Annotated Edition of the Reminiscences of Nate Salsbury
Faculty Mentor: Frank Christianson, English
The purpose of this project was to prepare the unpublished manuscript Reminiscences of Nate Salsbury, written in the 1890s, for publication and to enter the critical conversation on the development of the frontier myth in American history. The first of three stages of the project was to do editorial work on the raw manuscript. The editing goal was to organize and clarify the narrated episodes of Nate Salsbury’s life in order to prepare it for optimal audience comprehension. Second, I thoroughly annotated the document and curated an appendix that situated the document in its historical and biographical context. Third, l used the subsequent research to craft a critical analysis of the work in context with its contemporaries and discuss how it contributes to and complicates the myth of the frontier. The analysis focused mainly on the interplay between Salsbury’s history and the history of his business partner William F. Cody in The Wild West in England, edited by Frank Christianson.
William F. Cody, or Buffalo Bill, appears as a key figurehead in the history of the frontier. This fame is largely due to his involvement in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Exhibition, an elaborate production demonstrating the key components of the American west. This production toured Europe in 1887-1888, gaining its initial success then continued to tour the US and Europe for over three decades, sparking an international obsession with western culture, cowboys and Buffalo Bill himself. The history of this transatlantic event is largely voiced by William F. Cody through two autobiographies, The Wild West in England and The life of Hon. William F. Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, both edited by Frank Christianson. Charles Eldridge Griffith, a tour manager, and John M. Burk, the General Manager, both add their published accounts to the documentation of the Americanizing tour of the frontier exhibition. Significantly absent is the voice of Nate Salsbury, business partner to Cody and creator of the show. The absence of his perspective leaves a hole in the narrative of the Wild West Exhibition, in the biography of William F. Cody, and the history of the American frontier.
This scholarly edition of Salsbury’s recollections is filling this hole by making accessible the unique perspective of the man who conceived the Wild West Exhibition and who’s dedication and business savvy proved instrumental to its success. I found, however, that his unique perspective on Cody is the most significant dimension of the text. The relationship between these two men resides at the center of a grand business venture and is one of bitter feelings and resentment. Surrounding Cody is a persona of the quintessential frontiersman made internationally legendary through the exhibition and subsequent western literature. In Salsbury’s manuscript, he directly addresses the nature of this persona, its authenticity, and its effects on their business. Salsbury’s account, though written in heated personal bias, provides important dimension to Cody’s character valuable to the Papers of William F. Cody archive and their mission to document the life and times of an American Icon.
In my analysis I explored themes of the American frontier myth and the persona-making of frontiersman such as William F. Cody. Myths are a culturally resonant collection of symbols and hero tales that provide the basis for society. Groups of people draw on the sentiment evoked in myths to construct a society distinct from other societies. In my analysis I discuss the myth of the American Frontier and its foundational role in crafting American nationality. I then look at how Nate Salsbury both contributes to and comments on mythmaking. I based this analysis on my primary research conducted for the edition of Nate Salsbury’s manuscript. The main point of analysis juxtaposed Salsbury’s text and Cody’s autobiography, The Wild West in England. In order to properly annotate and contextualize Salsbury’s manuscript and engage in the scholarly conversation on the American West and popular culture, I conducted historical and biographical research to develop an understanding of Nate Salsbury and hold him next to the critical conversation established around William F. Cody as documented in the Cody Papers project. Salsbury creates his own persona through recounting service in the Civil War, his early theatrical experiences with his traveling act, the Troubadours, and his last exhibitionary endeavor, Black America. The persona he creates is the antithesis of Cody’s, as depicted in The Wild West in England, in tone, rhetorical intention and subject matter.
Cody’s persona, Buffalo Bill, became fundamental to Europe’s view of America at the turn of the 20th century. Many scholars have analyzed the transatlantic impact of the Buffalo Bill phenomenon. With Professor Christianson as my mentor, I am contributing to this conversation about how myth making influenced international relations and Americanization. As Salsbury is a founder of the Wild West Exhibition, his work contributed significantly to forming American identity. By exploring Salsbury’s part in our national identity and the implication of his views on the identity of Buffalo Bill, we are incorporating the edition of Salsbury’s text and the critical analysis into the aims of the Papers of William F. Cody.