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HISTORY

The Time Buffalo Bill Eclipsed the Eiffel Tower’s Inauguration

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West fantasy was so popular that even the most iconic landmark in Paris couldn’t handle it.

Who doesn’t love a good old Wild West story? We all do, but probably not as much as the French did in the late 19th century. By that time, there was just one thing Parisians think about and that was the iconic Buffalo Bill. In a similar way that The Beatles conquered the world with Beatlemania, William Frederick Cody, best known as Buffalo Bill, managed to inspire millions all over the US and Europe.

The former military man born in Iowa made a name for himself through his exploits at a very young age. His adventures in battle made him a star he soon found how to make it really profitable. By 1883, he made his big debut as a showman with the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Needless to say, his big company toured all over the country amassing a great fortune and immense popularity.

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Buffalo Bill’s Parisian Tour

Just four years later, Buffalo Bill was ready to conquer the European market and decided to take his tour across the Atlantic ocean. Just to paint you a picture, his crew consisted of over 120 actors, 97 Native Americans, 180 horses, 18 real buffalos, 10 elk, 4 donkeys, and 2 deers. And so, the entire crew arrived in England in 1997 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

Buffalo Bill was received with wide arms to the point that it’s said that it was Queen Victoria’s first public appearance since the passing of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861. Royalty, aristocracy, and commoners together enjoyed this Wild West fantasy sparking Buffalo Bill’s popularity even more. But besides the show itself, there was another element that would make Buffalo Bill such an enchanting figure in France.

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Buffalo Bill was well acquainted with Rosa Bonheur, a very popular French artist. Together, they would go on hunting trips and she would make paintings of their adventures. Her artwork portraying Native Americans and local animals was selling like hotcakes, increasing this unique fascination for the Wild West in France.

In this context, Buffalo Bill knew Paris would be the perfect city to take his “majestic” show. In 1889, two years after his London success, William Frederick Cody and all his crew were ready to perform at the Universal Exposition which wasn’t the only exciting thing that was happening in the “City of Light.”

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France was commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Storming of Bastille, and the Universal Exposition wanted to celebrate this historical hiatus with all its might. To do so, one of the main attractions planned was the inauguration of the now-iconic landmark, the Eiffel Tower. As a matter of fact, Buffalo Bill and his crew were among the first people in history to climb the tower.

However, the people of Paris weren’t as excited about a landmark celebrating a historical milestone of their country but ended up being more starstruck by the Wild West icon. According to newspapers, while the Eiffel Tower registered about 12,000 visitors a day during the first months of its inauguration, Cody’s Wild West Show attracted over 30,000 spectators a day.

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It wasn’t only a craze over Buffalo Bill himself, but the great headliners he invited to his 7-months residency. Wild West personalities like Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, and the iconic Chief Sitting Bull were some of the paid performers on the Parisian tour. Fun fact: the Sioux Chief ended up becoming great friends with Cody and would often be seen and photographed together.

The controversy behind Buffalo Bill

Now, this sounds really funny and idyllic, at least for people back in the day, but the relationship between White and Native Americans, as we know isn’t a Bonanza episode. Buffalo Bill might’ve had a more modern perspective on this matter, but ended up perpetuating the colonizing ideas of his time.

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William Frederick Cody was very respectful of Native American culture and would urge his audience to understand that they “had every right to resist what was happening to them, and to fight back.” Still, even when they were paid, he made a profit from portraying them as the villains of his White Wild West fantasy. Not only that, the narrative was so distorted, that the Native American performers would be booed and insulted as a consequence of that.

In a time with no television, no internet, and no social media, Buffalo Bill became a massive star in the world. The cultural impact he had had no precedent, but beyond the legend and the myth lies a hurtful narrative that is still damaging today.

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