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All the World's a Frontier

How Cossacks Became Cowboys

By Thomas M. Barrett | HUMANITIES, January/February 2001 | Volume 22, Number 3

An expert cast of international frontiersmen accompanied Buffalo Bill's Wild West in the summer of 1891—Mexican vaqueros, Arab horsemen, and Cossacks from the Russian frontier. Buffalo Bill Cody would later add Argentinean gauchos, Boers, and even Canadian trappers. The internationalism of the Wild West show was an important part of the way America viewed its frontier and the world.

International riders were added to the show eight years after Buffalo Bill had begun staging his wild west routines. Nate Salsbury, the manager of Buffalo Bill's Wild West, had become concerned that they might lose their Indian performers after controversy arose about their mistreatment, so in 1891 he hired twelve Cossacks, six gauchos, and Syrian and Arab horsemen, along with German, British, French, Russian, and American soldiers. Thus was born Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.

Although the continued creation of new attractions made good marketing sense for Wild West shows, it threatened to undermine their claim of authenticity and realism. Buffalo Bill promoted his displays as educational exhibits and not shows—in fact, it was called the "Wild West," never the "Wild West Show." All of the shows employed real Western figures, reenacted historical and current events, and claimed that they were reporting, not staging; edifying, not diverting. Journalist Brick Pomeroy praised "this incomparable representation of Western pluck, coolness, bravery, independence and generosity" in the 1894 Buffalo Bill program, remarking, "All of this imaginary Romeo and Juliet business sinks to utter insignificance in comparison to the drama of existence as is here so well enacted."

American riding styles and frontiersmen were exotic when compared to the industrial East Coast, but familiar nonetheless. The acts-Indians attacking stagecoaches, Indians attacking villages, Indians attacking Custer, cavalries saving the day—were restagings of the real drama of American settlement. As Pawnee Bill put it, "All is real. Everything is a fact . . . . It is an object lesson in the story of a great people, a narrative told and illustrated by themselves."

But once Wild West shows introduced foreign acts, what was to distinguish them from the parade of eccentricities that was the circus? At first the incorporation of foreign acts presented a dilemma. Certain acts such as the African bushmen, South Sea islanders, and Australian aborigines were clearly considered exotic; but how to classify the Cossacks, these frontier settlers and irregular cavalry from the far reaches of the Russian empire? As expert horsemen, the Cossacks resembled American frontiersmen, but they wore strange hats and had long beards.

Cossacks performed an ancient style of trick riding called dzhigitovka, which probably originated in the Caucasus or Central Asia. At full gallop, they stood up, stood on their heads, jumped to the ground and back to the saddle, and fought with swords. The Daily Tribune reported that they were worthy to be compared to American horsemen: "These stalwart cowboys of the Russian steppe equal and excel the 'cowpunchers' of the West in displays of horsemanship."

The paper also cautioned readers to remember that the difference between a Wild West show and a circus was that in the circus, performers did things they learned only for the circus, while Wild West stars "perform feats which are learned for quite other purposes, and, for the most part, for some important purpose."

According to show programs, the Cossacks guarded the Russian frontiers from the Black Sea to the Asiatic border, fought Turks and Tatars, and defended the Russian frontier against the tribes of the Caucasus. The Cossack served as a foil for the American cowboy. Wild West shows helped polish up the cowboy's image by presenting respectable, attractive, and accomplished riders, and by setting them against the international rough riders.

As the United States looked beyond its borders, Wild West shows quickly appropriated current events. By 1898, Pawnee Bill was staging incidents from the Spanish-American War such as "The Fall of Luzon" with "genuine Filipino soldiers" and "actual participants in the battle."

Buffalo Bill soon added a Cuban contingent to his show. The Washington Observer noted the connection between contemporary reality and performance in July 1898: "Every act on the program is suggestive of war, which is perhaps the secret of the wonderfully increased success of the 'Wild West' this season." After the war Teddy Roosevelt himself got into the act, leading Rough Rider Reunions, which appear oddly similar to Wild West shows with their titles such as "Grand Patriotic Production in Five Pictures of the Battle of San Juan" and all the riding, roping, and parading.

Beginning in 1901 Cody staged "The Allied Powers at the Battle of Tien-Tsin or the Capture of Pekin," loosely based on the rescue of diplomats who had been taken prisoner during the Boxer Rebellion in Peking the year before. In a colorful outburst of international cooperation, U.S. infantry and marines, British marines, Welsh fusiliers, East Indian Sikhs, and German, Russian, French, and Japanese forces stormed large gates representing moats and scaled the city wall to rescue the envoys. The show's program called it "China's audacious affront to the civilized world, by her barbaric attack upon the official representatives at court." Cody coaxed American Indians to play part of the Chinese.

The Russo-Japanese War proved more difficult to categorize. Pawnee Bill mounted a Russo-Japanese War act in 1904, but was reluctant to take sides between "the mighty Slav race and the Yankees of the East." The Washington Post claimed that the crowd failed to applaud the Cossacks and that popular sentiment was on the side of the Japanese, despite the fact that "the plainsmen from Siberia demonstrated their equestrine superiority."

A few years later, with World War I approaching, Wild West shows changed direction again. Cody switched to a theme of preparedness and set up recruiting stands at his show to encourage volunteers to sign up. The program notes promised "life in the trenches; the perilous work of the scout and the sharpshooter; charges by cavalry and mounted infantry; artillery in action, and other spectacular incidents of an offensive and defensive army." But soon, Americans realized that life in the trenches was hardly an entertaining spectacle.

The 101 Ranch show went one step further. Anticipating a war with Mexico as a part of World War I, show owner Joseph Miller telegraphed President Wilson with an offer to raise and equip a contingent of Native Americans, Oklahoma cowboys, and Mexicans to head south. Wild West shows lost their European performers, and the Miller Brothers had their animals confiscated in Britain for the war effort. Reality finally crowded performance off the stage.

Many attribute the decline of the Wild West show to changes such as cinema becoming the favorite popular entertainment. The cinema accustomed audiences to a tighter narrative. Wild West shows provided the audience with sequential, but not linear, attractions. This imparted a narrative complexity that permitted audiences to root one moment against the Indian, and the next, for him. It also allowed showmen to display parallel acts that did not intersect with the cowboy and Indian stories but offered a point of comparison. A few films dealt with international rough riders, but they never attained great popularity. And when Cossacks entered early American cinema, they were no longer American-style frontiersmen, but czarist gendarmes repressing civil liberties.

Thomas M. Barrett is a professor at St. Mary's College in St. Mary's City, Maryland. He received a $4,000 summer stipend from NEH for his research. The above is adapted from his book in progress, Wild and Crazy Guys : Russia and Eastern Europe in American Popular Culture.