by Irakly Makharadze
For 30 years Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show toured the United States and Europe, playing at exhibition grounds to enormous crowds. Attending the Wild West show often seemed like an initiation into living popular Western history. The scenes and narratives enacted on stage were dramatic re-enactments of famous incidents such as the “Attack on the Deadwood Stage Coach,” “Attack on a settler’s Cabin,” “Great Hold-Up,” “Bandit Hunters of the Union Pacific,” “Attack on an Emigrant Train,” and so forth. The Wild West show featured a multicultural company that included riders from five continents and strangely diverse ethnic groups like, everything from American Indians, cowboys and cowgirls, Mexican vaqueros, Boers, gauchos, Japanese “samurai” and Cossacks. William F. Cody a.k.a. Buffalo Bill (1846-1917) was a frontiersman, hunter, scout, showman and entrepreneur. In 1867 Cody began hunting buffalo (reportedly he shot 4, 280 of them) for Kansas Pacific work crews, thereby earning his nickname and reputation as an expert shot. In 1872, he became one of only four civilian scouts to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars for valor in action.
When the show was launched in 1883 it was an immediate success. According to The Illinois State Journal, the show was, “of the very highest importance to children because by the time they are adults the whole thing will have gone to the forgotten past.” The capturing of this vanishing frontier world and cultures was deemed one of Cody’s most important legacies. By 1885, the show’s annual income had reached $100 000.
In some degree the Georgian riders partially owe their recruitment in the shows to Mark Twain, the famous American writer, because he was the one who suggested that Buffalo Bill travel Europe. That’s when Cody decided to involve representatives of other nations in his shows. In 1893, more than 6 million people around the world are recorded to have attended the shows. Cody never again witnessed such tremendous success. This is how Tsnobis Purtseli described the show, “This is not a circus but an ethnographical exhibition; the people of various nations clad in their national outfit and ammunition enact scenes sometimes in a field, at home or during battles. Imagine a circus, where more than 200 riders are incorporated into the battle scenes. The stage is so huge that riders look like ants and for that reason, organizers employ a “shouter” though even he fails to communicate the messages to the public. The Circus can seat 10 to 12 thousand people.”
Initially, Georgian riders joined the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1892, traveling to London that year and to America in 1893. Of all the tales told about the riders, the one most often repeated is the story of their recruitment. Thomas Oliver (1867 – 1943), a commissioner, arrived in Georgia (then part of Russian Empire) to locate riders for Wild West show in the United States. In Batumi, Oliver stopped at the home of James Chambers, the British Council. An employee of Chambers, a fellow named Kirile Jorbenadze, who was on familiar terms with some of the riders in Guria, offered help. Oliver accepted and soon the two men plus vice-council Harry Briggs, departed to the village of Lanchkhuti. On the way there they stopped at village of Bakhvi, where they visited Ivane Makharadze, a distinguished rider who promised Oliver that he would be responsible for signing up other riders. Thomas Oliver was a remarkable character. Born in Manchester, in a family of circus performers, he spent his childhood on the road with his parents. Perhaps that’s how he ended up spending some time in Tiflis. During the following years, Oliver traveled across the Russian Empire with various circuses and became familiar with the Georgians’ riding skills. This implies that he didn’t come to Georgia “blindfolded.” Later, he interpreted for the Georgian riders (1892-96) presumably in Russian or quite possibly, in Georgian.
The British newspaper, The Weekly Dispatch reported its first account of the Cossack riders in Wild West show on May 8, 1892. That was the riders’ first documented trip to England. Similar, but shorter account of that trip appeared in the Georgian newspaper Iveria. It recorded briefly, “Batumi: here’s the list of Georgians, taken to London by a French agent: Ivane Makharadze, Dimitri Mgaloblishvili, Vaso Ckhonia, Levanti Jorbenadze, Luka Chkhartishvili, Mose Gigineishvili, Irakli Ckhonia, Besarion Tsintsadze and Meliton Tsintsadze. Ten persons, all in all.” In an interview granted to The Oracle (May 28, 1892), Nate Salsbury, the Wild West show’s general manager, confirmed, “Yes, they arrived last night. They come from beyond Tiflis (Now Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia), near the extreme of the Caucasus Mountains. They are headed by Prince Ivane Makharadze…”(Group leaders were mostly referred to in the lists as “Prince”. In fact, only some of the riders were of noble origin. The rest were mostly peasants. Apparently, it was a publicity stunt to attract more people) By that time, the British were well aware of Buffalo Bill’s traveling extravaganza. The show had been introduced to the English public at Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887. It was a smash, despite having no so-called, “Cossacks”.
