The man behind Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Nate Salsbury

Nate Salsbury

Nate Salsbury

Nate Salsbury was the business genius behind the Buffalo Bill Wild West.  It was Salsbury who created the most popular show, “the Congress of Rough Riders of the World.”  for the European tour in 1892.  In this show, mounted military troupes from many nations drilled in the arena alongside the American cowboys and Indians. Public interest in American military adventures abroad led to the addition of Hawaiian cowboys and Cuban, Philippine, and Japanese cavalry units.

Salsbury was an actor / comedian who created a traveling comedy troupe that proved very successful and profitable.  His business acumen caught the eye of Cody, who asked him to manage business operations for the growing show.

Salsbury had a tough job because the logistics of the show were formidable.  In the late 1890s, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West transported as many as five hundred cast and staff members, including twenty-five cowboys, a dozen cowgirls, and one hundred Indian men, women, and children. They all were fed three hot meals a day, cooked on twenty-foot-long ranges. The show generated its own electricity and staffed its own fire department. Performers lived in wall tents during long stands or slept in railroad sleeping cars when the show moved daily. Business on the back lot was carried on in what one reporter called “a Babel of languages.” Expenses were as high as $4,000 per day.

Circus great James A. Bailey, of Barnum & Bailey, joined Cody and Salsbury in 1895 and revolutionized their travel arrangements. The show was loaded onto two trains totaling fifty or more cars. Strings of flat cars could be linked together with ramps for loading wagons from the back forward. Besides performers and staff, the trains transported hundreds of show and draft horses and as many as thirty buffalo. The show carried grandstand seating for twenty thousand spectators along with the acres of canvas necessary to cover them. The arena itself remained open to the elements. Advance staff traveled ahead of the show to procure licenses and arrange for the ten to fifteen acres required for the show lot, preferably close to the railroad; to buy the tons of flour, meat, coffee, and other necessities; and to publicize and advertise.

In 1899, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West covered over 11,000 miles in 200 days giving 341 performances in 132 cities and towns across the United States. In most places, there would be a parade and two two-hour performances. Then the whole show would be struck, loaded, and moved overnight to the next town. Europeans (and their armies) were often as fascinated by the ingenuity and efficiency behind the scenes as they were by the show itself. Not many shows could match Buffalo Bill’s in scale.

Thank you to Paul Fees, Former Curator Buffalo Bill Museum for much of this information


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