I thought that for Old Glasgow’s first birthday that I’d regale you with a tale from the Ol’ Wild West (of Scotland).
The American West has long grabbed the attention of those living in drab old blighty and captivated them with tales of infinite dust-bowls, gunslingers, Native tribes, cowboys, lassos, damsels, and clichés.
While the concept of the Western may have died, not even to be resurrected by Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ (although there’s still time Quentin, never stop trying), there is still something appealing to the modern sensibility about the idea of boundless frontiers and the exploration of the unknown.
This delight in the unknown was just as prominent at the height of the British Empire. Britannia ruled the waves and- for that matter- most of the land but she didn’t rule America. It had only been a matter of a century since the British had been unceremoniously turfed out of the New World and she was losing many of her people to this promised land which had begun anew in the wake of a devastating civil war.
It was into this environment that “Buffalo” Bill Cody and his troupe rolled into Glasgow in November 1891, having been booked for a residency in Dennistoun’s East End Exhibition Buildings.
The famous American scout and bison hunter’s (who won the exclusive right to the Buffalo name in an eight-hour buffalo shooting match) troupe included the legendary Annie Oakley (on whom Annie Get Your Gun is based) whose most famous trick was to repeatedly split a playing card, edge-on, and put several more holes in it before it could touch the ground, all from a distance of 90 feet (27m).
The show, titled The Drama of Civilization, presented a biased view of how the American frontiersmen had imposed ‘civilisation’ on the ‘Red Indian’.
A lot of you might remember the famous ‘Ghost Dance Shirt' which was displayed in Kelvingrove until 1999. It was said to have been worn by a Lakota Sioux warrior killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre. This massacre, in which 300 Lakota Sioux (mostly women and children) died took place in December 1890, less than a year before Cody and his show came to Glasgow.
Quite how that was worked into the show and given as an example of ‘civilising’ the Lakota Sioux, we’ll never know but I assume there wasn’t a sequence where US Cavalrymen chased down and murdered unarmed Natives.
The shirt held a grizzly fascination for me as a kid with the simple cotton torn in several places by bullets and the suggestion of dried blood around the holes. You can see the letter of sale addressed the curator of ‘Calvin Grove Museum’ from George Crager, the show manager and famed Lakota translator.
The show itself was an incredible success, regardless of the proximity of many of its cast to events going on at home. Glasgow was captivated by their appearances and many of the cast began to feel quite at home in Glasgow, perhaps with the exception of Charging Thunder, who ended up spending a month in Barlinnie for assaulting the afore mentioned Mr Crager.
They returned in 1904, touring the length and bredth of Scotland. If you’re interested in finding out more about Buffalo Bill and his travelling shows, check out this crowdfunded documentary and put your money where your mouth is, Pardner.
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