The Marquis de Baroncelli and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show by Janice Lert

Folco, Marquis de Baroncelli, was a member of the provençal aristocracy, born on November 1, 1869 in Aix-En-Provence. The Baroncelli family had arrived in Avignon from Florence, Italy, during the 16th century, when the city belonged to the Popes. They later married into a local aristocratic family, the Javons, so, even though Avignon was not legally French, the Baroncelli-Javons had a status in France as citizens and held close relationships with the kings of France.

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Baroncelli and Buffalo Bill 1The family was not particularly well-to-do (the Marquis’ father had worked in a post office in Aix-en-Provence), and in 1887 they came back to live in Avignon, now French, and Folco soon began hanging out with members of the Félibre movement that he met at the local bookstore, in particular Frédéric Mistral. Folco, who wanted to become a reporter, was very enthusiastic about the use of the provençal language, and Mistral astutely realized what an advantage Folco could be for his movement: an aristocrat with a well-known name speaking provençal, a language which up until then had only been used by the peasants! Mistral put him in charge of his provençal-language newspaper L’Aïoli, with offices located in Baroncelli’s residence in Avignon, which Mistral named the ‘Palais du Roure’ (roure is an oak tree), perhaps because of the entwined branches sculpted on the outside wall.



Baroncelli and Buffalo Bill 2Now it came to pass that Buffalo Bill (Bill Cody), an American who had put together a ‘Wild West Show’ that was very popular at the time, came with his troupe on a European tour at the end of the year 1905. Among the actors were some Native North Americans, called Indians at the time. It is hard to discern today the motivations for these ‘natives’: it is said that some of them were prisoners that had been captured by the US government and were sent out with this show to keep them away from their tribes. The idealistic Marquis was actually in favour of promoting any minority groups, such as the Native Americans, with strong traditions and traditions and ties to their land, during this period of the Industrial R e v o l u t i o n when people were losing their roots. Not only that, but these excellent horse-back horse-back riders could be compared with the gardians (cowherds) living in the Camargue and riding around on their white Camargue horses to guard their black bulls. For the Marquis, it was vital to establish a relationship with these natives.



Baroncelli and Buffalo Bill 4He got the chance when he learned that Buffalo Bill was coming to Provence. Buffalo Bill was not as much a cowboy as a businessman, and his show offered much more than just Wild West scenes (for example there were Berber riders from North Africa on their Arabian horses). Bill had come to France before, in 1889, but not to the south, and Baroncelli had made no attempt to meet him. But in 1905, the tour would take him through Nîmes and Arles, and Folco wanted to be part of the fun, in particular to promote local horse-back riders. Therefore, he went to Paris to meet Bill Cody before his southern tour with the idea of asking him to integrate gardian games in his circus. The problem was that there was a lack of them at the time. Of the games we know today, only the aiguillettes existed (placing a lance through a ring at full gallop). All of the other gardian games were apparently ‘invented’ by the Marquis after Buffalo Bill’s show came through. We don’t know whether a gardian actually participated in Cody’s show, but Joe Hamman (a film-producer who created French westerns and knew Buffalo Bill) introduced the Marquis to two Indians, including one named Jacob White Eyes, who were travelling with Buffalo Bill.


On October 27, 1905, when the Wild West Show arrived in Nîmes, the Marquis invited the Indian chiefs in Camargue, where, according to an article in the newspaper, they watched gardians sorting cattle, and participated in a bandido where they sang their war chant. The reporter who wrote the article was the Marquis himself (reporters creating their own news is nothing recent apparently…). The show came to Arles on October 30, then continued on to Marseille where it took up its winter quarters. Thus Baroncelli was able to maintain contact with the only Native American to remain in France, Jacob White Eyes; this contact was never easy, because of the language problem. Folco was very enthusiastic about the Native American cause, but Jacob White Eyes himself only responded half-heartedly, and never made it to Baroncelli’s home in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. At the beginning of March 1906 the show left on their European tour and the participants never came back to the Camargue.

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Baroncelli went to Gand, in Belgium, to say good-bye when the show finally left to go back to the US, and according to the legend, the Indians threw a bag back to Baroncelli with costumes in it. It is thought that the Indian costumes worn by Baroncelli and his friends may have been bought.

Baroncelli tried to write to Jacob White Eyes, and was disappointed to find that he was called simply Jacob White, and that he couldn’t care less about native traditions. He wanted nothing more than to be a true American. What a difference between Folco’s idealistic vision and the reality of the Native Americans at the time!