New History of Wyoming

Chapter 10: Wyoming’s Self-Image

"Powder River, Let ‘er Buck": Term "Invented" by a Range Cowboy in Wyoming

By Phil Roberts

Former UW football coach Joe Glenn used to repeat the familiar cheer, "Powder River, Let ‘er Buck," as an expression indicating resolve—"we’re going to go out and do this task successfully, whatever the obstacles." The derivation of the expression was debated as long ago as the 1920s because it had been used frequently by American soldiers in World War I. A succession of veterans assumed it had origins in their respective home states—not all of them from Wyoming.

According to an old-time Wyoming cowboy who wrote about the origins of the expression in Annals of Wyoming, the term first gained notice in northeast Wyoming—right where you’d expect—along the banks of the Powder River. In the winter of 1928-29, the Annals editor asked Edward J. Farlow of Lander, a well-known former mayor of Lander and state legislator, to tell the story in order to resolve the question that "has been revived by an eastern publication."

Here’s how Farlow explained the origins in "Powder River, Let ‘er Buck: Famous World War Slogan Came from Lips of One Missouri Bill," in Annals of Wyoming, January 1929:

In the fall of 1893, the L outfit, Four Jay, Horse-collar and IX outfits pooled their herds of 1,600 beef steers and dry cows to be driven to the railroad and shipped east to market at the Double Dives, on the south side of the Big Wind River, just south of where the town of Riverton now stands…. When this roundup was over, the beef bearing the brands I mentioned above were all put in one herd, and the outfit shaped up for the long drive to the railroad. This time to Casper, as we had never shipped from Casper before, and this was our first trip and the trail was new to all of the cowboys, but myself.

The outift had eight cowboys, one cook, one horse wrangler, and Farlow who was boss of the outfit. As Farlow pointed out, usually the herds were taken south to Rawlins to the train, and sometimes to Medicine Bow. This time, it was to Casper.

"None of them had ever seen Powder River and they were all excited. In the morning when they were catching horses for the day, I called out to them to get their swimming horses as we were going to cross Powder River several times before night. Missouri Bill, who already roped his horse, turned him loose, muttering that ‘this damn buckskin couldn’t even wade a river.’

"About 10 o’clock the lead of the herd reached the river and it was almost dry, the water standing in holes and barely running from one hole to the other. The herd followed down the stream for a distance of about two miles before they were watered, and we crossed it many times.

"When Missouri Bill saw it, he looked at it very seriously for some time, and then said, ‘So this is Powder River,’ and that night in camp he told us he had heard of Powder River and now he had seen Powder River, and he kept referring to Powder River nearly every day until we reached Casper, which we did in 28 days.

"In the evening before we were going to load for shipping, and the cattle were all bedded down near the stockyards, the boys all adjourned to the saloon for a social drink, and Missouri Bill said, ‘Boys, come and have a drink on me; I have crossed Powder River.’ They had the drinks and a few more and were getting pretty sociable.

"When Missouri Bill again ordered, he said to the boys, ‘have another drink on me; I swam Powder River,’ this time with a distinct emphasis on the words ‘Powder River.’ ‘Yes, sir, by _____ Powder River,’ a little stronger emphasis. Whe the drinks were all set up he said, ‘Well here’s to Powder River, Let ‘er Buck.’….

The slogan was shouted louder along with other similar references to the stream, very tiny most the year where the cowboys had crossed it en route to Casper.

As Farlow concluded his story, "that is the first time I ever heard the slogan, and from there it went around the world. Farlow added that "Missouri Bill’s name was William Shultz and I have not heard of him for more than 20 years. He was a good cow hand and while here he worked for the L Outfit most of the time."

 

The Greatest Bucking Horse, Steamboat

The rider is unidentified but the horse depicted by the 14-foot bronze sculpture next to the Arena-Auditorium is the legendary Steamboat, one of Wyoming’s greatest "athletes." For more than a decade just after the turn of the 20th century, Steamboat became a legend as "the horse that couldn’t be ridden."

Born in Wyoming, the famous rodeo bucking horse was raised by Frank Foss. Steamboat, wild even in his youth, resisted the branding iron and, in so doing, struck his nose, breaking a small piece of the bone. Sam Moore, foreman of the Swan Company, bought the young horse and trimmed away the protruding bone. The horse was left with a peculiar whistle. Cowboy Jimmy Danks told the Swan foreman that the horse "sounds like a steamboat." With that, the bucking horse had a name.

