Thursday, 3 May 2012
The Wild West Show of Buffalo Bill
This story is very similar, but with different emphasis, to a chapter in Verrill's autobiography, 'Never a Dull Moment'./drf
The Wild West Show of Buffalo Bill
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From ‘Trail and Saddle’, a ‘Department of True Stories’ in Double Action Western, March 1953; researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, May 2012.
WHEN, Colonel Cody started his original Wild West Show he was in partnership with Dr. William Carver, the famous rifle shot. Carver, whose parents had been killed in an Indian raid, had been taken captive and reared by the Sioux. With the signing of the peace treaty, he had been taken from the Indians and had been adopted by a dentist who taught the young man his trade. He had married a New Haven, Connecticut, woman and lived only a couple of blocks from my home. His son, Billy, and, I were great chums. His father would entertain us by the hour with stories of his life among the Sioux.
He was a most picturesque figure; over six feet tall and heavily built. He was a fine looking man with yellow hair falling to his shoulders and with a sweeping blonde mustache. He invariably wore a broad-brimmed, low-crowned sombrero and a heavily-beaded vest; when the show was in town he donned a suit of fringed buckskin and knee-high boots. He always rode a striking bay-and-white pinto with ornate silver-decorated saddle and bridle and long saddle-bag flaps of jaguar skin, dashing at a full gallop through the city streets between his office and his home.
Of course, Billy and I had the run of the show when it was in town and we became very friendly with Buffalo Bill Cody. At that time, many famous Indian warriors and chiefs were with the show. Among them was Shot-in-the-Eye, Gray Wolf, Gall, Spotted Tail, Crazy Horse, Yellow Elk, Tall Man and others, all living with their families in their tepees in the field on the outskirts of the city; there were the scouts, cowboys and other members of the Wild West Show.
In those days, the cow punchers and plainsmen bore little resemblance to those of today. All wore their hair hanging to their shoulders; all wore flat-brimmed, low-crooned sombreros; and the majority wore fringed-buckskin coats with vests of beaded buckskin or "pinto'' calfskin.
Although some wore buckskin pants, most of them preferred corduroys tucked into high, soft leather-topped boots; and when mounted, they wore chaps that were seatless leather pants with fringe down the seams. Yet, the artists who illustrate western stories laid in the sixties and seventies, draw punchers with high-crowned Stetsons, short hair, fancy shirts, levis and fancy-stitched, high-heeled boots mounted on saddles with steel horns and bucking rolls, and wearing bat-wing chaps, although none of these were in use until well into the eighties.
Invariably, Dr. Carver "stole" the show, for he was probably the most expert rifle shot who ever lived. One of his stunts was to throw a brick into the air, break it with a shot from his rifle and smash three of the fragments before they fell to the ground. It was his skill with the rifle that aroused Cody's jealousy, for he was a poor shot. The result was that the partnership was dissolved; Buffalo Bill taking over the show while Carver went on tour giving exhibitions of marksmanship. On one occasion, he made a heavy wager that he could score six thousand hits, on objects thrown into the air, in the space of six days. The stunt took place in the old skating-rinks on Chapel Street in New Haven; Billy and I helped cool, clean and reload the six rifles Carver used. At first, lumps of coal were thrown into the air; but the fine dust, as the bullets smashed them was unbearable—so small blocks of wood about two inches square were substituted. He won the wager easily, often making two (and sometimes three) hits on a block and finishing the score nearly twelve-hours before his time expired.
It was his phenomenal skill with a rifle that so impressed me, that I determined to become an expert myself. I never even approached Carver in rifle-shooting; but with his help, I did become sufficiently expert to break a brick, and one of its fragments; to hit a quarter, or even a dime in the air— while, my greatest feat was to snap a .22 cartridge into the air and explode it with a shot from my rifle.
Little did I dream, when with Billy Carver I met Colonel Cody and the Indians, scouts and punchers of the Wild West Show, that years later I would take a part in the show myself.