The first group of riders caused great excitement in London because it was the first time that Londoners encountered the so-called, “ Cossacks”. The Georgians’ daggers and swords, and especially eye-catching national outfit decorated with pockets for cartridges was a special topic of conversation, and aficionados took them for miniature sticks of dynamite. According to The Illustrated London News (June 18, 1892), “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West from the North American prairies may be seen here again, positively for the last time in Europe and the Cossacks of the Russian Caucasus, famous military horsemen, under command of their Hetman, Prince Ivan Makharadze, at another of the afternoon, perform equal feats of equestrian prowess.”
Meanwhile, the news about the “Cossack” horsemanship reached the royal family’s ears, and soon Nate Salsbury received a note from Queen Victoria’s stable-man stating that Her Majesty would be pleased if the Wild West show managers would bring their “Cossacks” to Windsor.
On June 25, 1892 the Georgians, lead by Ivane Makharadze, performed in front of the Queen, the royal family and other members of the aristocracy. Charmed by the performance, Her Majesty, Queen Victoria presented the Georgians with a gold engraved album with photos of their performance. (Presumably, the album was kept at Ivane Makharadze’s house in Guria and was destroyed during a fire) and the British society expressed gratitude by issuing a letter of gratitude signed by 20, 000 people.
The Wild West show organizers initially paid little attention to the riders’ origin, identifying them Russian Cossacks, Russian Caucasus Cossacks or even Caucasian Jews. It might be worth mentioning that Thomas Oliver and other organizers were responsible for creating this initial mystery in the media by declaring that the riders came from the southern part of the Russian Caucasus, where the Cossack family in Lord Byron’s “Mazepa” came from. Even the riders boasted that they were awarded medals for bravery but it was a con, of course. Other newspapers went even further, such as The Hutchinson Leader that ran an article on July 24, 1908, “The Cossacks were the real thing, right from the Czar’s army. Splendid horsemen and brave fighters, they are also fierce and cruel. They were members of the same regiment that charged upon a throng of men, women and children in the streets of St. Petersburg two years ago and shot and sabered, murdered, a thousand.” No wonder such stories helped make them popular heroes.
. Georgian riders were known to do the most unbelievable stunts while galloping. Sarah J. Blackstone wrote that the horses needed some time to get used to the tricks performed by the “Cossacks”. Some Georgian sources claim, rather unconvincingly, that they rode the Georgian breeds. According to The London Start (May 31, 1892), “Their riding consists mainly of tricks on horseback, and I’m very anxious to see what they can do in that line. We cannot try them yet, as their wiry little horses need rest after their long journey.” But these comments don’t correspond to reality. First, it was very expensive (around $320) to transport a horse across the Atlantic and second, it was prohibited by quarantine regulations. Normally all the horses were sold after the shows were over in Europe. This indicates that either it was costly for the organizers or prohibited by existing regulations to ship them across the Atlantic.
When asked about it, one Georgian horseman said, “Our horses? They couldn’t have borne the journey. We ourselves had difficulties in crossing the Black Sea let alone our horses. But we brought our saddles, our whips and the rest of the stuff.” Here’s an interesting bit from another American newspaper, “The Cossack saddle is another thing that attracts much attention. Its chief peculiarity, seen from the sides, is two thin pads, fore and after, resembling loaves of bread. A closer examination shows there are four of these pads. The Cossacks stand up in their stirrups with two or three pads on, before and behind his legs. They are stuffed with horsehair. “Why does the Cossack use this saddle?” Prince Luka, a Georgian Cossack, could only shrug his shoulders when the question was asked him. All he could state positively was that style of saddle had been used in his native section of the Caucasus as long as human memory could extend.”
The act usually began with Georgian native dances and songs, and then was followed by stunt riding. It represented the perfection of man and horse and the Georgians did some unimaginable things.
