Website designed by Basha O'Reilly
Irakli Makharadze has spent years documenting the unique equestrian history of his nation of Georgia, which is located in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. In this special article Irakli explains how the “Horsemen Daredevils” became the star attraction in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
On March of 2015 my book Georgian Trick Riders in American Wild West Shows, 1890s-1920s was published in the United States by McFarland & Company.
My book tells the story of the Georgian riders (aka Russian Cossacks) which began in 1892, when they first joined the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in England. In an interview granted to The Oracle (May 28, 1892), Nate Salisbury, 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.”
More on this subject can be found in Sarah J. Blackstone's book, Buckskins, Bullets, and Business a History of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (Greenwood Press, 1986, p. 81): “Russian Cossacks first joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in London in 1892. The original group numbered ten and ranged in age from 18 to 25. Their leader or commander was Prince Ivan 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.
Of all the tales told about the riders, the one most often repeated is the story of their recruitment. Thomas Oliver, a Wild West show representative, arrived in Western Georgia’s seaport town Batumi to locate riders for shows in the United States (Georgia is an ancient country situated to the east of the Black Sea, and surrounded by the Caucasus Mountains in the North. A former republic of the Soviet Union, it shares borders with Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The history of Georgia dates back to 3000 years. It has been an Orthodox Christian country since 337 A.D). 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, Western Georgia, 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, nicknamed “Matrakha” (in Georgian - “the man who carried the whip”), a distinguished rider who promised Oliver that he would be responsible for signing up other riders.
Georgian newspaper Iveria weekly confirms this story in an article published in June (#124) 1892: “A visiting dignitary from England has arrived to Batumi and stayed at the councils. A fellow dressed in long, typical Georgian dress, working for a council, caught the guest's attention. He asked the fellow to help him collect twelve good-looking, similarly outfitted fine riders. He also mentioned that he would pay good money and bring them back in six months' time at his own expenses.” In a little while the group of ten riders, underwent a training, sewed six pair different color of national dress chokha. Their chokhas were orange, yellow, green, motley purple – colors that Georgian men occasionally used in their dress. Apparently it was the part of the spectacle - to catch up audience attention.
The first group of riders caused great excitement in London because it was the first time, since 1814, that Londoners encountered the so-called, “Cossacks.” 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.” 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.
On June 25, 1892 the Georgians, led by Ivane Makharadze, performed in Windsor in front of the Queen Victoria, the royal family and other members of the aristocracy. “At a point in the performance when the Cossacks were doing their horseback work, Prince Henry of Battenberg, who was standing in the rear of the pavilion, said to the Queen in German: 'Mamma, do you think they are really Cossack?' Before the Queen had time to reply to him, I said, I beg to assure you, sir, that everything and everybody you see in the entertainment are exactly what we represent it or them to be” (Nate Salisbury, The Origin of the Wild West Show, The Colorado Magazine, July, 1955, p.210).
“It is probable that audience members were satisfied that the performers were Russian and that they could present a colorful and exciting as part of the show,” wrote Sarah J. Blackstone (Buckskins, Bullets, and Business a History of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, p. 83). Audiences wanted to see different kind of presenters and clever businessman Buffalo Bill Cody decided to involve representatives of other nations in his show and solved this problem at once: Georgian peasants became Cossacks, Sioux Indians became Cheyennes or Apaches, all Native Americans were chiefs in the show, all Asiatic women were princess; army horsemen were colonels, etc... Georgian writer Tedo Sakhokia, who bumped into them in Paris in 1903, quoted the riders as saying: “It's a disgrace. No matter how hard we try to explain that we are from Georgia, they don't get the message and call us Cossacks and don't even want to recognize the fact that we are actually Georgians” (Tsnobis Purtsely, April 16, 1903).
In 1893 the Gurians went to the United States where for more than 30 years they performed under the name of Russian Cossacks in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as well as other circuses and shows. They won widespread recognition and significantly influenced cowboys. “...The cowboy already experimented enough to be making flying and running mounts,” wrote author Frank E. Dean, “most of them knew how to stand in the saddle, some knew how to vault... When the Cossacks came to the United States for the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, the Americans picked up some hints and bright ideas. From that date on trick riding had a boom from coast to coast. The Russians knew how to tuck to a vault which gave them tremendous spring. They used saddles and straps to help them which the bareback riders had not used. Their horses were saddle horses and they were trained to run straight without swerving, regardless of what gymnastics the rider might be doing. Cowboys went home and gave their ponies a going over.” (Frank Dean, Trick and Fancy Riding, The Caxton Printers, ltd. Caldwell, Idaho 83605, 1975, p.3)
Out of all the international performers, the Georgian riders’ performance was perhaps the most popular feature of the Wild West Show. Only Indians and cowboys enjoyed similar popularity. It is very interesting that the Cossacks became an essential feature of every respectable show of that time. The Gurian riders were called Cossacks for different reasons, perhaps, the most important of which was the fact that Georgia was part of the Russian Empire at that time (Georgia annexed by Czar’s Russia in 1801 and by the Soviet Russia in 1921) and so each Georgian was referred to as Russian. Regarding this confusion, it might be worth mentioning that employers 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, “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” (The Hutchinson Leader, July 24, 1908). No wonder such stories helped make them popular heroes.
