IT was not until the spring of 1883 that Will was able to put into execution his long-cherished plan-to present to the public an exhibition which should delineate in throbbing and realistic color, not only the wild life of America, but the actual history of the West, as it was lived for, fought for, died for, by Indians, pioneers, and soldiers.
The wigwam village; the Indian war-dance; the chant to the Great Spirit as it was sung over the plains; the rise and fall of the famous tribes; the "Forward, march!" of soldiers, and the building of frontier posts; the life of scouts and trappers; the hunt of the buffalo; the coming of the first settlers; their slow, perilous progress in the prairie schooners over the vast and desolate plains; the period of the Deadwood stage and the Pony Express; the making of homes in the face of fire and Indian massacre; United States cavalry on the firing-line, "Death to the Sioux!"-these are the great historic pictures of the Wild West, stirring, genuine, heroic.
It was a magnificent plan on a magnificent scale, and it achieved instant success. The adventurous phases of Western life never fail to quicken the pulse of the East.
An exhibition which embodied so much of the historic and picturesque, which resurrected a whole half-century of dead and dying events, events the most thrilling and dramatic in American history, naturally stirred up the interest of the entire country. The actors, too, were historic characters-no weakling imitators, but men of sand and grit, who had lived every inch of the life they pictured.
The first presentation was given in May, 1883, at Omaha, Nebraska, the state Will had chosen for his home. Since then it has visited nearly every large city on the civilized globe, and has been viewed by countless thousands-men, women, and children of every nationality. It will long hold a place in history.
The "grand entrance" alone has never failed to chain the interest of the onlooker. The furious galloping of the Indian braves-Sioux, Arapahoe, Brule, and Cheyenne, all in war paint and feathers; the free dash of the Mexicans and cowboys, as they follow the Indians into line at breakneck speed; the black-bearded Cossacks of the Czar's light cavalry; the Riffian Arabs on their desert thoroughbreds; a cohort from the "Queen's Own" Lancers; troopers from the German Emperor's bodyguard; chasseurs and cuirassiers from the crack cavalry regiments of European standing armies; detachments from the United States cavalry and artillery; South American gauchos; Cuban veterans; Porto Ricans; Hawaiians; again frontiersmen, rough riders, Texas rangers-all plunging with dash and spirit into the open, each company followed by its chieftain and its flag; forming into a solid square, tremulous with color; then a quicker note of music; the galloping hoofs of another horse, the finest of them all, and "Buffalo Bill," riding with the wonderful ease and stately grace which only he who is "born to the saddle" can ever attain, enters under the flash of the lime-light, and sweeping off his sombrero, holds his head high, and with a ring of pride in his voice, advances before his great audience and exclaims:
"Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce to you a congress of the rough riders of the world."
As a child I wept over his disregard of the larger sphere predicted by the soothsayer; as a woman, I rejoice that he was true to his own ideals, for he sits his horse with a natural grace much better suited to the saddle than to the Presidential chair.
From the very beginning the "Wild West" was an immense success. Three years were spent in traveling over the United States; then Will conceived the idea of visiting England, and exhibiting to the mother race the wild side of the child's life. This plan entailed enormous expense, but it was carried out successfully.
Still true to the state of his adoption, Will chartered the steamer "State of Nebraska," and on March 31, 1886, a living freight from the picturesque New World began its voyage to the Old.
At Gravesend, England, the first sight to meet the eyes of the watchers on the steamer was a tug flying American colors. Three ringing cheers saluted the beautiful emblem, and the band on the tug responded with "The Star-Spangled Banner." Not to be outdone, the cowboy band on the "State of Nebraska" struck up "Yankee Doodle." The tug had been chartered by a company of Englishmen for the purpose of welcoming the novel American combination to British soil.
When the landing was made, the members of the Wild West company entered special coaches and were whirled toward London. Then even the stolidity of the Indians was not proof against sights so little resembling those to which they had been accustomed, and they showed their pleasure and appreciation by frequent repetition of the red man's characteristic grunt.
Major John M. Burke had made the needed arrangements for housing the big show, and preparations on a gigantic scale were rapidly pushed to please an impatient London public. More effort was made to produce spectacular effects in the London amphitheater than is possible where a merely temporary staging is erected for one day's exhibition. The arena was a third of a mile in circumference, and provided accommodation for forty thousand spectators. Here, as at Manchester, where another great ampitheater was erected in the fall, to serve as winter quarters, the artist's brush was called on to furnish illusions.
