Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show

Huge crowds turned out in June 1898 as Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show came to Buffalo, New York.

Huge crowds turned out in June 1898 as Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show came to Buffalo, New York. In the days before television, when travel was limited, traveling shows provided entertainment for people, from the vaudeville circuit to shows that highlighted ways of life that might be unfamiliar.

Following a parade through the city, the show presented bullfighting Pawnee Bill and his wife, May, giving trick shot exhibitions and May riding horses.

A native of Bloomington, Illinois, Gordon William Lillie ended up as a Pawnee Indian agent in what’s now Oklahoma, where he acquired the nickname Pawnee Bill. His role as an Indian agent got him hired on with Buffalo Bill’s traveling show as a translator for the Indians who were part of the exhibition. While touring in Philadelphia, Lillie met May Manning, a doctor’s daughter who had no interest in the debutante life ahead of her. They married in 1886, and soon, Lillie started his own wild west show, helped along as the hero of a series of dime novels — none of which were particularly biographical.

The wild west show traveled the country — and even made sojourns to Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. In 1908, Pawnee Bill’s show merged with that of his former mentor, Buffalo Bill Cody. But the show faded into memory, a victim of changing times and new forms of entertainment.

Pawnee Bill lived out his remaining years on his Oklahoma ranch with May, financially comfortable. She died a day after a car wreck in 1936, not long after the couple celebrated their 50th anniversary. Pawnee Bill died in bed on his ranch in 1942. Today, the ranch is a museum, and every summer, it puts on a wild west show in honor of the cowboy impresario.