When Buffalo Bill met the Queen, 1887

Did she really bow down before the banner?

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For the first time in history, since the Declaration of Independence, a sovereign of Great Britain had saluted the star spangled banner…

On 9th May 1887, a much-anticipated phenomenon came to London’s Earl’s Court pleasure gardens and showground: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Excitement had built up over several weeks beforehand, and even threatened to overshadow Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee celebrations. The show formed the centrepiece of the American Exhibition, a more focused event akin to the Great Exhibition that the queen herself described for us in the last Histories. William Cody (1846–1917) had spent his teens as a Pony Express rider and army scout, and in his thirties became known as a legendary buffalo hunter. His stage debut was in 1872, and he founded his legendary Wild West show in 1883.

Getting the show to London was a major undertaking: it included transporting 200 performers, 180 horses, numerous buffalo, elk and other animals, along with an entire stagecoach, across the Atlantic; meanwhile around 1,200 men in London worked to assemble the stadium, which had seating for 20,000 people and standing room for as many again. Journalists thronged to Gravesend when the entourage arrived, one of them sneaking on board the State of Nebraska to report on the spectacle. And the show itself was a roaring success, running for more than 300 performances to around 2.5 million people in total.

One of those people was the queen herself, who was urged to go by her son the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), who had had a private viewing on 5th May. Although this was Victoria’s golden jubilee year, her personal grief at the loss of Prince Albert in 1861 had prevented her from attending events. Her visit to Buffalo Bill’s show on 11th May 1887 was in fact her first such public appearance since – although it meant that the scheduled show (with a full booking of 40,000 people) had to be cancelled abruptly, and in fact ‘public’ here meant a royal audience of only 26 people.

Rather wonderfully, we have first-hand accounts from multiple perspectives of when Victoria met Bill and his team.

So, 26 years on from our last dip into Queen Victoria’s journals, here she is again:

Hurried back & took a cup of tea before to Earl’s Court, where we saw a very extraordinary & interesting sight a performance of “Buffalo Bill’s” “Wild” “West”.1 We sat in a box in large semi-circle. It is an amphitheatre with a large open space, all the seats being under cover. All the different people, wild, painted Red Indians from America, on their wild hare backed horses, of different tribes, — cow boys, Mexicans, &c. all came tearing round at full speed, shrieking & screaming, which had the weirdest effect. An attack on a coach, & on a ranch, with an immense deal of firing, was most exciting, so was the buffalo hunt, & the bucking ponies, that were almost impossible to sit. The cow boys, are fine looking people, but the painted Indians, with their feathers, & wild dress (very little of it) were rather alarming looking, & they have cruel faces. A young girl, who went through the “haute école”, certainly sat the most marvellous plunges beautifully, sitting quite erect, & being completely master of her horse. There were 2 other girls, who shot with unvarying aim at glass halls. Col: Cody “Buffalo Bill”, as he is called, from having killed 3000 buffaloes,2 with his own hand, is a splendid man, handsome, & gentlemanlike in manner. He has had many encounters & hand to hand fights with the Red Indians, Their War Dance, to a wild drum & pipe, was quite fearful, with all their contortions & shrieks, & they came so close. “Red Shirt” the Chief of the Sioux tribe, was presented to me & so were the Squaws, with their papooses (children), who shook hands with me, Lorne had met me, & presented the different gentlemen of the Executive Council. The performance ended, we drove straight to Paddington Station & returned to Windsor, getting there by ½ p. 7.

We also have Bill Cody’s own account of events, written a year later as The Wild West in England:

“By command of Her Majesty, the Queen”—it must be understood, that the Queen never requests, desires, or invites, even her own Prime Minister to her own dinner-table, but “commands” invariably—a special performance was given by the Wild West, the understanding being that Her Majesty and suite would take a private view of the performance… But as with Mahomet and the mountain, the Wild West was altogether too colossal to take to Windsor, and so the Queen came to the Wild West—an honor of which I was the more deeply sensible on account of its unique and unexampled character. I am bound to say that the whole troupe, myself included, felt highly complimented… Her Majesty would arrive, I was informed, at five o’clock, and would require to see everything in an hour. A soldier is frequently ordered to accomplish the impossible—I had been tolerably used to that sort of thing, and have knocked the impossible stiff and cold on more than one occasion; but this was a poser. We would do our best and acquit ourselves like men and women; and that was all that could be said about it. We erected a dais for Her Majesty and had a box specially constructed, draped with crimson velvet and decorated with orchids, leaving plenty of accommodation for the attendant notables. All was made as bright and cheerful as possible, and these preparations completed we waited, very much in frame of mind like a lot of school boys attending an examination.

With royal punctuality the sovereign lady and her suite rolled up in their carriages, drove round the arena in state, and dismounted at the entrance to the box… During our introduction a very notable incident occurred, sufficient to send the blood surging through every American’s veins at Niagara speed. As usual in our entertainment, the American flag, carried by a graceful, well-mounted horseman, was introduced, with the statement that it was “an emblem of peace and friendship to all the world.” As the standard-bearer waved the proud emblem above his head, Her Majesty rose from her seat and bowed deeply and impressively towards the banner. The whole court party rose, the ladies bowed, the generals present saluted, and the English noblemen took off their hats. Then—we couldn’t help it—but there arose such a genuine heart-stirring American yell from our company as seemed to shake the sky. It was a great event. For the first time in history, since the Declaration of Independence, a sovereign of Great Britain had saluted the star spangled banner, and that banner was carried by a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West! All present were constrained to feel that here was an outward and visible sign of the extinction of that mutual prejudice, sometimes almost amounting to race hatred, that has severed the two nations from the times of Washington and George the Third to the present day. We felt that the hatchet was buried at last and the Wild West had been at the funeral.