Steamboat made his first public appearance in a rodeo in Denver in 1901. For the next 13 years, he rarely allowed a cowboy to ride him to time. A rare exception, ironically, was Clayton Danks, the brother of the man who named Steamboat. Clayton Danks won the world championship at Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1907 by riding Steamboat.

As the prize bucking horse of Irwin Brothers, rodeo contractors from Laramie County, Steamboat made what was to be his last rodeo appearance at Salt Lake City in 1914. After the show, a lightning storm caused the rodeo stock, held in a wire enclosure, to spook. In the ensuing melee, Steamboat received a serious wire cut. The Irwin Brothers brought Steamboat back to Cheyenne but he didn’t recover from the blood poisoning caused by the cut.

Controversy still rages as to whether or not Steamboat is the horse portrayed on the Wyoming license plate. The famous bucking bronc is immortalized, however, on the University of Wyoming campus. In 1990, the 14-foot bronze sculpture, "Fanning a Twister," by Cody sculptor Peter Fillerup was dedicated during homecoming festivities. It is a fitting tribute to one of Wyoming’s greatest horses and toughest athletes.

—Phil Roberts

Buffalo Bill Takes His Wild West Show to Europe: A Selection from Cody’s Autobiography

Cody was the preeminent showman of his age. Probably the most famous person in the world at the end of the 19th century, he describes in a chapter of his autobiogrpahy his initial travels to Europe with his "Wild West Show."

CHAPTER XXIII: THE WILD WEST IN ENGLAND.


When the season of 1882-1883 closed I found myself richer by several thousand dollars than I had ever been before, having done a splendid business at every place where my performance was given in that year. Immense success and comparative wealth, attained in the profession of showman, stimulated me to greater exertion and largely increased my ambition for public favor. Accordingly, I conceived the idea of organising a large company of Indians, cow-boys, Mexican vaqueros, famous riders and expert lasso throwers, with accessories of stage coach, emigrant wagons, bucking horses and a herd of buffaloes, with which to give a realistic entertainment of wild life on the plains. To accomplish this purpose, which in many respects was a really herculean undertaking, I sent agents to various points in the far West to engage Indians from several different tribes, and then set about the more difficult enterprise of capturing a herd of buffaloes. After several months of patient work I secured the services of nearly fifty cow-boys and Mexicans skilled in lasso-throwing and famous as daring riders, but when these were engaged, and several buffaloes, elk and mountain sheep were obtained, I found all the difficulties had not yet been overcome, for such exhibitions as I had prepared to give could only be shown in large open-air enclosures, and these were not always to be rented, while those that I found suitable were often inaccessible by such popular conveyances as street cars. The expenses of such a show as I had determined to give were so great that a very large crowd must be drawn to every exhibition or a financial failure would be certain; hence I soon found that my ambitious conception, instead of bringing me fortune, was more likely to end in disaster. But having gone so far in the matter I determined to see the end whatever it might be.

In the spring of 1883 (May 17th) I opened the Wild West Show at the fair grounds in Omaha, and played to very large crowds, the weather fortunately proving propitious. We played our next engagement at Springfield, Ill., and thence in all the large cities, to the seaboard. The enterprise was not a complete financial success during the first season, though everywhere our performances were attended by immense audiences….

A BIGGER SHOW PUT ON THE ROAD

Immediately upon forming a partnership with Salsbury we set about increasing the company and preparing to greatly enlarge the exhibition. Nearly one hundred Indians, from several tribes, were engaged, among the number being the world famous Chief Sitting Bull, and several other Sioux tat had distinguished themselves in the Custer massacre. Besides these we secured the services of many noted plainsmen, such as Buck Taylor, the great rider, lasso thrower and Kind of the Cowboys; Utah Frank, John Nelson, and a score of other well-known characters. We also captured a herd of elk, a dozen buffaloes and some bears with which to illustrate the chase.

THE SHOW IS DUMPED INTO THE MISSISSIPPI

Our vastly enlarged and reorganized company gave daily exhibitions in all the large cities to enormous crowds during the summer of 1884, and in the fall we started for New Orleans to spend the winter exhibiting at the Exposition Grounds. We accordingly chartered a steamer to transport our property and troupe to the Crescent City. Nothing of moment transpired on the trip until we were near Rodney Landing, Miss., then our boat collided with another and was so badly damaged that she sank in less than an hour. In this accident we lost all our personal effects, including wagons, camp equipage, arms, ammunition, donkeys, buffaloes and one elk. We managed, however, to save our horses, Deadwood coach, band wagon, and—ourselves. The loss thus entailed was about $20,000.

