good.
Genealogists latterly verifying Codys assertions have indeed traced the Bunting migrants to the Matlock area so a little bit of Derbyshire ran through the veins of the legendary Buffalo Bill. Colonel William Frederick Cody ever the showman might have appreciated that finale to his strange but true story.