- Circuits of SpectacleThe Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Real Wild West
The Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Real Wild West show ran from 1906 to 1931, outlasting the famous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show by more than a decade. From its beginnings in Oklahoma Territory, the Real Wild West show traveled national and international circuits and built a broad roster of performers, including more than 150 American Indians. During the show’s run, the Miller Brothers also oversaw the contracting out of Indian performers to other venues, including the Sarasanni Circus in Dresden, Germany, and the New York Motion Picture Company’s Santa Ynez Canyon studio in California. While cultural and technological changes led to the decline of live shows and ushered in the age of western films, much overlap existed between these forms of entertainment in the first decades of the twentieth century. Many of the same Indian actors moved seamlessly between the realms of live and filmed performances, sometimes even reenacting the same historical events in multiple genres. Through their affiliation with the Miller Brothers’ show, Native people traversed geographic boundaries, negotiated space within specific venues, and engaged audience members in varied practices of looking. As participants in the Real Wild West’s Indian Village “Big Sideshow Act,” as transoceanic travelers with the Sarrasani Circus, and as battle scene extras in the California studio locale known as “Inceville,” Native actors could build their livelihoods around the performance of Indian identity.
This article will examine how travel routes, performance spaces, and shifting technologies created new viewing positions for both performers and spectators in the early twentieth century—positions that were not fixed but emerged through a constant series of negotiations. The work [End Page 443] of cultural historians and film and performance studies scholars as well as historic photographs of the Real Wild West show shed light on these negotiations. To begin, it is helpful to consider the origins of the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch, which serves as the anchor for each genre—the Wild West show, the circus, and early western film—to be explored.
The Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch
The Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch began with a westward journey. George Washington Miller, ranch founder, left his Kentucky home following the Civil War. He drove cattle from Texas to Kansas, moving several times before relocating his ranch to the Cherokee Outlet. When the federal government expelled ranchers from the Outlet in 1893, Miller leased land from the Ponca to continue his operations. After George’s death in 1903, his sons, Joseph, Zachary, and George, took over responsibility for the ranch. They continued their father’s agricultural and horticultural projects, cultivating a broad range of fruits, vegetables, and grains, improving crop strains, and raising a diversity of livestock. Spanning over 100,000 acres and four counties, the ranch operated as a self-contained community. As the ranch developed, its physical structures grew to include an electrical plant, tannery, dairy, ranch store, and several mills. In 1909 Ernest Marland, who went on to become a noted Oklahoma oilman, philanthropist, and politician, led efforts to drill for oil on the ranch, starting the 101 Ranch Oil Company.1
The creation of the Real Wild West show, however, is how the ranch became famous. Hosting “Oklahoma’s Gala Day” for members of the National Editorial Association on June 11, 1905, the Miller Brothers exhibited the skills of their ranch hands and American Indian performers. The gala featured “Geronimo’s last bison hunt,” in which a party of cowboys and Indians, including the famed Apache warrior, chased a bison on horseback to the point of exhaustion. A Chicago businessman, riding in an automobile, then killed it with a rifle. Geronimo fired two additional shots into the dead animal.2 The event also showcased Lucille Mulhall, who became known as “America’s first cowgirl,” and Bill Picket, an African American and Choctaw cowboy later famed for his “bulldogging” technique (taking a wild steer down by biting it on the lip). Multiple modes of transportation allowed visitors to travel to the ranch and take in the gala’s sights. Glenn Shirley, in the foreword of Ellsworth [End Page 444] Collings and Alma...