As soon as I could reach a telegraph station I hastily sent a telegram to Salsbury, who was with the Troubadours at Denver, as follows: "Outfit at bottom of the river, what do you advise?" As I learned afterwards, Salsbury was just on the point of going upon the stage to sing a song when my rueful telegram was handed him. The news hit him hard, but in no wise disconcerted him; stepping to the speaking tube connecting with the orchestra he shouted to the leader, "Play that symphony again and a little louder, I want to think a minute." As the music struck up he wrote out the following message: "Go to New Orleans, reorganize and open on your date," which I received and promptly complied with his instructions.

In eight days I had added to the nucleus that had been saved a herd of buffalo and elk, and all the necessary wagons and other properties, completing the equipment so thoroughly that the show in many respects was better prepared than at the time of the accident—and we opened on our date.

A SEASON IN NEW YORK

The New Orleans exposition did not prove the success that many of its promoters anticipated and the expectations of Mr. Salsbury and myself were alike disappointed, for at the end of the winter we counted our losses at about $60,000.

The following summer we played at Staten Island, on the magnificent grounds of Mr. Erastus Wiman, and met with such splendid success that our losses at New Orleans were speedily retrieved. So well satisfied were we with New York that we leased Madison Square Garden for the winter of 1886-87 and gave our exhibition there for the first time in a covered space. We gave two performances every day during the entire winter and nearly always played to crowded houses, though the seating capacity of the place was about 15,000. 

AN AMBITIOUS BUT HAZARDOUS UNDERTAKING

The immortal bard has well said, "ambition grows with what it feeds on.’ So with Salsbury and I, our unexampled success throughout America with the Wild West show excited our ambition to conquer other nations than our own. Though the idea of transplanting our exhibition, for a time, to England had frequently occurred to us, the importance of such an undertaking was enlarged and brought us to a more favorable consideration of the project by repeated suggestions from prominent persons of America, and particularly by urgent invitations extended by distinguished Englishmen. While inclined to the enterprise we gave much thought to the enormous expense involved in such a step and might not have decided so soon to try the rather hazardous experiment but for an opportunity that promised to largely increase our chances of success.

Several leading gentlemen of the United States conceived the idea of holding an American Exhibition in the heart of London and to this end a company was organised that pushed the project to a successful issue, aided as they were by several prominent residents of the English capital. When the enterprise had progressed so far as to give flattering promise of an opening at the time fixed upon, a proposition was made to Mr . Salsbury and myself, by the president and directors of the company, to take our show to London and play the season of six months as an adjunct of the American Exhibition, the proposition being a percentage of the gate receipts.

After a mature consideration of the offer we accepted it and immediately set about enlarging our organization and preparing for a departure for England.

A great deal of preliminary work was necessary, but we set manfully about the task of securing the services of a hundred Indians, representative types of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee and Ogalallas tribes, and succeeded in getting the required number, none of whom had ever been off their reservations prior to joining my show. Among the prominent chiefs thus engaged was Red Shirt, a redoubtable warrior and second only in influence to Sitting Bull himself. A short while before his engagement with us he had quelled an uprising among his people, instigated by a pretender to the chieftainship of the tribe, by invading the pretender’s camp with only two of his followers and shooting the leader dead before the eyes of his affrighted wife. This fearless act had served to elevate him very much in the eyes of his people, who thereafter accepted him as a leader. When, therefore, he decided to join the Wild West show, under the flattering offers I made him, his influence aided us very much in procuring our complement of Indians, not only from his own tribe, but from others as well. 

SEEKING NEW WORLDS TO CONQUER

Our arrangements having at length been completed, by collecting together a company of more than two hundred men and animals, consisting of Indians, cowboys, ( including the celebrated Cowboy band,) Mexican wild riders, celebrated rifle shots, buffaloes, Texas steers, burros, bronchos, racing horses, elk, bears, and an immense amount of camp paraphernalia, such as tents, wagons, stage coach, etc., we chartered the steamship State of Nebraska, of the State line, Capt. Braes, and were ready to set sail to a country that I had long wished to visit—the Motherland. Accordingly, on Thursday, March 31st, 1887, we set sail from New York, the piers crowded with thousands of our good friends who came down to wave their adieux and to wish us a pleasant voyage. Our departure was an occasion I shall never forget, for as the ship drew away from the pier such cheers went up as I never before heard, while our Cowboy band played "The Girl I Left Behind Me" in a manner that suggested more reality than empty sentiment in the familiar air. Salsbury and I, and my daughter Arta, waved our hats in sad farewells and stood upon the deck watching the still cheering crowd until they faded in the distance, and we were out upon the deep, for the first time in my life.