Under the stimulus of the Queen’s presence, the performance was admirably given. The whole company seemed infected with a determination to excel themselves. Personally I missed not a single shot; the young ladies excelled themselves in the same line; the charges on the Indians were delivered with a terrific vim; and the very bucking horses seemed to buck like steam-engines under the influence of that half minute of excitement. But perhaps this last may have been fancy. Better than all, the Queen not only abandoned her original intention of remaining to see only the first acts, but saw the whole thing through, and wound up with a “command” that Buffalo Bill should be presented to her. Her compliments, deliberate and unmeasured, modesty forbids me to repeat.

A kindly little lady, not five feet in height, but every inch a gracious queen. I had the pleasure of presenting Miss Lilian Smith, the mechanism of whose Winchester repeater was explained to Her Majesty, who takes a remarkable interest in fire-arms. Young California spoke up gracefully and like a little woman. Then Nate Salsbury3 was commanded to the presence and introduced, and took his blushing honors with all the grace of the polished American gentleman he is. Next came Red Shirt, gorgeous in his war-paint and most splendiferous feather trappings. His proud bearing seemed to fetch the royal party immensely, and when he quietly declared that “he had come a long way to see Her Majesty, and felt glad,” and strolled abruptly away with dignity spread all over him three inches thick, the Queen smiled appreciatively… Finally two squaws were summoned, and came racing across the arena, their little brown papooses slung behind them… The papooses were handed up for inspection, and behaved themselves nicely while Her Majesty petted them. And so the Queen’s visit came to an end, with a last command, expressed through Sir Henry Ponsonby, that a record of all she had seen should be sent on to Windsor. A great occasion, of which the mental photograph will long remain with me.

One of those ‘young ladies’ was the legendary sharp-shooter Annie Oakley (1860–1926). She, too, reminisced about this day, for a series of autobiographical newspaper articles written shortly before (and curtailed by) her death:

Victoria’s jubilee event was over. She was tired and leaving for Scotland. On her way through London she stopped to witness a private exhibition of the West. The gates were closed to all commoners.

She sat alone in her queen’s box, while her suite encircled her in other boxes. She acknowledged my bow, and after my shooting half arose from her chair, with a little nod and wave of her hand indicating that she wished to hold an audience with me.

I stepped near, and she asked where and when I was born, at what age I took up shooting and several other questions, and finished by saying, “You are a very, very clever little girl.” To be called “clever” by Queen Victoria meant the highest compliment, and with a “I thank you, your majesty,” I bowed myself out.

And here, perhaps best of all, is what Black Elk (1863–1950), one of Bill’s Native American performers, had to say (reminiscing in 1931):4

One day we were told that Majesty was coming. I did not know what that was at first, but I learned afterward…
    She came to the show in a big shining wagon, and there were soldiers on both sides of her, and many other shining wagons came too. That day other people could not come to the show—just Grandmother England and some people who came with her.
    Sometimes we had to shoot in the show, but this time we did not shoot at all. We danced and sang, and I was one of the dancers chosen to do this for the Grandmother, because I was young and limber then and could dance many ways. We stood right in front of Grandmother England. She was little but fat and we liked her, because she was good to us. After we had danced, she spoke to us. She said something like this: “I am sixty-seven years old. All over the world I have seen all kinds of people; but to-day I have seen the best-looking people I know. If you belonged to me, I would not let them take you around in a show like this.” She said other good things too, and then she said we must come to see her, because she had come to see us. She shook hands with all of us. Her hand was very little and soft. We gave a big cheer for her, and then the shining wagons came in and she got into one of them and they all went away.
    In about a half-moon after that we went to see the Grandmother.5 They put us in some of those shining wagons and took us to a very beautiful place where there was a very big house with sharp, pointed towers on it. There were many seats built high in a circle, and these were just full of Wasichus6 who were all pounding their heels and yelling: “Jubilee! Jubilee! Jubilee!” I never heard what this meant.
    … Then we saw Grandmother England again. She was sitting in the back of the wagon and two women sat in the front, facing her. Her dress was all shining and her hat was all shining and her wagon was all shining and so were the horses. She looked like a fire coming…
    When she came to where we were, her wagon stopped and she stood up. Then all those people stood up and roared and bowed to her; but she bowed to us. We sent up a great cry and our women made the tremolo. The people in the crowd were so excited that we heard some of them got sick and fell over. Then when it was quiet, we sang a song to the Grandmother.
    That was a very happy time.
    We liked Grandmother England, because we could see that she was a fine woman, and she was good to us. Maybe if she had been our Grandmother, it would have been better for our people.

(For the full story of Buffalo Bill’s visit to Britain, I recommend Alan Gallop’s book Buffalo Bill’s British Wild West, or Caroline Roope’s article in the February 2021 issue of Discover Your Ancestors.)

1

Yes, Her Majesty did like the inverted commas.

2

And the rest… Bill is known to have killed more than 4,200 between 1867 and 1868 alone.

3

Bill’s theatrical manager.

4

As recorded in the book Black Elk Speaks (2014).

5

This refers to the jubilee celebrations in June.

6

A Lakota word for white people, with connotations of ‘fat and greedy’!