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William “Buffalo Bill” Cody Comes To The Oil Region - A Series - part 1


My name is Jeffrey Calta and I live near Chicora. I have always been a history buff and wrote numerous articles for the company newsletter. I am not a professional writer but have always enjoyed researching topics and writing about them. When researching an article, I found a brief reference about William "Buffalo Bill" Cody being in Petrolia on March 2, 1877. I did some research and found an interesting story that I would like to share with your readers. It involves not only Petrolia but southwestern Clarion County as well. My article describes his visit and why it occurred. The article will be a two or three week series. I hope that your readers enjoy the story.

 

By Jeffrey Calta

INTRODUCTION

I was researching an article for a company newsletter when a chance encounter with a Butler County history book mentioned briefly that William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the famous western cowboy, had visited Petrolia, PA on March 2, 1877. Why was he in Petrolia that night? How did he get there?

Buffalo Bill and I had something in common although it might be stretching the point. Exactly one hundred years later from March 2, 1877, my 24th birthday occurred and I was hired as a chemist for Witco Chemical in Petrolia. It was my first appearance in Petrolia as well.

I wanted to learn more about this man and his trip through the Oil Region of Western Pennsylvania. I was aware of his Wild West shows, but those productions were very large events employing a staff of hundreds. I could not imagine where, why, and how such a show would be held in the Petrolia area.

The hook was set. I had to find out why Buffalo Bill was in Petrolia on March 2, 1877 and how he got there.

Who Exactly Was William “Buffalo Bill” Cody?

William Cody rose from humble beginnings to become one of America’s most beloved and well- known cowboys from the Western States. His Wild West Show extravaganzas were very popular with audiences in the United States and around the world.

Cody was born in LeClaire, Iowa in 1846. His family moved to Leavenworth, Kansas when he was very young. William left his family at the age of eleven to herd cattle and work as a driver for wagon trains heading West. He tried fur trapping and gold prospecting with little success. Cody then joined the Pony Express in 1860. After the Civil War, he scouted and hunted for the US Army in the West. It was here where Cody acquired the nickname “Buffalo Bill”.

“Buffalo Bill” Cody Becomes A Theatrical Star

His show business career began in 1872 in Chicago when he met Ned Buntline who was a popular dime novelist at the time. Ned wrote a drama called “The Scouts of the Prairie” that starred Buffalo Bill and showcased his exploits out West. The critics panned Cody’s acting skills, but the public loved the shows. This drama became a commercial success.

Buffalo Bill formed his own troupe in 1873 called the Buffalo Bill Combination1. The performances consisted of a three or four act play which were based on his experiences out West. The troupe included Buffalo Bill and “Texas Jack” Omohundro who was a fellow scout from Buffalo Bill’s Army days. William “Wild Bill” Hickok later joined the troupe in 1875 but did not stay long2. The Buffalo Bill Combination existed until 1883 when Cody created his Wild West Show. An advertisement in the Oil City Derrick late in February, 1877 listed the Combination’s schedule in late winter that included a show in Petrolia on March 2, 1877.

Now I knew why Buffalo Bill was in Petrolia in March, 1877. At that time Petrolia was an oil boom town although the oil production had started to decline since 1874. At its height, Petrolia and surrounding area had many inhabitants. Travelling show performances would have been a welcome break from the tedium of long days of oil field work and general lack of cultural events in the rural areas. The Buffalo Bill Combination would have found a large (and relatively prosperous) audience at Petrolia.

The drama performed in Petrolia on March 2, 1877 was titled The Red Right Hand. It was a re-enactment of Buffalo Bill’s avenging of the George Custer disaster at the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 by killing and scalping the Sioux chief Yellow Hair. The performance was probably held at the Petrolia Opera house, although this cannot be proved for certain. The Opera House was built and owned by Ben Hogan and could hold several hundred persons and was used for various events and performances.

What was the Combination’s Oil Region schedule

Buffalo Bill’s presence in Petrolia was now confirmed. However, my quest did not end there. I became interested in how Buffalo Bill came to Petrolia.

The website www.buffalobill.org has an extensive list of all known appearances of the Combination and the Wild West shows.

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