In 1913, the U.S. government helped facilitate Buffalo Bill Cody’s epic film about the final battles between Native Americans and the U.S. Cavalry. But after they watched it, the movie disappeared.
It was an idea born not so much from inspiration as desperation.
Beginning in 1883, William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody’s famed Wild West stage spectacular had been playing to sold-out audiences around the world. The show featured historical legends such as Sitting Bull and sharpshooter Annie Oakley and included dramatic reenactments of Pony Express rides, an attack on the Deadwood stagecoach, and a spectacular grand finale with buffalo, elk, deer, wild horses, and steers stampeding with cowboys and Indians.
But by 1913 the crowds began to dwindle, and Cody was forced to declare bankruptcy and auction off props from the show. Audiences had turned to a new form of entertainment — silent films, and here the famed showman saw an opportunity for financial recovery.
Cody was no stranger to movies, having appeared in several short films through an association with Thomas Edison that began shortly after the inventor introduced moving pictures. But this time he knew that only something bigger and more extravagant would generate the profit he needed.
After securing a $50,000 investment from the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, and the owners of the Denver Post and Kansas City Post newspapers, Cody approached the United States government with the idea to shoot historical reenactments of the last battles fought between United States troops and Native Americans.
“My object and desire,” he told the magazine Moving Picture World, “has been to preserve history by the aid of the camera with as many of the living participants in the closing Indian wars of North America as could be procured. It is something that has never been done before, that is, to preserve our old wars for future generations. …”
A chronicle of the correspondence between Cody, his investors, and the U.S. government has been preserved in the archives of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. On August 24, 1913, Cody wrote to Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison for access to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the Battle of Wounded Knee was fought. Cody told him that “General [Frank] Baldwin, who was present at that surrender has promised to take part in the work and we expect, also, that General Nelson A. Miles will cooperate.”
In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, a representative of Cody’s investors expressed his belief that “everything will be done to insure the future generation a most worthy document of a great event, which has few of its distinguished participants left to tell the story.”
The film, according to promotional advertising, would re-create the Battles of Summit Springs (1869) and Warbonnet Creek (1876), both of which Cody participated in as an Army scout, and conclude at Pine Ridge with the Battle of Wounded Knee, all of which would be shot at their original battle locations. Surviving footage and records, however, can only verify that on-location filming took place between September 1913 and October 1913 in the Badlands of South Dakota and the Black Hills of Wyoming.
Garrison supplied Cody with troops from the 12th U.S. Cavalry, and Lane authorized the participation of more than 1,000 Sioux Indians. Lt. Gen. Nelson Appleton Miles was hired as a technical consultant to make sure that the reenactments were as accurate as possible.
The movie also featured depictions of the Campaign of the Ghost Dance or Messiah Craze War, and the capture of Chief Big Foot. The final scenes showed tribes acclimating to Western ways, with children attending modern schools and Indian farmers bringing in their crops.
After filming ended, Cody wrote to his attorney, Clarence W. Rowley, that he had just returned from “’the taking of over four miles of the greatest motion pictures ever taken.” He reported that offers for exhibition were arriving “not only from all over America, but from Great Britain and Europe for these pictures.” “It may be that we will first produce them in Washington, D.C., then Madison Square Garden, N.Y., Boston and all the large cities before putting them on the market.”
In a separate letter he related that Essanay cofounder George Spoor remarked that “these our pictures would be the best money getters of any movies ever produced.” Cody was set to receive one-third of the profits: “I think I am in line here, at least all the moving picture people think so, to make a lot of money yet this winter.”
Cody has feuded with General Miles toward the end of making the movie. And Miles stormed off in a huff, so who knows what Miles, who could be really prickly, was up to.
The next few months were spent editing the 2½-hour film, now titled The Indian Wars.
“We will show them first to President [Woodrow] Wilson, Secretaries of War & Interior, Generals Miles and others as well as Foreign Ambassadors & budget their endorsements. Then they will be more valuable,” Cody wrote to Wyoming Sen. Jake Schwoob in December of 1913. “We have been offered big money. But Mr. Spoor advises—hold until we get the endorsements—Then sell all foreign rights. … Showing in high priced houses first. Then the 5 & 10 (cent) houses. Spoor says don’t get nervous. We will soon have all kinds of money coming.”
The screening Cody referenced was held at the White House on February 26, 1914. Shortly thereafter, Cody traveled to Denver for a lecture to accompany a weeklong exhibition of the film at the Tabor Opera House. The film did turn-away business and was equally popular at a screening in Omaha. According to the Omaha World-Herald on March 17, 1914, the theater had been filled to capacity for both showings.
But after the Omaha screening, during which Cody reported the film was a hit that could play for five weeks, the archives at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West provide no further mentions of later exhibitions or public reception. A movie that stirred tremendous confidence in its significance and profit potential just … vanished.
Did the U.S. government suppress The Indian Wars? That was the assertion of Ben Black Elk, whose father, Black Elk, was in the movie.
