From the Wild West to the North-west: how Buffalo Bill's travelling show left a Sioux legacy in Salford

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The Independent Online

Scenes from the Wild West have been a part of Saturday nights on the streets of Salford for years, but only now can it claim they are an important part of its heritage.

Investigations by a local historian and trade unionist have discovered descendants of Sioux Native Americans living in Salford, 120 years after they toured the area as part of Buffalo Bill Cody's famous travelling show.

The Lakota and Oglala Sioux formed part of a troupe of 97 Native Americans, 180 broncos, 18 buffalo, 14 mules and donkeys, 10 elk and two deer when they rolled into town in November 1887. They stayed for five months, playing to packed houses from a site on the banks of the River Irwell, now occupied by The Lowry gallery.

What is less well known is that some of the Sioux decided to settle in Salford and Manchester, where their descendants remain.

The links were discovered by the historian Steve Coen, who was fascinated by the city's Sioux links that include street names, such as Cody Court, Sundance Court, Dakota Avenue, and Kansas Avenue.

He has established that when Cody's popularity in Salford led him back there in 1903, a 26-year-old Lakota chief, Charging Thunder, could not bring himself to leave. He married Josephine, one of the American horse trainers in the show, and settled locally.

As Charging Thunder changed his name to the rather less distinctive George Edward Williams and disappeared into anonymity within north-west England, tracing his lineage has not been easy.

But appeals for locals with a Sioux history elicited a response from Rita Parr, 66, a former wage clerk in whose living room hangs an image of an Indian chief. It is Charging Thunder and Mrs Parr is his granddaughter.

"We'd always known there was an Indian chief in the family but only now are we beginning to learn about the piece of history he fitted into," said Mrs Parr, whose mother, Gladys, was the chief's daughter. "We don't have any artefacts as all his outfits, bows and arrows disappeared when he moved house from Lancashire to Gorton. They were either mislaid or pinched. But I'm very proud of him. [It took a] very strong-willed man to give up his life and settle here, raise a family and give me this heritage."

The switch from the Wild West to the industrial north-west evidently suited Charging Thunder. He juggled jobs as a handyman at an industrial pump factory and a "drawer-outer" (doorman) at the picture house with occasional turns at Manchester's Belle Vue circus where he road an elephant called Nellie. He does not appear to have been offended by his nickname, "Darkie".

Mr Coen's research has taken him to South Dakota where his hosts included Mrs Parr's first cousin, Mike Hermanyhorses. "The links we are finding do not surprise me," he said. "Cody's company included young men in their prime. Fraternising with the locals was inevitable."

He also discovered records of a Lakota girl born in Salford during the company's stay and baptised in February 1888. Church registers record her name as Frances Victoria Alexander, the daughter of Little Chief and Good Robe. The trail then goes cold.

So the search goes on for descendants from Cody's visits to Salford. Other chiefs who lingered included Black Elk, a medicine man who was interviewed in 1931 by John Neihardt for the book Black Elk Speaks, which became a classic of Native American writing. He was among scores of Lakota Sioux who were stranded after missing the train out of Salford in 1888 and had to make their own way back to South Dakota.

Salford Council is delighted to have discovered its new Sioux credentials and will hold a public meeting next month to invite ideas on how to develop the links. "This is such a fantastic story, we are keen to find the best way to bring it to life for today's Salford," said Salford City Council leader, Councillor John Merry.

Far from home

* The company was led into Salford by Buffalo Bill Cody, who scouted for Native Americans for the US army and killed buffalo to feed the soldiers before establishing his circus-like Wild West show in 1883.

* Salford was a long way from the Old West, but all the better for some of the Sioux, who found themselves on the run from the US cavalry because they had been involved in the demise of General Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn.

* The company recreated gunslinging scenes from the Wild West in Salford and neighbouring Manchester and raced their broncos against English thoroughbreds over a 10-mile course. The broncos won with 300 yards to spare.

* The British tour started in London in 1887 where Queen Victoria, in her Jubilee Year, demanded several performances and adored the chief Red Shirt. It stopped at Birmingham before reaching Salford

* The warriors were Lakota (northern) Indians from the Oglala tribe of the Sioux Nation, who counted Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse among their numbers. The Oglala Sioux were depicted in the 1990 film Dances With Wolves.

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