Buffalo Bill Makes Stage Debut in 'The Scouts of the Prairie'

In December 1872 Cody traveled to Chicago to make his stage debut with friend Texas Jack Omohundro in The Scouts of the Prairie, one of the original Wild West shows produced by Ned Buntline.

During the 1873-74 season, Cody and Omohundro invited their friend James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok to join them in a new play called Scouts of the Plains.

The troupe toured for ten years and his part typically included an 1876 incident at the Warbonnet Creek where he claimed to have scalped a Cheyenne warrior, purportedly in revenge for the death of George Armstrong Custer.

It was the age of great showmen and traveling entertainers. Cody put together a new traveling show based on both of those forms of entertainment. In 1883 in the area of North Platte, Nebraska he founded "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," (despite popular misconception, the word "show" was not a part of the title) a circus-like attraction that toured annually.

All the while Cody was earning a reputation for skill and bravery in real life, he was also becoming a national folk hero, thanks to the exploits of his alter ego, "Buffalo Bill," in the dime novels of Ned Buntline (pen name of the writer E. Z. C. Judson). Beginning in 1869, Buntline created a Buffalo Bill who ranked with Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and Kit Carson in the popular imagination, and who was, like them, a mixture of incredible fact and romantic fiction.

In 1872 Buntline persuaded Cody to assume this role on stage by starring in his play, The Scouts of the Plains, and though Cody was never a polished actor, he proved a natural showman, winning enthusiastic applause for his good-humored self-portrayal. Despite a falling out with Buntline, Cody remained an actor for eleven seasons, and became an author as well, producing the first edition of his autobiography in 1879 and publishing a number of his own Buffalo Bill dime novels. Eventually, there would be some 1,700 of these frontier tales, the majority written by Prentiss Ingraham.

Cody's exploits came to the attention of Edward Z. C. "Ned Buntline" Judson (1821-1886), author of dime novels. Buntline invited Cody to appear with Omohundro and James B. "Wild Bill" Hickok in a touring stage "wild west show," Scouts of the Prairie. Notwithstanding that Cody was not a good actor, his natural showmanship was popular with audiences. The show was less popular with critics. Buntline claimed to have written the script in four hours. Some critics wondered why it took so long. One critic for the Chicago Times wrote:

"Such a combination of incongruous drama, execrable acting, renowned performers, mixed audience, intolerable stench, scalping, blood and thunder, is not likely to be vouchsafed to a city a second time, even Chicago."

In 1872, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack met in Chicago with dime novelist, Ned Buntline, and decided to accept his proposal to bring to the eastern stage a taste of the adventures which they experienced on the western prairies as scouts.

In his autobiography, Buffalo Bill described the opening night of the play as follows:

“The Scouts of the Prairie was an Indian drama, of course, and there were between forty and fifty “supers” dressed as Indians. In the fight with them, Jack and I were at home. We blazed away at each other with blank cartridges, and when the scene ended in a hand-to-hand encounter, a general knock-down and drag-out, the way Jack and I killed Indians was “a caution”. We would kill them all off in one act, but they would come up again ready for business in the next. Finally, the curtain dropped, the play was ended, and I congratulated Jack and myself on having made such a brilliant and successful debut.”