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Circling the Wagons

At a recent history conference I learned – among other things – that the stereotypical movie depiction of circling the wagons against an imminent Indian attack (a plot device used in countless Hollywood movies and TV westerns), originated not on the Oregon Trail but with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And if you know your American history, this was in the late nineteenth century, when America’s frontier was all but gone. Westward wagon trains beginning in 1841 did circle their wagons at the end of long dusty days on the trail – but only to create a corral to prevent their livestock from straying. The humans slept on the outside of the wagon formation.

There was little chance of an Indian attack, in reality – at least in the early days of westward migration. Natives were interested in stealing livestock but not in risking their necks in what would have been sheer suicide. This was sport for them, and later on – after it became apparent that the newcomers were not simply passing through, but settling in – might have considered the theft as “tribute” for trespassing and – more seriously – disrupting the seasonal migrations of game. It is however, true that skilled Native riders did use their horses as shields and could actually shoot under the horse’s head at a full gallop while clinging to the opposite side. Impressive!

The original inhabitants of North America were what we would today deem “street wise”. And in warfare, they didn’t take unnecessary chances, nor attack when they knew they couldn’t win. It used to drive the cavalry crazy. US military training was based largely on the European model and was so completely opposite to how Indians fought that the Army in its naivete attributed the enemy’s caution to cowardice. Custer’s biggest fear at the Little Big Horn was that the Indians would slip away without engaging. Time and again the warriors had eluded him, and he was so desperate for a fight that he ignored the warnings of his scouts and rushed headlong into a suicide mission.

Buffalo Bill had been in the West since his brief stint with the Pony Express as an orphaned teenager, so he knew the circled wagon thing was bogus. Although his goal was to capture the spirit and authenticity of the West he knew was dying, he was also a savvy showman. Even when his show was staged outdoors, the venue was invariably a confined oval or round space surrounded by grandstand seating. With such a limited performance space Buffalo Bill sometimes had to be creative in staging his shows, and circling the wagons and directing the Indians on horseback to ride around the perimeter turned out to be the most economical use of the space.

That’s show biz. The fact that this particular element of the show was totally fictitious apparently bothered no one. He did have real-life cowboys and Indians, sharpshooters and buffalo, ropers and trick-riders, plus the original Deadwood Stage. Spectators from the Queen of England to anyone with the price of a ticket were more than satisfied with the entertainment. Buffalo Bill apparently subscribed to a theory promulgated by a highly respected latter-day western historian, Watson Parker, who famously stated “If it ain’t true, it oughta be.”

And now you know the rest of the story.

Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.



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