Many of the events and characters that Larry McMurtry presents in Buffalo Girls are drawn from history. In the late nineteenth century, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was the owner and host of the Wild West Show, and it did travel to Europe and perform there. The European fascination for the American West kept the show running much longer than it would have by only performing in the United States. By the turn of the twentieth century, the westward expansion of European Americans had passed it peak; Frederick Turner called this the closing of the frontier. Violent conflicts and reprisals, especially the Wounded Knee massacre, and a series of treaty negotiations had led to an uneasy peace in the Western states and territories. While many Native people lived in cities and regularly interacted with white people, increasingly they lived on the greatly reduced landholdings that were the reservations.
McMurtry’s emphasis is on the changing way of life for white people far more than for indigenous people. The wildness that many people had sought in the west, riding and shooting and drinking, did not retain the same mystique. Figures such as Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and Cody himself had become legendary. While far from the only person to create a wild west show, Cody had an entrepreneurial knack that helped his troupe gain considerable renown; for showmanship, he is often compared to P. T. Barnum. Ironically, as the author shows, its very success depended on the virtual disappearance of that way of life, as the talented cowboys and sharpshooters needed employment. Despite its comic elements, the novel offers insights into the varied strategies they found for coping with the collapse of the Western world as they had known it.