Saturday, December 23, 2023

Busting the Family Legend Bubble


Do you have any relatives whose mission it is to "help" you reconstruct the family tree by sharing their ancestral stories? I have a genealogy friend who was rich in such assistance—until she learned how to research those details for herself. When she turned around to present the facts she had discovered to those ill-informed older relatives, one aunt actually told her she liked the family myth better.

I might be in such a bind right now, myself. My brother, much older than I am and, unlike me, privileged to have personally known our grandfather, has made it quite public that his grandfather was an entertainer. Specifically, my brother has mentioned that his grandfather was part of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show." While I have tried to find the source for such information, the more I look, the more I realize that might, in itself, have become a family legend.

While a name like that might mean instant recognition, Buffalo Bill's Wild West was an extravaganza which may have pre-dated my grandfather's earliest years, and certainly missed him by many miles. First of all, contrary to popular opinion, the word "Show" was never part of the touring act's name. The originator of this Wild West show, William Frederick Cody, founded the show in 1883; at that point, my grandfather would have been seven years of age. More to the point, that seven-year-old wasn't even living in the United States at that time.

Another complicating factor: the show was said to have been founded in the vicinity of Nebraska, far from the New York City region where my immigrant grandfather arrived as a child in 1884. Granted, Buffalo Bill's entourage was enormous, and the acts varied. Perhaps a juggler like my grandfather could have found a place in one of the acts, though the western theme—and location—might have made that less than likely. But the fact that the show, in its many iterations, made several European tours keeps me on the fence over whether this would be a likely family fact or fun family legend.

For now—and especially since I no longer have the option of asking my older relatives for more details—knowing that Buffalo Bill's programs centered on Wild West themes in western locations makes me disinclined to think a Polish immigrant would be a likely participant in a circus-like extravaganza such as that. While I can't find any smoking gun declaring the story convincingly false, let's just say it would be quite a stretch to envision my grandfather as part—even a small part—of Buffalo Bill's Wild West. 


  1. Hmm - that is the one "occupation" (show-biz) where nothing surprises me. I'll bet your grandfather could have found his way into almost any of the vaudeville troupes.

    1. Actually, I'm having second thoughts about how to pursue that research project further, Lisa. I've started zeroing in on entertainment magazines focused on New York City to look for entries including the term "Wild West Show." Once I separate the local from the national trend, I might find more specifics on the people staffing those city-based vaudeville troupes.


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