There are some quotes from American newspapers testify to their unique riding skill, “They stood in the saddle, on their feet and on their hands and kicked their legs as the horses flew madly around. They rode standing in their saddles with their faces facing their horses tails and chased each other to capture a handkerchief carried in their mouth…” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1893).
“Standing up in the saddle is child’s play to them. They all rode like mad yesterday standing on their heads on the horses backs.”(The Philadelphia Press, May 23, 1904).
“If the audience will watch Prince Lucca, the Cossack, with his sword, while standing on his saddle, they will be amazed, for so expert is he that as Remington, the famous artist, expressed it, that “No Cossack could commit suicide unless on the ground.”(Nashville American, October 7, 1897).
“Our cowboys are universally the best exponents of expert horsemanship, but the famous Cossacks are their close rival” (Billboard, July 28, 1906).
Even William Cody himself said in one of his interviews, “Ride? They can ride anything, and if they get thrown they are up again in a flash. You can’t tie’em down.” (New York Daily Tribune, April 20, 1902).
Dee Brown, the noted western historian wrote, “Trick riding came to the rodeo by way of a troupe of imported Cossack daredevils. Intrigued by the Cossack’s stunts on their galloping horses, Western cowboys soon introduced variations to American rodeo”.
The First World War and the Bolsheviks ended the Georgians’ voyages abroad. Those Georgians who found themselves stuck in the States, mostly in Chicago, continued performing in Miller and Ringling Brothers’ circuses and returned to their homeland only when the war was over. Many Georgians settled down to create typical American families and lost ties with their homeland.
As the century progressed, many Wild West shows had to compete with new entertainments, including motion pictures. Some of the shows’ organizers, including Buffalo Bill, started to make film versions of the shows but despite these most of the shows were in deep financial trouble due to declined attendance.
The occasional feeble attempt by some to reanimate the previous glory of the shows led to tasteless endeavors in which some of the Georgian original participants were enlisted. But by that time they had lost the luster of stardom along with their energy and endurance. Fatally, the media had lost interest in them. The organizers even stopped mentioning their names in the programs.
Hard times were ahead for those who returned to Georgia as well. On the grounds that they all were American spies, most of the riders were imprisoned and exiled by the Bolsheviks. Many riders had to destroy all evidence and photographs of their trips abroad in order to survive the new regime’s iron hands. There were cases when riders were forced to sign a document in which they promised never to mention America or Europe again. The Bolsheviks confiscated all the precious gifts and present they had been given. Usually, these things surfaced in the houses of the party nomenclature. Nervous stress was too much for many, – some committed suicide, others died in oblivion…
Ivane Makharadze, the Georgian riders’ first acclaimed leader, spent his childhood in the small village of Bakhvi. When he was fourteen years old, his father asked him to ride to a distant village – Bakhmaro. Fond of horse riding, the young Ivane was more than happy to oblige. He fast rode till he got thirsty and dismounted at the spring. The sweaty horse, left unattended, gulped down too much cold water and died. Ivane came back with only a saddle on his back and accepted a deserved thrashing from his father. The boy, ashamed of his failure could not tolerate his offense and ran away to Batumi. It was then 1880 and by that time Batumi was declared a tax-free seaport. There he bumped into two young men from another Georgian region, Racha, which were employed on one of the ships. With their help Ivane was introduced to the ship’s captain. The captain grew fond of the short but lively fellow and gave him a job. The ship weighed anchor the next day and arrived in New York harbor almost a month later. By that time, fed up with his exhausting and boring job, Ivane quit and after days of aimless wandering picked up another job at a bakery. The rest of the story is a bit vague, but a year or so later he surfaced as a cleaner at one of the circuses in New York. His diligence and penchant for horses caught the attention of an Arab rider employed by the circus and he was again hired. From this point forward, Ivane was responsible for taking care of the horses. He worked really hard. With his circus earnings, Ivane bought his first horse and soon was asked to perform trick riding for the circus. Clad in his national dress he pioneered the trick of grabbing coins while riding. His successful debut allowed him to buy a second horse and become increasingly independent. Only now, when he had enough personal savings, did Ivane dare to send a message to his parents telling them where he was. In 1885, shortly before Thomas Oliver’s appearance in Georgia, Ivane Makharadze returned to his homeland. This story suggests that Oliver might have known about Makharadze’s odyssey in America, and as a result, he knew perfectly well where to look for the Georgian riders.