“It was made exactly as it happened,” Ben Black Elk said in an interview with historian William S.E. Coleman about the depiction of Wounded Knee. “Do you know what happened to that motion picture? The government put a ban on it. A friend went to Washington, D.C., to see the movie, but they had destroyed it.”
Their conversation is recounted in The War, The West, and the Wilderness, written by silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow. Brownlow added that there were contrary opinions regarding how the battle was depicted but concluded “it cannot be denied that Cody’s film was given short shrift by the government, and that it apparently ‘decomposed’ at the Bureau of Indian Affairs sometime in the twenties. It typically takes 40 years or more for nitrate film to decompose, so it is unlikely that it happened so quickly on this one film—one for which no other print has been found.”
Today historians categorize Wounded Knee more as a massacre than a battle, and if Cody indeed depicted it that way there would be good reason for the government to not want the film widely screened.
“I don’t know if I could draw a firm conclusion, but it’s fairly interesting. And certainly the government was up to its neck in the film because they provided both troops and allowed the Indians to participate. So they had some leverage,” says Paul Hutton, a professor of history at the University of New Mexico, who delivered the keynote address about Cody at a symposium hosted by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. He also acknowledged that “Cody was such as patriot—so whatever the government said, he would go along.”
The key figure in this mystery may be Gen. Miles, who was against the filming of the Wounded Knee battle from the start. He viewed the conflict as “unwarranted” and “unjustifiable” and saw no benefit in re-creating it. “I am decidedly of the opinion that it is not in the public interest, or for the welfare of the Indians, to have such exhibition presented,” he wrote.
“Cody had feuded with General Miles toward the end of making the movie. And Miles stormed off in a huff, so who knows what Miles, who could be really prickly, was up to. He was out of the Army by that time but still would have had some influence,” Hutton says.
The edict could also have come directly from President Wilson, who understood the power and propaganda potential in motion pictures. After watching D.W. Griffith’s Civil War-era epic Birth of a Nation he pronounced it “history written with lightning.” Given how that film depicted the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force, Wilson apparently preferred a non-nuanced depiction of the past. “There was no hint of official disapproval,” Brownlow writes of the government’s response to The Indian Wars. “Yet the government held the film back from release.”
Cody spoke out for fair treatment of Indians as far back as 1872, when that was not a popular opinion. “He had a lot of sympathy for the Sioux and other tribes. And he knew so many of these people because they had been in his show,” Hutton says.
Ryley Cooper, a reporter dispatched by the Denver Post to cover the film’s production, wrote of conversations heard among the troops that expressed admiration and sympathy for the Sioux, and anger over the fact that their own government rarely honored the terms of any treaty with the Indians. Cooper was equally resolute in characterizing the Wounded Knee conflict: “There the white man was the aggressor, they far outnumbered the Indians. The red men were crowded down into a ravine where lines of bullets sent them to death in scores.”
But Jeremy Johnston, managing editor of The Papers of William F. Cody at The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, is not as certain that conspiracy is to blame for the film’s disappearance. “I haven’t seen anything that would lead me to believe that the government would take that kind of action because they were upset about the content. One of Buffalo Bill’s attributes was he really understood his audience, and he would have played up to that. He would not have produced something that would have made American audiences uncomfortable about the government policy toward Indians,” Johnston says.
He acknowledges the tensions between Cody and Miles but attributes them more to Miles’ insistence on attention to detail causing the film to run over schedule and over budget. He also doesn’t view the dearth of communication regarding the film’s fate in the archive as evidence of intrigue.
“One thing to keep in mind—and this is frustrating when it comes to understanding Buffalo Bill and his legacy—is that in some cases we have very deep pools of archival information, but in other areas the pools are dry. What we have is just a small fraction of an archive that has long been scattered.”
So what happened to The Indian Wars?
“I know there has been a lot of speculation about what has happened to this supposed masterpiece,” Johnston says. “In my opinion, I think the weakness of the film was you have this aging Western figure playing himself as a young man, and it doesn’t work. You look at the little footage that’s left—it’s not the young Buffalo Bill that the public envisioned participating in all these conflicts. I think that was one of the biggest flaws of the project.”
A negative audience reaction would certainly explain the film not playing longer, but it appears most of the public never had a chance to judge for themselves.
Much of the speculation would be clarified if we had a copy of the film, but only a few minutes survive at the Buffalo Bill Center. The only other references to The Indian Wars in their archive begin in 1915, when a clerk in the Department of Interior dispatched a series of letters to Cody requesting a print of the film for the Department’s collection. This correspondence ends in March of 1916, with the film still not delivered. Perhaps Cody was concerned it would suffer the same fate as the one previously sent to the War Department.
According to Kevin Brownlow The Indian Wars was revived after Cody died in 1917, “together with veiled remarks about the government’s attempts to suppress it.” After that, the trail runs cold. That same year the U.S. had entered World War I, and the Wilson administration had joined forces with studios such as Universal and Vitagraph to promote propaganda films in support of the war effort.
“Whatever its defects, whatever its inaccuracies, [The Indian Wars] would represent a historical prize of immense value if only it could be found,” Brownlow writes. “The search for this extraordinary film should not be abandoned.”