The Wild West at the Time of Rex
Carnival’s formative years and the most dramatic period of the American West paralleled each other.
George Armstrong Custer
February 13, 1872 – New Orleans
For George Armstrong Custer, the occasion of the first Rex parade on Feb. 13, 1872, was one of the few marches in his adult life in which he was a spectator and not a participant. Custer, whose military service wasn’t far removed from the bloody days of the Civil War and his heroics at Bull Run and Gettysburg, now had a more civil assignment. He was accompanying the Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich on his tour of the country, including hunting buffalo in Nebraska. Now the itinerary called for a stop in New Orleans where the French tradition of celebrating Mardi Gras was being embellished by the Americans in the form of a debuting parade headed by a newly created King of Carnival named Rex.
Custer, whose interest in New Orleans also included the recently opened Fair Grounds racetrack, was a second-tier celebrity among the stellar folks who happened to be in town that day. First there was the Grand Duke himself, bonafide royalty seldom seen in this frontier town. There was Dan Rice, whose traveling horse show in those pre-Barnum days was one of the biggest names in American circuses. Lawrence Barrett, the distinguished Shakespearean, was performing locally and even loaned Rex his Richard III costume for his ride. There were also two renowned burlesque performers, Lydia Thompson and Lotta Crabtree, both major stars in their profession.
George Armstrong Custer, top, accompanied Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, above, in a Mardi Gras visit in 1872.
Eventually it would be Custer’s name that would be best remembered, though for a tragic reason. That day, as the first Rex parade made its march, some concerned New Orleanians were trying to return the city to civility after the upheaval of the Civil War. Reconstruction continued, but the city, like many Southern towns, was trying to reach out to the nation by providing an event worth coming to see. The railroads did their mightiest to spread the message.
Yet for all the attempts to heal wounds, the nation was filled with many young men, former soldiers from both sides of the war, who had known nothing but violence during their formative years.
While New Orleans tried to be peaceful the lands to the west – Texas and beyond – were wilder. Banks and railroads, symbols of the monopolizing rich, were targets for robberies. Another problem was an internal nation of American Indians that felt betrayed, and in many ways was.
By 1872, New Orleans already had two established night parades, the Mystick Krewe of Comus and Twelfth Night Revelers, but Rex would set a new template – a daytime parade designed to make something more useful out of Carnival. Later that year, on New Year’s Eve 1872, the Knights of Momus would debut. A decade later the Krewe of Proteus arrived on the streets. Those years, from 1872 to 1882, were formative periods in Carnival; they were also the peak years in the legends of the American West. The era’s most famous characters and bloodiest battles splattered the history books during that period.
An artist’s sketch “Boeuf Gras in the Triumph of Epicurus” for Comus,1867.
(In the same year as Rex’s premiere, a civilian scout who helped the Army hunt Indians and buffalo was awarded the Medal of Honor. He had also been part of the entourage when the Grand Duke went hunting for buffalo. He had arranged for him to meet local Indian Chiefs and had even lent the Duke a pony to ride for the hunt. His name was Bill Cody. More would be heard from him later.) The parallel between Carnival and the West wasn’t just coincidence – both had to do with a nation rebuilding itself and expanding after the war; both were influenced, for better or worse, by men who had fought in that war. There would be one key difference though: by 1882, the New Orleans Mardi Gras was still early in what would be rampant growth, and by that same year the days of the untamed west were ending. Two cultural phenomena had arrived at the same corner of time, then headed in different directions.
“Old King Cole,” float design for Twelfth Night Revelers’ 1871 pageant.
Of the years between 1872 and 1882, the most pivotal was 1876. Three events happened that shaped the image of the west:
June 25, 1876 – Little Bighorn, Montana
America should have been a happier place in the summer of 1876. The nation, now united again, was only nine days away from celebrating the centennial of its Declaration of Independence, however on June 25, the country suffered a tragic loss. Not only was Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s army eliminated by an Indian army consisting of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, but the bodies of the 268 soldiers, some sons of church-going American moms, were mutilated so as, the attackers believed, to deny them the ability to fight in the afterlife.
For Chief Crazy Horse and his tribal confederacy, it was a knock-out victory, yet it was also the beginning of the end. News of the massacre and mutilations, especially coming so close to the patriotic fervor of the Centennial celebration, created national outrage. The United States government would prove many times in the years ahead that once attacked it would come back hitting hard.
Receiving the news, likely in St. Petersburg, Russia, of his former hunting companion’s death was the Grand Duke Alexei, now 26. He, too, would have a military career, though his was befitting someone whose dad was the Czar. He would eventually be put in charge of the Russian navy, for which he was given credit for modernization and blame for a key defeat in battle. His last years were spent in Paris safely away from the Russian revolution. Curiously, though French in origin, Mardi Gras was never an elaborate celebration in the French capitol. Most likely, New Orleans provided the Grand Duke the most extravagant Carnival he had ever seen.
August 2, 1876 – Deadwood, South Dakota
A bullet to the back of the head, while playing poker in a saloon, ended the life of Wild Bill Hickok who, during his career, had been a crime-busting lawman and a criminal himself. During the Civil War, he had fought with the Union Army as a Teamster, soldier and spy. His exploits, including chasing out the bad guys in Hays and Abilene, Kan., made him the stuff of legend; so much so that he became one of the nation’s first dime novel and comic book characters. His soaring fame propelled him into a second career: Wild West Shows. In 1873 he had joined his longtime friend, Bill Cody, in a play called Scouts of the Plain. The West was becoming a marketable storyline and big names such as Hickok helped sell tickets. The genre of the Wild West Show was emerging and one day it would have its impact on New Orleans culture.
