They called her the Queen of the Sidesaddle in the 1870s-80s, but her entrances were anything but ladylike.
Emma Lake Hickok would burst into the arena standing atop a pair of chestnut mares, one foot in each saddle, then race around the ring at top speed. To top it off, she’d gather both sets of reins in one hand and tip her hat to the crowd.
And, yes, she also did some tricks riding sidesaddle.
Emma was just one of the entertainers who used Western legend, culture and history to fascinate folks around the world. For her, it was a family affair: her father was a circus clown, her mother, an internationally famous trick rider and her stepfather—Wild Bill Hickok—spent a little time with Buffalo Bill before deciding that he preferred to face down bad men to facing an audience.
Like Wild Bill, many of the performers had honest-to-God experience as cowboys or cowgirls (or Indians). Some were just as famous as the Prince of Pistoleers—outlaws such as Frank James, Cole Younger and Henry Starr all hit the bright lights, as did lawman Bill Tilghman. Bob Ford, the assassin of Jesse James, told the story of his deadly deed in theatres throughout the U.S. (although he frequently had to duck various objects hurled in his direction). Others were not as legit, perhaps, but as long as they could entertain a crowd, who cared?
Author Chris Enss introduces many of the female performers in her book,
Buffalo Gals: Women of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (TwoDot Press). Several of the photos in the slideshow above come from that publication. Others come from the incomparable collection of Robert G. McCubbin.
The entertainers of the Old West had a lasting impact. For ticket buyers in rural Indiana or small town Pennsylvania or big cities like New York, Paris or Montreal, the acts were not just representations of the West—they were the West. The myths and legends they helped create still exist today, for better and for worse.
So without further adieu, ladies and gentlemen, gracing the pages of True West magazine, performing feats of incredible skill and courage—the great stars of the Wild West!
Buffalo Guys by Robert G. Mccubbin
Buffalo Gals By Chris Enss
Robert G. McCubbin, is a world-renown collector and authority on Old West photographs. Chris Enss is the author of Buffalo Gals: Women of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which is available from Globe Pequot at or 800-243-0495. GlobePequot.com Photo Gallery
101 Ranch Real Wild West Show The 101 Ranch Real Wild West was a by-product of a successful Oklahoma ranch empire. Operated by the three Miller brothers, with Joe, shown at right, being the oldest and most prominent, the show was extremely successful and spawned personalities such as Lucille Mulhall, Bill Pickett, Will Rogers and Tom Mix.
American Amazon Adele Von Ohl Parker, whose mother had taught her to ride as a child, was a member of Buffalo Bill’s American Amazon act, adding her skill of trick riding to the repertoire. After touring with the show, she went on to work as a stunt rider in motion pictures. Buffalo Bill said of his Amazon performers, they’re a “mixture of feminine delicacy and masculine will.”
– Courtesy Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, P.69.20Z9 –
Beautiful Rancheras Appearing alongside Emma Hickok (first slide) during the 1887-88 season, Della Ferrell (inset) of Colorado became a member of the group of Western girls billed as “Beautiful Rancheras” in 1887. Georgia Duffy (left) of Wyoming had joined the year before. These women would ride together in relay acts or separately performing rope and riding routines. Della preferred to ride sidesaddle to add even more of a challenge to her acts of derring-do. Georgia was a horsewoman known for her impeccable style of dress. When the two of them would reach the finish line after a race and remove their hats, the crowd gasped. These mesmerizing riders were women!
– Della photo: Courtesy Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, P.6.211; Georgia photo: Courtesy Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, Vincent Mercaldo Collection, P.71.396.1 –
Buffalo Bill—Frontiersman and Wild west Showman Colonel William F. Cody—“The Most Famous American of His Age”—dominated Wild West performances for more than 40 years. In 1873, Cody began his career as an actor performing Western melodramas in city halls and opera houses across the nation. Having acquired the name Buffalo Bill before he went on the stage, Cody was a respected scout and hunter. His stage career lasted more than 12 years, during which time Cody continued his career as an army scout and often portrayed real-life experiences. Launching his tent show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, in 1883, he nonetheless continued his stage performances. His final stage appearance was for “The Prairie Waif” in Denver on April 5, 1886. This rare photograph depicts a young Buffalo Bill. Although most likely taken early in his stage career, he looks even younger than the photos of him taken with Texas Jack Omohundro and Ned Buntline, the original cast of “The Scouts of the Prairie.” The character on the left is unknown. Does any reader know who he might be?
Buffalo Bill—Last Years Frequently plagued by financial problems, often brought about by his generosity and his poor investments, Buffalo Bill Cody continued to put together Wild West shows right up until the last few months of his life. He never lost his unsurpassed showmanship. This photo, taken shortly before his death on January 10, 1917, reveals that he was a commanding figure right up until the end.
Champion Lady Bucking-Horse Rider The rough-riding talents of Lulu Parr were not first seen at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Her skill with the gun caught the attention of Pawnee Bill, who signed her to his show in 1903. Five years later, she toured with another group in Europe but came back to work for Pawnee Bill in 1911; by then, his program had joined that of Buffalo Bill’s. Buffalo Bill was so in awe of Lulu’s willingness to ride unbroken ponies that he presented her with an ivory-handled Colt single-action revolver, engraved with “Buffalo Bill Cody to Lulu Parr—1911.” Lulu again left to join the 101 Ranch Real Wild West program in 1913, but she was back home with Pawnee Bill three years later. Lulu didn’t retire until 1929; she died in 1960 from complications suffered during a stroke. Among the memorabilia she left behind was the Colt Buffalo Bill had given her.
