The Wild West Comes To Birmingham
by James L. Baggett

Founded during America’s westward migration, early Birmingham shared numerous traits with towns from the notorious Wild West. A nineteenth-century boomtown populated by many young, unattached men, Birmingham was once a place of dirt streets, wooden sidewalks, saloons and occasional gun fights.

By the 1890s, Birmingham had smoothed away many of its rough edges, but the Wild West came to Birmingham in the form of traveling shows. This was an era when cowboy and Indian shows, circuses and sideshows featuring freakishly deformed animals were popular entertainment—and dozens of these traveling shows visited Birmingham each year. Probably the most famous of all Wild West traveling shows—Buffalo Bill Cody and his “Congress of Rough Riders”—performed in Birmingham in 1901.

Before television and radio were available for advertising traveling shows, they would generate public interest by parading through towns where they planned to perform. One of the attractions of Stowe’s Wild West Show, Chief Running Deer, rode his horse up Twenty-Second Street in Birmingham late on a February afternoon in 1890, and two boys in the crowd of spectators began throwing rocks at the horse. Because some indignities are simply intolerable, Running Deer wheeled about, tomahawk drawn, and chased the miscreants up Second Avenue North. The boys fled into a store, and Running Deer, who had ridden his horse onto the sidewalk in pursuit, was stopped at gun point by a police officer. The wronged Indian was charged with “reckless driving.”

Additional Reading: 

Carter, Robert A., Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000.  

McMurty, Larry, The Colonel and the Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.  

Warren, Louis S., Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1005.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Birmingham Public Library Archives, recognized internationally as one of the largest and finest municipal archives in the United States. With more than 30,000,000 documents, maps, architectural drawings, works of art and 400,000 photographs, the Archives preserves the raw material of Birmingham history and makes it available to students, scholars and the simply curious.

Running throughout this year, “Timepiece” is a Birmingham Magazine monthly feature on Birmingham history that will highlight items from the Archives’ collections.