Retro: When real Wild West stars came riding into Sheffield

Buffalo Bill's Wild west
Buffalo Bill's Wild west

The musical Annie Get Your Gun at the Crucible features famous sharpshooter Annie Oakley, and the real Annie visited Sheffield 125 years ago.

Annie was one of the stars of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a huge pageant that toured the US and Europe, recreating the frontier life on a huge scale.

Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill

Col William Cody (Buffalo Bill’s) arrival was heralded by the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent newspaper “with his remarkable colony of Indians, cowboys and Mexicans”.

The report added: “Short Bill and Lone Bull, Scatter and Revenge, Indian chiefs who helped the famous Sitting Bull to worry the United States government a short time since, will be peacefully encamped at Owlerton, along with Long Wolf, No Neck and others who lent their aid to bring about a peaceful solution of the difficulty, and the neutral flag of Col Cody (Buffalo Bill) will be waving over all.”

They were hostages for the good behaviour of their people following the recent ‘Indian wars’, given permission to tour by the US government.

Disregarding the long history of Native Americans, the piece talked about “simple-minded red men” getting the chance to marvel at the splendid history of the ‘old world’.

The correspondent reported that the cast and crew of 250 people would be camped on a 10-acre field near Owlerton Church, transporting everything for the show in three trains with 24 carriages.

He described: “The Indians will dwell in their own village, the picturesque tents pitched and arranged as if upon the prairie, and the rest will occupy a frontier camp .”

As well as the chance to look around, visitors could enjoy “a programme of almost thrilling interest” in a grand arena 200 yards by 90 yards that could seat 15,000 spectators at a time.

“Sensational feats of marksmanship are combined with marvellous dexterity and daring in horsemanship and the most realistic representations are given of the experiences of perhaps the most adventurous race of men upon the globe.”

A detachment of cowboys, scouts and Native Americans were set to tour the city’s principal streets ahead of the first performances.

The first train arrived at Wadsley Bridge railway station at 4am on the wet Sunday morning of August 10, 1891 with what the Independent described as “the vulnerable herd of buffaloes and somewhere near 200 houses”.

The camp “sprang up, as if by magic.” A team of 60 workmen plus 100 local recruits put together the arena and camps “with military precision”.

The correspondent described the Native Americans: “They are mostly men of powerful physique, with faces full of character and force.

“The long black hair and the absence of any beard or whiskers gives the men a somewhat feminine look but there is nothing feminine in the determined set of the lips that divide high and prominent cheekbones from the massive lower jaws, and their aspect as a whole fully confirms the published statements as to the dogged and unconquerable courage with which they have met their foes”.

A description of the first show said that it started in a downpour.

Spectators, including many city dignitaries, queued for 90 minutes to get in.

Hundreds more thronged surrounding high points and a cemetery to get a view for free.

After a horse-riding display, “Miss Annie Oakley next displayed her skill in shooting. She hails from the far West and her performance alone is well worth a visit to the show”.

Buffalo Bill showed off his shooting skills on horseback, followed by “an Indian attack on the Deadwood mail coach and the rescue by Col Cody and a band of cowboys”. The coach was the real one.

Visitors also saw a buffalo hunt, a frontier cabin attack and cowboys lassoing and riding bucking horses.

The reporter mentioned that Buffalo Bill carried a dagger made by Sheffield firm Joseph Rodgers and Sons.

One of the Independent’s staff later interviewed Buffalo Bill “in his cosy canvas apartment, decorated with skins and Indian work”.

He wrote: “Although he has lived the most eventful of lives, there is nothing in his stalwart form to indicate that he has been wounded thrice, that he has many a time and oft carried his life in his hands or that he has taken part in some of the most deadly encounters”.

Col Cody said: “I was never more astonished than I was yesterday at seeing the enormous number of people in the streets to see our procession.

“I should think not less than 150,000 persons witnessed our novel show as we passed through the streets.

“We opened very well yesterday, quite as well as we have in any city in England this season, and I anticipate we shall do well here.”

He spoke of his history, talking about his father who fought and died in the war against slavery. After that he began working to support his family in Kansas, first as a cattle driver, then as a trapper and hunter, then a Pony Express rider.

He acted as the US army’s chief scout in the Indian wars.

He had travelled 700 miles the previous autumn to try to prevent further bloodshed by attempting to talk to Sitting Bull but the army slaughtered the Native Americans at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Crowds were still attending the last performances on August 16 and almost immediately afterwards the entire camp was dismantled to travel on to Stoke.

Buffalo Bill drove the Deadwood stage for two performances, the first time he had done so in 15 years.

n The show was hit by tragedy when 25-year-old prominent member of the Sioux tribe, Paul Eagle Star, died at Sheffield Infirmary.

His foot was almost severed riding out of the arena as his horse lost its footing.

Lockjaw set in and the house surgeon decided to amputate to save his life, an inquest heard. Col Cody’s representative told the jury he was very grateful for the treatment Paul Eagle Star received, saying he had never seen such kindness and devotion given to a stranger.

Paul Eagle Star’s body was taken away in a coffin after the inquest and taken to Nottingham by private train, so that the company could pay him their last respects.

He was then buried in London on land owned by the colonel.

Decades later, his body and that of other members of the troop who died while in England were taken back to their homelands for burial.

Many Sheffielders believed he was buried in Wardsend cemetery.