In 1887, a troupe of horses crossed the Atlantic, sailing out of New York harbor as excited crowds looked on and a cowboy band played "The Girl I Left Behind Me," a tune that some of the horses, perhaps cavalry veterans, may have recognized. But this time, they were not heading off to war. They were traveling to the Old World, to re-enact scenes from a war they had helped to win. They were part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, nearly two-hundred of them, along with 18 buffalo, various mules, elk, Texas steers, donkeys, and deer, as well as Buffalo Bill himself, Annie Oakley, King of the Cowboys Buck Taylor, and nearly 100 Lakota men, women, and children.
The great horseman Buffalo Bill had not fully figured the needs of the equine stars of his show, on this, his first sojourn overseas. Belowdecks, the ventilation was poor and they - the wind-drinkers as Native Americans called them - had trouble breathing. In a last ditch effort, the crew of the State of Nebraska cut holes through the timber hull so the horses could survive. The first life-saving streams of air filled their starving lungs, but although replenished, their instinct would have been to flee; the information they received, the scent, would have been one of no-land, no-grasses on which to feed, but of course their escape route was blocked. Several buffalo and elk did not survive the crossing and were thrown overboard. On the seventh day, wrote Buffalo Bill, a storm came up that raged so fiercely that for a time the ship had to lay to, and during which our stock suffered greatly, but we gave them such good care, and had such excellent luck as well, that none of our animals, save one horse, died on the trip.
Another one, 19-year-old Charlie, a favorite of Buffalo Bill's, was about to put on his last show. Charlie, aka Charlie Almost Human, was a half-blood Kentucky horse purchased as a five-year-old in Nebraska. Charlie was an animal of almost human intelligence, extraordinary speed, endurance and fidelity, Cody wrote. When the horse was young, he rode him on a wild horse hunt, chasing the herd down after a 15-mile chase. Once, someone bet Bill $500 that he couldn't ride Charlie across a 100-mile stretch of prairie in ten hours. Charlie went the distance in nine hours and forty-five minutes. When Grand Duke Alexis visited the frontier on his famous buffalo hunt, he asked Buffalo Bill for a good horse. Cody handed him the reins to Charlie.
As Buffalo Bill sailed into port in 1887, Spain was about to lose Mexico to the US, the West had been fenced in, and the Indian was not just vanishing but nearly purged from his homeland. The children of England had accomplished much since the Boston Tea Party and now on board the State of Nebraska, they were met by a tug flying American colors. The passengers cheered and the cowboy band struck up "Yankee Doodle."
At the Albert Dock, the astonishing traveling version of the Horse Nations debarked, including Mustang Jack and Cherokee Bill and Mr. and Mrs. Walking Buffalo, Mr. and Mrs. Eagle Horse, Moccasin Tom, Blue Rainbow, Iron Good Voice, Mr. and Mrs. Cut Meat, Double Wound, the visionary Black Elk, and the sea-weary animals, and all headed to London where they would reside for the next several months in a huge camp next to a specially built arena. The encampment was frequently visited by royals, regular citizens, and reporters, all thrilled by the noble savages of the American frontier, red and white man alike. Of the cowboy Buck Taylor, a London reporter was moved to write in rhyming couplets:
The Cowboy King, Buck Taylor
Is quite an equine Nailer
What man dare he will dare O
Pick up his wide sombrero,
From off the ground
While at full bound
His steed away does tear O!
The Indians too received much coverage in this 19th Century media circus, with gallons of ink spilled over their novel appearance, and barely a trickle exploring the story behind the show. Many had joined the show as a way to make money at $25 per month, it paid more than reservation jobs but less than what cowboys earned. Others, such as Black Elk, had joined up for the adventure and for the knowledge. "I wanted to see the great water," he would say later, "the great world and the ways of the white men; this is why I wanted to go. I made up my mind - I was going away to see the white man's ways. If the white man's ways were better, why I would like to see my people go that way. Equally popular among spectators and reporters were the horses, especially the bucking broncos, including a gray horse from Wyoming named Pat Crow, who came to be known as the "horse that bucked around the world."
But perhaps most of all, everyone came to see Charlie, who had been the star of the Wild West show since it opened in 1883. At the Wild West camp, Buffalo Bill would race Charlie across the grounds, shooting glass balls that had been tossed up as targets. The Prince of Wales was evidently so taken with Charlie that while visiting the camp, he asked for the saddle to be removed so he could make a closer inspection. Grand Duke Michael of Russia, cousin of Alexis, showed up to ride Charlie and chase buffalo. And The English Metropolitan welcomed the frontier horses with breathless prose, in an article entitled "Mustangs, Horses, Mules, Some 250 Animals, 166 Horses."
"These are not remarkable for height or the ordinary points of thoroughbreds," the paper said, "but they possess staying powers than an English racer does not. They are suitable for riding unshod over rough country for many miles together. Bronco horses, mustangs, or buck jumpers are to be seen here - animals that have never been, and never can be tamed; whose kick is death, and upon whose back no man could remain for a moment."