Cole Younger & Frank James’ Wild West Show In 1903, two famous outlaws of the Old West lent their names to the “Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West Show.” A Missouri newspaper proclaimed, “The show is without exception the poorest ever seen in our city.” Neither reformed outlaw actually performed. Cole Younger (above left) was released from the Minnesota state prison in 1901 and was prohibited by his parole agreement from actually appearing in the show. He was billed as “supervising,” while Frank James (above right), who was never convicted of a crime, “directed” the performances. The show lasted less than one season.
Starting in 1883, Buffalo Bill took his show on the road, wowing audiences with performers like these cowgirls and cowboys from the 1898 show. Over the next 20 years, the show would feature more than 1,200 performers from all over the world in their best attire.
– Courtesy Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, William Cody Bradford Collection –
Act One: Buffalo Guys and Gals Emma Lake Hickok was called the Queen of the Sidesaddle in the 1870s-80s. She would burst into the arena standing atop a pair of chestnut mares, one foot in each saddle, then race around the ring at top speed.
Evil Spirit of the Plains Dr. William F. Carver did not have the genuine Western experience of Buffalo Bill or Texas Jack. Like another famous Old West “Doc,” he was a dentist, not a physician. He began his career as an expert marksman in 1878, having done nothing of significance up to that time. Nonetheless, he was Buffalo Bill’s partner in the first Wild West show, which opened in Omaha in 1883. Doc and Bill did not get along, though, and they soon parted ways. Doc continued running his own shows, featuring his shooting ability (he was nicknamed “Evil Spirit of the Plains” for his deadly skill in buffalo hunting), for many years. Yet, he never approached Buffalo Bill in popularity.
King of the Cowboys Cowboys were one of the most popular attractions of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Leading them was William L. “Buck” Taylor, a real cowboy from Texas, towering six-feet five-inches in height. Billed “King of the Cowboys,” Buck was popular with the crowds and became one of the first cowboy dime novel heroes. As all good cowboys should do, he bought a ranch in Wyoming after he retired from Buffalo Bill’s show.
Matinee Idols The two “matinee idols” in this tintype, circa 1870s, were more than likely only actors and not real Western frontiersmen. They undoubtedly performed in one of the early Western melodramas that followed on the coattails of Buffalo Bill’s success.
Mexican Joe Jose Barrera was a bronc riding and fancy roping vaquero with Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West. His daredevil ways made him one of the show’s top attractions. Mexican vaqueros were an important part of many of the Wild West shows.
Minnie Lester We have no record of Minnie Lester who must have been one of the hundreds of cowgirl performers in stage and Wild West shows from the 1880s throughout the turn of the 20th century. This photo dates from the 1890s.
– Buffalo Gals on this page courtesy Robert G. McCubbin –
Peerless Wing and Rifle Shot “And the whole time we were one great family, loyal to the great Buffalo Bill. His words were more than most contracts,” Annie Oakley (above) said in 1925. Buffalo Bill was also fond of his sharpshooter, writing in her autograph book in 1890, “To the loveliest and truest little woman, both in heart and aim, in the world.” Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler joined the Wild West cast in 1885, and Annie’s act was so important that it was listed second in the show’s rundown. She retired in 1902, after injuries from a train accident made it too painful for her to continue riding. She and her husband settled in Greenville, Ohio, and gave shooting lessons. Little Miss Sure Shot would die in 1926 from pernicious anemia.
The Scouts of the Prairie Dime novelist Ned Buntline (above, left) handed Italian ballerina and actress Giuseppina Morlacchi (above right) a copy of the three-act Western, “The Scouts of the Prairie,” a few hours before the first rehearsal in December 1872. She would play the Indian Princess, Dove Eye, and although a featured attraction, the true stars of the show were frontier scouts that Buntline had convinced to join the company: Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro (above center). “The Scouts of the Prairie” was one of the original Wild West shows. Critics loved Cody and Omohundro so much that the two agreed to stay on and appear in “Scouts of the Plain,” inviting Wild Bill Hickok to appear with them on stage. Omohundro fell in love with his costar and married Morlacchi in 1873; the two of them went off to start their own acting troupe in St. Louis. Buffalo Bill, of course, would become the founder of the most famous Wild West show known to man.
Showmen Triumvirate Buffalo Jones (at left) was a hunter, adventurer and naturalist, best known for his efforts to save the buffalo from extinction. He was more of a lecturer than a performer at the time this photograph was taken with his friends, the two most prominent Wild West showmen, Buffalo Bill (center) and Pawnee Bill. These men sure knew how to dress!
Unknown Buffalo Gal Another performer in costume, most likely an actress appearing in a Western melodrama in the 1880s.
White Chief of the Pawnees Pawnee Bill (Gordon W. Lillie) was first exposed to the Wild West show business when he served as an interpreter for the Pawnee Indians for Buffalo Bill’s first show in 1883. He launched Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West Exhibition and Indian Encampment in 1888. A moderately successful rival of Buffalo Bill, they remained on friendly terms and occasionally helped one another. When both were struggling financially, they merged shows in 1908, a partnership that lasted for five years. In his later years, Pawnee Bill was a successful business man and established Pawnee Bill’s Buffalo Ranch near Pawnee, Oklahoma, now a state park and very much worth a visit. In this photo, the young Pawnee Bill is outfitted in Mexican Vaquero style.