September 7, 1876 – Northfield, Minnesota
If anyone from New Orleans happened to be on Division Street in that town on that date, they were possibly in the line of fire. They might not ever have known that what happened also had a connection to New Orleans.
A gang consisting of Jesse James, his brother Frank and fellow thugs joined with the Cole Younger gang to rob the First National Bank of Northfield. For the outlaws, it was a disastrous decision. During the Civil War, James, a native of Missouri, had joined a ruthless guerrilla outfit fighting for the confederacy. He would build a post-war career of robbing banks and trains from his skills. As an outlaw he enjoyed great success, until Northfield. A bank teller was shot and killed, as was a pedestrian. The town’s people, sensing something was wrong, and many carrying rifles because it was hunting season, had surrounded the bank. Two members of the James gang were killed; three of the Younger group were injured and subsequently captured. The James brothers escaped, though wounded; their outlaw career would never be the same. Why had they journeyed all the way to Minnesota to rob a bank? Well for one, they were wanted in Missouri, but also anything with Union connections was a popular target in those days. The gang had learned that a major investor in the bank was Adelbert Ames, a former Governor of Mississippi and a former Union Commander who was by then a resident of Northfield. Ames was the son-in-law of none other than Benjamin Butler, the Union General tyrant who had ruled New Orleans during Federal occupation and who, for good reason, was known as “Beast.” Butler also had large assets in the bank. Here was a chance for the gang to steal Butler’s money and his son-in-law’s too. Many southerners would have cheered the effort.
Benjamin Butler, left, the Union commander in charge of New Orleans’ occupation, had a large interest in the Minnesota bank that Jesse James, above, and his gang attempted to rob in 1876.
This botched robbery by Confederate renegades attacking the assets of Union generals has been referred to as the “last battle of the Civil War.” It was also a pivotal moment in the history of the Wild West. The outlaws who were once cheered for robbing from the rich, were being fired at from town folk who wanted stability in their lives. Jesse and Frank James hid wounded, tired and poor from a robbery that yielded little cash. Less than three months after Little Bighorn the West was changing.
For its 1876 parade Rex’s theme incorporated a Persian and Egyptian motif. Included in the march was Rex’s “Imperial army” consisting of “knights in armor.” Warfare, back when it was fought with lances and shields, seemed far more civilized.
Into the Future
October 26, 1881 – Tombstone, Arizona
Proteus’ debut parade was Mon., Feb. 20, 1882. In the days preceding the parade surely the men of Proteus must have heard about a shootout in Arizona that occurred less than four months earlier near a place forever identified as The OK Corral. In it the Earp brothers, Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt, along with sidekick Doc Holliday, shot it out with the Clanton gang. The Earps won. The gunfight would be immortalized in books, and eventually, movies. However, for Victorian gentlemen of the upper class, such as Proteus’ founders, the legends they drew from were from another world. Their tales were of the ancient past.
Eventually the world would become fascinated with stories of the American West but by 1882 the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had made Egypt the hot topic. Proteus’s debut theme reflected that with “Ancient Egyptian Theology.” Likely among Proteus’ members were former soldiers who had marched in the Civil War. Float titles such as “Nuth, or the Festival of the Lamps,” were esoteric, as was the tradition among the early krewes. The old soldiers were just glad to be able to march in peace.
December 12, 1884 – New Orleans
Bill Cody, the former scout who in 1872 (the year of Rex’s founding) had received the Medal of Honor from the U.S. Army, and who assisted in the Grand Duke’s buffalo hunt, had developed a new career. Now using the nickname “Buffalo,” he had developed a Wild West Show that tried to capture, for global audiences, some of the excitement of the Old West. On Dec. 12 of that year, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show arrived in New Orleans for an extended stay timed to parallel the World Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition (today’s version of a world’s fair) also being held in the city. Staying in town through April 11, 1885, the show drew huge crowds despite hardships caused by blasts of bad weather. For many locals it was an awakening. There were enacted gunfights, cowboys, stage robberies, Indians and Cody himself all on one field.
Among those who watched the spectacle were local blacks. Their ancestors had found some connection with native Choctaw Indians as fellow outcasts. But the Choctaws, whose wardrobe was largely pelts, were not anything like the Plains Indians who frolicked at Buffalo Bill’s shows in their feathery war bonnets. There developed a fascination between native blacks and Plains Indian culture. In early 1885 a few dozen Plains Indians, part of the Wild West Show, walked along New Orleans streets. That Mardi Gras, a black-based Mardi Gras Indian tribe called Creole Wild West made its debut.
At that moment, the Old West had staged its biggest impact on the New Orleans Mardi Gras, having inspired the evolution of the Mardi Gras Indians. As the tradition evolved the chants and customs would be largely Afro-Caribbean, but the look would be that of the West.
January 22, 1879 – Isanwanda, South Africa
Probe the evolution of cultural celebrations and there is much to be revealed about history and its people. In 1879, only two and half years after Little Bighorn, something happened in another part of the world that resembled Custer’s fall. The world would be stunned that an African tribe completely wiped out a British force of 1,200. The tribe was called the Zulus.
Like Little Bighorn the forces of an indigenous people had annihilated a superior largely Anglo army.
Like Bighorn the battle was a temporary set back for expansion.
Like Bighorn the conquered force would come back strong and eventually subdue their enemy.
Like Bighorn the underdog winners would inspire the world’s other downtrodden people.
Nowhere was it expressed better than in New Orleans where the black culture would honor the Indians with street dances and Zulu with a parade.
Ultimately Mardi Gras in New Orleans would create theater of its own by providing a street stage for Carnival Kings influenced by Europe; Warriors influenced by Africa and Big Chiefs influenced by the American West. It would become the grandest show of all.