In the past, when Queen Victoria asked for a command performance, the theater came to her. Now, Grandmother England, as the Indians called her, came to the theatre to Buffalo Bill, although even he acknowledged that the Wild West show was too big to bring to Windsor Castle. The queen paid homage to the Native American members of the show, and in return, as Black Elk later recounted, "They sent out the women and men's tremolo and all sang her a song - it was a most happy time!" The company put on its dazzling show, which always began with Buffalo Bill galloping into the ring, dressed in buckskin and sombrero, bringing his horse to a halt, doffing his sombrero and announcing: "Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce to you a congress of rough riders!" - and then the mounted cast would parade through, and proceed to present American history by way of five epochs,from the Forest Primeval, in which Indians and animals living together before the arrival of Columbus, to Custer's Last Stand, which featured some of the Indians who were in the actual battle and then Buffalo Bill galloping onto the scene with the words "Too Late!" projected onto a screen behind the giant mural of the battle.
At the conclusion of the performance, Cody presented Red Shirt to the Queen, followed by two Indian women whose papooses were strapped to their shoulders. The red babies were passed up and petted,Cody later recalled. Queen Victoria was so taken with the show that she ordered another command performance. Within days, General Sherman received word of the success of the spectacle and wrote to Buffalo Bill. "I am especially pleased," he said, "with the compliment paid you by the Prince of Wales, who rode with you in the Deadwood coach while it was attacked by Indians and rescued by cowboys. Such things did occur in our days, but they never will again."
Half-way back to America, 21-year-old Charlie became ill. Plenty of horses live well past 21 and the record indicates that no one knows what befell the equine superstar. But with the frontier tamed and the country having less use for the horse, hundreds of thousands of Charlie's own kind would soon be rounded up and sent to the front for the first wars of the 20th Century. While the Atlantic crossing did not take Buffalo Bill's ship as far south as the horse latitudes where conquistadors once threw horses overboard to lighten their load as they crossed to the New World, the half-way point would have placed the ship directly due north of that deadly region, and perhaps, as sailors have reported hearing the moans and wails of those who have been claimed by the seas, Charlie too heard a distant nicker on the wind, the last notes of a panicked whinny, calling from the lower depths, echoes of another era in which conquistadors had thrown their steeds into the part of the ocean that came to be called the horse latitudes, in order to lighten their loads.
By all accounts, Charlie went quickly. Buffalo Bill had gone belowdecks on the morning of May 14, 1888 to give him some sugar. Less than an hour later, the groom reported that Charlie was sick. Cody went down again and noticed that he had a chill. "In spite of all we could do," Cody wrote, "he grew rapidly worse and at two o'clock on the morning of May 17 he died." The crew took him to the main deck, wrapped him in a canvas shroud, and covered him with an American flag. He lay in state that day and everyone reminisced about their times with the horse. Cody stood alone near Charlie and was heard to say the following:
"Old fellow, your journeys are over. Obedient to my call, gladly you bore your burden on, little knowing, little reckoning what the day might bring, shared sorrows and pleasures alike. Willing speed, tireless courage, you have never failed me. Ah, Charlie, old fellow, I have had many friends, but few of whom I could say that I loved you as you loved me. Men tell me you have no soul; but if there is a heaven and scouts can enter there, I'll wait at the gate for you, old friend."
At eight o'clock that evening, candles were lit and with all hands and members of the Wild West show assembled, the band played "Auld Lang Syne." Charlie was lowered into the water, his bones laid bare over time and perhaps borne by current toward the grave of his ancestors - and the ship's cannon boomed farewell.
When it was all over - the traveling, the re-enactments - Buffalo Bill came to Hollywood to participate in the new myth-making machinery, and produce a movie called "The Indian Wars." Among other things, it featured General Miles and the cavalry acting out the massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee, with everyone playing themselves. The film fared poorly, criticized by Indians for excluding women and children from the massacre scene and not appreciated by whites, who were not moved by the anti-climactic ending in which Indians were assimilated and went to school, instead of going on the warpath. The strange relic is said to have disappeared, with a few remnants rumored to exist somewhere, a celluloid anti-grail that bears nothing transformative or magical.
With the failure of his film and the vanishing of the Wild West show, Buffalo Bill got sick and prepared for his final scene, calling in his friends for a last round of poker just before he died in 1917. Although he wanted to be buried in Wyoming, the Denver Post paid his wife $10,000 to have him buried in Colorado, so that's where he was laid to rest, on Lookout Mountain in the town of Golden, overlooking the plains. Months earlier, so many people had gathered for Buffalo Bill's funeral that the country had its first traffic jam - or so newspapers reported.
His body was carried by caisson past a sea of spectators, escorted by fellow members of an Elk Lodge in top hats. One of his favorite horses, McKinley, followed the caisson. When the casket was lifted and carried into the Lodge, according to a witness, McKinley tried to break free from his handler. As the Lodge doors closed, the horse whinnied, bolted, and ran to the caisson, like Sitting Bull's horse, looking for his rider. Then he sniffed and whinnied again. The handler grabbed his reins and led McKinley away. But he turned his head and stared at the doors, longing for Buffalo Bill.
*This was first posted last year on Memorial Day, excerpted from Deanne's book,
Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, a Los Angeles Times "best book 08," winner of the Caifornia Book Award silver medal for nonfiction, and ravely reviewed in the Atlantic Monthly, Economist, Orion, Seattle Times, NPR's On Point, Tucson Citizen, and many other places. It was just published in a new, softcover edition. America's wild horses, spiritual, historical, and possibly direct descendants of Buffalo Bill's horses, remain under siege, stranded in government housing and facing voracious round-ups. A new bill that seeks to protect them, HR 1018, is now heading to the House floor for debate, as the country struggles to retain its vanishing heritage.