At that time one of the students at Yale—where my father was a professor—was a plump-face Sioux Indian with an ochreous skin and a perpetual grin. His English name was John Rogers but he was always known as Johnny-Punkin-Face. Although ordinarily a thoroughly-civilized Indian wearing conventional clothes, whenever Buffalo Bill's Wild West came to town Johnny would temporarily go native, and for the duration of the show would don buckskin, paint and feathers and join his fellow tribesmen.
On one occasion when the Wild West was scheduled to arrive, Johnny suggested that I should join him and play Indian. Naturally I jumped at the chance and I had the time of my life. Johnny introduced me to his Indian friends and relatives, among them an enormously fat, jolly squaw who constantly was surrounded by a bevy of children ranging from papooses on cradle-boards, to boys and girls six to eight years old. They were not all hers by any means; but she loved children and attracted them like a magnet, and she had been appropriately nicknamed Too-Many-Toes.
JOHNNY found an Indian costume that was a good fit and with Annie Oakley helping with my makeup and Johnny Baker offering advice, I became transformed into a very realistic looking young Sioux. In fact, I was such a genuine appearing Indian that I completely fooled the cowboys, scouts and others. From that time on, whenever the Wild West Show came to town, I temporarily joined the show. To be sure I soon left off posing as an Indian and joined Vicente Oropeza's Rurales; but I had acquired a vast amount of Indian lore, learned to speak Sioux after a fashion, mastered the Indian sign language and made many lifetime Indian friends—among them; a young Oglala Sioux named White Eagle. He was an exceedingly smart, intelligent youth; he spoke fourteen Indian dialects—in addition to Spanish, English, French and some German and Russian—and was the show's official interpreter. He had been adopted by Buffalo Bill and his Christian name was George Cody, although he much preferred White Eagle. Long years after the Wild West Show was a thing of the past, I met White Eagle at his home in North Carolina; and although I never would have recognized him he knew me instantly and greeted me by my Sioux name, Tchanka Tanku (Big Road).
Vicente Oropeza was a remarkable man. He had been a bullfighter and bandit before he turned Rurale and as he often said: "A most excellent bandit." He was an enormously tall, heavily built Mexican but as light on his feet as a cat. He was the first man ever to spin a rope and in some ways was the best rope-spinner I ever have seen—and I knew Will Rogers, personally.
On one occasion, Oropeza leaped onto the long dining-tent table and spun his rope back and forth over the dishes, never more than an inch or two above them, but never touching them, regardless of their various heights. Another of his feats was to stand blindfolded with his back to a horse and rider and call out by which foot he would loop the horse. Judging only by the sound of the oncoming horse, he would spin his riata backward and never missed his throw.
Although a great deal has been written in regard to Buffalo Bill's ability as a rifle-shot, in reality he was a very poor marksman. His one "exhibition" stunt was to ride at a slow single-foot and break glass balls tossed up by another horseman. But the rifle he used was bored smooth, and was loaded with shot cartridges, while the glass balls were never more than a few yards distant. Moreover, Cody was not at all popular with the members of the show. He was inclined to be a bit arrogant, to assume a somewhat patronizing attitude, and was regarded as a bit of a stuffed shirt. Partially, this feeling was due to the fact that he invariably stopped at the best hotels and in the parade wore a complete costume of snow-white fringed buckskin, a white ten-gallon hat, white gauntlets, and rode in a showy Stanhope carriage drawn by a tandem of white horses.
To the cow punchers, and others of the show, this savoured of too much "swank". They felt that he should have his quarters on the show grounds; that he should eat with the rest in the dining tent. They did not realize that Cody's "showing-off" was the best of publicity. Buffalo Bill was a showman first and a former scout and buffalo hunter second; and it must be admitted that he was one of the most striking and famous figures of the Old West. It is not at all surprising that, as was also the case with so many of the Old Timers of the frontiers, his life and his deeds should have been glamorized and exaggerated in fiction.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.