The English exhibited an eager interest in every feature of the exhibition -- the Indian war-dances, the bucking broncho, speedily subjected by the valorous cowboy, and the stagecoach attacked by Indians and rescued by United States troops. The Indian village on the plains was also an object of dramatic interest to the English public. The artist had counterfeited the plains successfully.
It is the hour of dawn. Scattered about the plains are various wild animals. Within their tents the Indians are sleeping. Sunrise, and a friendly Indian tribe comes to visit the wakening warriors. A friendly dance is executed, at the close of which a courier rushes in to announce the approach of a hostile tribe. These follow almost at the courier's heels, and a sham battle occurs, which affords a good idea of the barbarity of Indian warfare. The victors celebrate their triumph with a wild war-dance.
A Puritan scene follows. The landing of the Pilgrims is shown, and the rescue of John Smith by Pocahontas. This affords opportunity for delineating many interesting Indian customs on festive celebrations, such as weddings and feast-days.
Again the prairie. A buffalo-lick is shown. The shaggy monsters come down to drink, and in pursuit of them is "Buffalo Bill," mounted on his good horse "Charlie." He has been acting as guide for an emigrant party, which soon appears. Campfires are lighted, supper is eaten, and the camp sinks into slumber with the dwindling of the fires. Then comes a fine bit of stage illusion. A red glow is seen in the distance, faint at first, but slowly deepening and broadening. It creeps along the whole horizon, and the camp is awakened by the alarming intelligence that the prairie is on fire. The emigrants rush out, and heroically seek to fight back the rushing, roaring flames. Wild animals, driven by the flames, dash through the camp, and a stampede follows. This scene was extremely realistic.
A cyclone was also simulated, and a whole village blown out of existence.
The "Wild West" was received with enthusiasm, not only by the general public, but by royalty. Gladstone made a call upon Will, in company with the Marquis of Lorne, and in return a lunch was tendered to the "Grand Old Man" by the American visitors. In an after-dinner speech, the English statesman spoke in the warmest terms of America. He thanked Will for the good he was doing in presenting to the English public a picture of the wild life of the Western continent, which served to illustrate the difficulties encountered by a sister nation in its onward march of civilization.
The initial performance was before a royal party, comprising the Prince and Princess of Wales and suite. At the close of the exhibition the royal guests, at their own request, were presented to the members of the company. Unprepared for this contingency, Will had forgotten to coach the performers in the correct method of saluting royalty, and when the girl shots of the company were presented to the Princess of Wales, they stepped forward in true democratic fashion and cordially offered their hands to the lovely woman who had honored them.
According to English usage, the Princess extends the hand, palm down, to favored guests, and these reverently touch the finger-tips and lift the hand to their lips. Perhaps the spontaneity of the American girls' welcome was esteemed a pleasing variety to the established custom. At all events, her Highness. true to her breeding, appeared not to notice any breach of etiquette, but took the proffered hand and shook them cordially.
The Indian camp was also visited, and Red Shirt the great chief, was, like every one else, delighted with the Princess. Through an interpreter the Prince expressed his pleasure over the performance of the braves, headed by their great chief, and the Princess bade him welcome to England. Red Shirt had the Indian gift of oratory, and he replied, in the unimpassioned speech for which the race is noted, that it made his heart glad to hear such kind words from the Great White Chief and his beautiful squaw.
During the round the Prince stopped in at Will's private quarters, and took much interest in his souvenirs, being especially pleased with a magnificent gold-hilted sword, presented to Will by officers of the United States army in recognition of his services as scout.
This was not the only time the exhibition was honored by the visit of royalty. That the Prince of Wales was sincere in his expression of enjoyment of the exhibition was evidenced by the report that he carried to his mother, and shortly afterward a command came from Queen Victoria that the big show appear before her. It was plainly impossible to take the "Wild West" to court; the next best thing was to construct a special box for the use of her Majesty. This box was placed upon a dais covered with crimson velvet trimmings, and was superbly decorated. When the Queen arrived and was driven around to the royal box, Will stepped forward as she dismounted, and doffing his sombrero, made a low courtesy to the sovereign lady of Great Britain. "Welcome, your Majesty," said he, "to the Wild West of America!"
One of the first acts in the performance is to carry the flag to the front. This is done by a soldier, and is introduced to the spectators as an emblem of a nation desirous of peace and friendship with all the world. On this occasion it was borne directly before the Queen's box, and dipped three times in honor of her Majesty. The action of the Queen surprised the company and the vast throng of spectators. Rising, she saluted the American flag with a bow, and her suite followed her example, the gentleman removing their hats. Will acknowledged the courtesy by waving his sombrero about his head, and his delighted company with one accord gave three ringing cheers that made the arena echo, assuring the spectators of the healthy condition of the lungs of the American visitors.