Though the public equally respected all Georgian riders, there also were favorites who were treated as larger-than-life-heroes. Luka Chkhartishvili was definitely one of these. According to the Georgian newspaper Kvali (March 9, 1897), “ His exceptional riding skills make him incomparable; all marvel how this man became so consummate in his native village.” Prince Luka arrived on the scene in 1892 and performed until the beginning of the First World War. By origin, Luka was a goldsmith from a relatively well off family. Despite this, he was illiterate (he couldn’t even sign his name in a passport) though, later he learned not only how to read and write in Georgian, but mastered English as well. Another well-known Georgian rider Veliko Kvitaishvili recalled, “When I was 13, there was a lively, animated, sparkling kid, a goldsmith’s apprentice. His name was Luka Chkhartishvili. He adored horses and spent most of his free time galloping them in the field. Even back then, he was considered the best rider in the village of Lanchkhuti.” According to another rider, Lazare Jorbenadze, just before another trip to America, Luka organized a training field in front of his house where 10 riders could exercise every day.
The Daily Tribune wrote on April 14, 1901, “The wonderful horsemanship of Prince Loucca has made him one of the attractions of the show. The Prince comes from Batoum (Batum), which is two and a half miles from Odessa, and joined the show nine years ago. The Prince is said to have got his title from his fellow countrymen just as the Indian chiefs get their titles from their tribes. Where he comes from he is called the Hetman, meaning headman. He is not of the royal blood and, as Russia is well supplied with princes it is not expected that the title will be envied. There is not a prouder man connected with the show than he, and one of his esteemed friends is Black Fox, the head Indian chief. An accident happened three years ago, which has cost him grief since. While standing upright on the horse the animal stumbled and broke its neck. ” (Note: before that, on August 14, 1896, The New York Daily Tribune reported that Luka had a near death experience in Indiana).
One member of the audience, a sailor, told The Daily Tribune’s journalist, “It’s an amazing sight, watching him riding on his head. I have traveled to many countries but haven’t seen anything like that before. I’m sure he can shave while riding a horse.” According to an article in Tsnobis Purtseli dated December 21, 1897, “Mr. Chkhartishvili received a gold medal for his riding skills inscribed with the words: “To Russia’s famous player from American society.” Other newspapers wrote, “The twelve Cossacks are in charge of Prince Lukka, a man of royal blood, and who, while he cannot speak much English, is as polite as a Cherterfield” (Baltimore American, September 30, 1895), “Their leader, Prince Lucas, distinguished from his band by a costume of snowy four, rode with all the abandon of a madman, hanging to his fiery steed by the point of his mall boot. After the show Lucas turned out to be a mild-mannered and charmingly pleasant gentleman, who spoke in softest tones of his “papa” and “mamma,” his “sweet little sister,” and his happy home.” (The Dispatch, August 31, 1897).
Here’s another interesting quote from Fred Gipson’s book which the author dedicated to Zack Miller, one of the owners of Millers Brothers’ “101 Ranch,” where Luka Chkhartishvili worked from 1908 – 1914, They were all packed, and Zack was in their quarters talking to them when in walked some British officers with orders to put the Cossacks on a boat going to Belgium. From there, they would go into Russia and eventually into the war. Lucca, the head of Cossacks, broke down and cried like a kid.” Zack tried to console him. “When this is over, he said, “I’ll still have a place for you boys.” But Lucca shook his head. “For us sir, he said, “It is all over now. We shall never see the 101 again.” This conversation took place in London in August 1914 after the beginning of the First War. Indeed, Luka never managed to get back to America. He wanted to apply for a citizenship but couldn’t for reasons that are unknown.
Alexis Georgian (Gogokhia) went to the United States in 1894, after being excluded from a theological institute in Tbilisi. In New York he took a variety of random jobs and learned English, until, in 1897, when he contacted Luka Chkhartishvili and joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. He stayed with the show till the end of the 1899 season and later, in 1900, he started working with his own group. That is the time when he changed his name to Alexis Georgian, although he also performed as Captain Georgian, Colonel Georgian and Prince Georgian. It was said that by 1903-1905, he was in charge of practically every Georgian group in the States. It is interesting to note that the government of Georgia’s short-lived democratic republic (1918-1921) invited him to take the post of Georgia’s ambassador in the United States – a post that Gogokhia refused. He died in 1949 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Wild West show’s female employees brought more grace to the Georgians’ performances. The first Gurian woman who made it to America was Frida Mgaloblishvili. She arrived in 1893. Very little is known about Frida. She was born on August 7, 1871 in Ozurgeti.