The Queen's complaisance put the entire company on their mettle, and the performance was given magnificently. At the close Queen Victoria asked to have Will presented to her, and paid him so many compliments as almost to bring a blush to his bronzed cheek. Red Shirt was also presented, and informed her Majesty that he had come across the Great Water solely to see her, and his heart was glad. This polite speech discovered a streak in Indian nature that, properly cultivated, would fit the red man to shine as a courtier or politician. Red Shirt walked away with the insouciance of a king dismissing an audience, and some of the squaws came to display papooses to the Great White Lady. These children of nature were not the least awed by the honor done them. They blinked at her Majesty as if the presence of queens was an incident of their everyday existence.
A second command from the Queen resulted in another exhibition before a number of her royal guests. The kings of Saxony, Denmark, and Greece, the Queen of the Belgians, and the Crown Prince of Austria, with others of lesser rank, illumined this occasion.
The Deadwood coach was peculiarily honored. This is a coach with a history. It was built in Concord, New Hampshire, and sent to the Pacific Coast to run over a trail infested by road agents. A number of times was it held up and the passengers robbed, and finally both driver and passengers were killed and the coach abandoned on the trail, as no one could be found who would undertake to drive it. It remained derelict for a long time, but was at last brought into San Francisco by an old stage-driver and placed on the Overland trail. It gradually worked its way eastward to the Deadwood route, and on this line figured in a number of encounters with Indians. Again were driver and passengers massacred, and again was the coach abandoned. Will ran across it on one of his scouting expeditions, and recognizing its value as an adjunct to his exhibition, purchased it. Thereafter the tragedies it figured in were of the mock variety.
One of the incidents of the Wild West, as all remember, is an Indian attack on the Deadwood coach. The royal visitors wished to put themselves in the place of the traveling public in the Western regions of America; so the four potentates of Denmark, Saxony, Greece, and Austria became the passengers, and the Prince of Wales sat on the box with Will. The Indians had been secretly instructed to "whoop 'em up" on this interesting occasion, and they followed energetically the letter of their instructions. The coach was surrounded by a demoniac band, and the blank cartridges were discharged in such close proximity to the coach windows that the passengers could easily imagine themselves to be actual Western travelers. Rumor hath it that they sought refuge under the seats, and probably no one would blame them if they did; but it is only a rumor, and not history.
When the wild ride was over, the Prince of Wales, who admires the American national game of poker, turned to the driver with the remark:
"Colonel, did you ever hold four kings like that before?"
"I have held four kings more than once," was the prompt reply; "but, your Highness, I never held four kings and the royal joker before."
The Prince laughed heartily; but Will's sympathy went out to him when he found that he was obliged to explain his joke in four different languages to the passengers.
In recognition of this performance, the Prince of Wales sent Will a handsome souvenir. It consisted of his feathered crest, outlined in diamonds, and bearing the motto "Ich dien" worked in jewels underneath. An accompanying note expressed the pleasure of the royal visitors over the novel exhibition.
Upon another occasion the Princess of Wales visited the show incognito, first advising Will of her intention; and at the close of the performance assured him that she had spent a delightful evening.
The set performances of the "Wild West" were punctuated by social entertainments. James G. Blame, Chauncey M. Depew, Murat Halsted, and other prominent Americans were in London at the time, and in their honor Will issued invitations to a rib-roast breakfast prepared in Indian style. Fully one hundred guests gathered in the "Wild West's" dining-tent at nine o'clock of June 10, 1887. Besides the novel decorations of the tent, it was interesting to watch the Indian cooks putting the finishing touches to their roasts. A hole had been dug in the ground, a large tripod erected over it, and upon this the ribs of beef were suspended. The fire was of logs, burned down to a bed of glowing coals, and over these the meat was turned around and around until it was cooked to a nicety. This method of open-air cooking over wood imparts to the meat a flavor that can be given to it in no other way.
The breakfast was unconventional. Part of the bill of fare was hominy, "Wild West" pudding, popcorn, and peanuts. The Indians squatted on the straw at the end of the dining-tables, and ate from their fingers or spread the meat with long white sticks. The striking contrast of table manners was an interesting object-lesson in the progress of civilization.
The breakfast was a novelty to the Americans who partook of it, and they enjoyed it thoroughly.