On April 1, 1894,The Morning Journal ran an interview with Frida Mgaloblishvili. According to the interviewer, Frida, “a genuine lady” had been sent to Paris where she had collected a perfect command of French, German, Italian and English. The following is a shortened version of this interview: “Riding may almost be said to be born with us. Far back as I can remember, the back of a horse was my chair, almost my cradle. I have never learned riding, never been taught it as most performers are. All the fancy riding I do I did as a child for pure fun in emulation and rivalry of others in my native land. We Cossack women, though we do not vote and practice law or medicine, are born to a greater degree of freedom than your American ladies… The women in my country, too, have all the material habits of men. They smoke about as much, the delicate, light tobacco grown in our valleys or imported Turkish. They drink with equal freed the light, bright wines of the Caucasus. Being wine, no spirit drinkers, unlike the Russians, we are an extremely sober people. Drunkenness is almost unknown among us… Possibly our climate has something to do with the harmony that reigns among us. Possibly our open-air life contributes to this end by making us healthier. Well, our region doesn’t oppress us. We are of the Greek Church, and, like the Catholics, we have many holly days, which are holidays. Suppose you visit the Caucasus, you need no letters of introduction. You are invited to stay in the best houses as long as you please, and everything in the house is at your disposal… We live chiefly by agriculture and hunting. In my girlhood, I have seen wild animals shot from my bedroom window. Our chief drink, next to wine is tea… Our people are heartly eaters, but fatness is rare. The men, though slender, are stronger than any I have yet seen… Our dancing is peculiar. I cannot describe it to you… One of the things that very greatly pleases the spectators is our shooting, when standing on horseback…”
According to the press, Frida used to perform with one or four horses. Those who witnessed her breathtaking performance at Madison Square Garden could easily say that she was born a rough rider. Frida Mgaloblishvili performed for only two years, afterwards never returning to America and dropping out of view.
Another lady rider, Christine Tsintsadze spent her childhood in Lanckhuti and in her relatives’ words she often pretended that she had business in neighboring villages just to be able to ride a horse. By and large, Luka Chkhartishvili was responsible for encouraging female riders to go to America. Crossing the Atlantic was a strenuous experience, not to mention exhaustive daily training and performances, but the ladies coped with it like the men did. Christine Tsintsadze’s parents were against sending their daughter to a distant country but she was strongly determined to go, undergoing training at Luka’s training fields to prepare herself. Christine went to America in 1908 with a group of riders.
She was an extremely brave lady. Once, when her horse fell, she hit her head on the ground and lost several teeth but nevertheless managed to finish her set and was awarded fancy clothes, a golden watch and a ring. All in all, she had three near death experiences during four years but stubbornly went on performing. It’s worth mentioning that her admirers attempted to kidnap her a couple of times but failed thanks to Christine’s Georgian colleagues. Later, Ms. Tsintsadze recalled that nearly all her fans, even the women, tried to kiss her on the mouth after performances. “Probably it was my white teeth in ‘perfect’ shape that they liked” – joked Christine. She returned to Georgia in 1912 and whole town of Lantckhuti turned out to meet her and another group of riders at the station like heroes. On her deathbed, Christine gave away all her dresses and other personal belongings that she had been presented with in America and regretfully burned a huge box full of private correspondences.
The Zakareishvili Sisters, Maro and Barbale, began to ride in their native Surebi at an early age. Crowds marveled at Maro Kvitaishvili’s ability to ride three horses simultaneously, often asking her to show them her soles to make sure she had no glue on them. For her outstanding achievements she was presented a golden ring by one of the show’s organizer. Barbale and her husband Christephore Imnadze stayed in America and continued to perform. One of the highlights of Barbale’s set was when she rode with the American flag in her hands while standing on the shoulders of two galloping riders. Barbale Imnadze died in 1988 in Chicago.
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