Will was made a social lion during his stay in London, being dined and feted upon various occasions. Only a man of the most rugged health could have endured the strain of his daily performances united with his social obligations.
The London season was triumphantly closed with a meeting for the establishment of a court of arbitration to settle disputes between America and England.
After leaving the English metropolis the exhibition visited Birmingham, and thence proceeded to its winter headquarters in Manchester. Arta, Will's elder daughter, accompanied him to England, and made a Continental tour during the winter.
The sojourn in Manchester was another ovation. The prominent men of the city proposed to present to Will a fine rifle, and when the news of the plan was carried to London, a company of noblemen, statesmen, and journalists ran down to Manchester by special car. In acknowledgment of the honor done him, Will issued invitations for another of his unique American entertainments. Boston pork and beans, Maryland fried chicken, hominy, and popcorn were served, and there were other distinctly American dishes. An Indian rib-roast was served on tin plates, and the distinguished guests enjoyed -- or said they did -- the novelty of eating it from their fingers, in true aboriginal fashion. This remarkable meal evoked the heartiest of toasts to the American flag, and a poem, a parody on "Hiawatha," added luster to the occasion.
The Prince of Wales was Grand Master of the Free Masons of England, which order presented a gold watch to Will during his stay in Manchester. The last performance in this city was given on May 1, 1887, and as a good by to Will the spectators united in a rousing chorus of "For he's a jolly good fellow!" The closing exhibition of the English season occurred at Hull, and immediately afterward the company sailed for home on the "Persian Monarch." An immense crowd gathered on the quay, and shouted a cordial "bon voyage."
One sad event occurred on the homeward voyage, the death of "Old Charlie," Will's gallant and faithful horse. He was a half-blood Kentucky horse, and had been Will's constant and unfailing companion for many years on the plains and in the "Wild West."
He was an animal of almost human intelligence, extraordinary speed, endurance, and fidelity. When he was quite young Will rode him on a hunt for wild horses, which he ran down after a chase of fifteen miles. At another time, on a wager of five hundred dollars that he could ride him over the prairie one hundred miles in ten hours, he went the distance in nine hours and forty-five minutes.
When the "Wild West" was opened at Omaha, Charlie was the star horse, and held that position at all the exhibitions in this country and Europe. In London the horse attracted a full share of attention, and many scions of royalty solicited the favor of riding him. Grand Duke Michael of Russia rode Charlie several times in chase of the herd of buffaloes in the "Wild West," and became quite attached to him.
On the morning of the 14th Will made his usual visit to Charlie, between decks. Shortly after the groom reported him sick. He grew rapidly worse, in spite of all the care he received, and at two o'clock on the morning of the 17th he died. His death cast an air of sadness over the whole ship, and no human being could have had more sincere mourners than the faithful and sagacious old horse. He was brought on deck wrapped in canvas and covered with the American flag. When the hour for the ocean burial arrived, the members of the company and others assembled on deck. Standing alone with uncovered head beside the dead was the one whose life the noble animal had shared so long. At length, with choking utterance, Will spoke, and Charlie for the first time failed to hear the familiar voice he had always been so prompt to obey:
"Old fellow, your journeys are over. Here in the ocean you must rest. Would that I could take you back and lay you down beneath the billows of that prairie you and I have loved so well and roamed so freely; but it cannot be. How often at break of day, the glorious sun rising on the horizon has found us far from human habitation! Yet, obedient to my call, gladly you bore your burden on, little heeding what the day might bring, so that you and I but shared its sorrows and pleasures alike. You have never failed me. Ah, Charlie, old fellow, I have had many friends, but few of whom I could say that. Rest entombed in the deep bosom of the ocean! I'll never forget you. I loved you as you loved me, my dear old Charlie. Men tell me you have no soul ; but if there be a heaven, and scouts can enter there, I'll wait at the gate for you, old friend."
On this homeward trip Will made the acquaintance of a clergyman returning from a vacation spent in Europe. When they neared the American coast this gentleman prepared a telegram to send to his congregation. It read simply: "2 John i. 12." Chancing to see it, Will's interest was aroused, and he asked the clergyman to explain the significance of the reference, and when this was done he said: "I have a religious sister at home who knows the Bible so well that I will wire her that message and she will not need to look up the meaning."
He duplicated to me, as his return greeting, the minister's telegram to his congregation, but I did not justify his high opinion of my Biblical knowledge. I was obliged to search the Scriptures to unravel the enigma. As there may be others like me, but who have not the incentive I had to look up the reference, I quote from God's word the message I received : "Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink; but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full."