The usual performance of Georgians began with the riders, all dressed in national outfit, taking the stage while carrying their weapons and singing. First they marched around the arena, then stopped and dismounted on mid-stage, broke into a new song and started to perform one of Georgian native dances to the accompaniment of handclaps. Sometimes this dance was executed upon a wooden platform. This act usually followed by stunt riding. It represented the perfection of man and horse and the Georgians did the most unbelievable stunts while galloping. The riders performed a series of maneuvers - they were standing on their heads up, standing straight in the saddle, riding three-four horses simultaneously, jumping to the ground and then back, picking up small objects from the ground, etc. One of the tricks that was very popular with the spectators was, the rider at full gallop standing on horseback and shooting, also very admired was the game – “Hold the handkerchief” - when riders were pursuing the one who were holding the handkerchief in his teeth and trying to take it away. ”Picture the Cossack blithely off the air to dangle by one foot against the shoulders of his horse. Remember that he did this in the full military dress of the Czar - and often included a long saber clenched in the teeth.” (Frank Dean, Trick and Fancy Riding, p.66) This trick riding style is called dzhigitovka (a Turkic word taken to mean skilful and courageous rider) or jiriti in Georgian.
According to the noted Western historian Dee Brown, “Trick riding came to rodeo by way of a troupe of Cossack daredevils imported by the 101 Ranch. Intrigued by the Cossacks stunts on their galloping horses, western cowboys soon introduced variations to American rodeo. Colorful costumes seem to be a necessary part of trick riding, and it is quite possible that the outlandish western garb which has invaded rodeo area can be blamed directly on Cossacks and trick riders.” (Dee Brown, The American West, a Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994, p. 388).
Some Georgian sources claim, rather unconvincingly, that they rode the Georgian breeds (One rider recalled that American horses needed time to get accustomed to their way of riding). First, it was very expensive, to transport a horse across the Atlantic and second, as I know, it was prohibited by quarantine regulations. When asked about it, Ivane Makharadze 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” (Iveria, June, #124, 1892). The Cossack saddle is another thing that attracts much attention. Here's an interesting bit from one American newspaper: “...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 [Chkhartishvili], 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.” These saddles were not cheap, an ordinary Cossack saddle cost $75, and the one custom made for well-known rider Alexis Gogokhia-Georgian cost $275 (The Neola Reporter, July 7, 1904). More 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).
“Our cowboys are universally the best exponents of expert horsemanship, but the famous Cossacks are their close rival” (The Billboard, July 28, 1906).
Even 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)
According to The Dispatch, August 31, 1897: “...Prince Luka flashed fire from his great dark eyes when questioned as to his opinion of other riders in the show, making answer: “If Lukas thought that any other man-cowboy, soldier or Indian-could ride so well as he, Lukas would leave Buffalo Bill and go back to Russia.”
It was not uncommon for princes, kings and other royals to attend the Wild West shows including Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. The latter, a Spanish-American war hero, outdoorsman and rough rider, attended a show in Chicago and was so fascinated by Giorgi Chkaidze's performance that he presented him a golden ring and a tray as a token of his esteem. “It was so big that it nearly covered my finger” - recalled Chkaidze. According to Chkaidze's daughter Ekaterine, her father had to sell the ring to escape prison after coming back to Georgia. The reason for that was the fact that Chkhaidze talked much about the life style and brilliance of foreign countries, especially America, and that was prohibited in those Soviet times. Thus the information reached the Bolsheviks who ordered him to be imprisoned. The family was forced to sell the ring and pay for his freedom.
The riders, in turn, had a chance to visit the White House: Alexis Georgian attended president McKinley's reception in honor of Pawnee Bill, Dimitri and Frida Mgaloblishvilis' were received by President Cleveland, Ivane Makharadze and his interpreter were invited by the Duke of Orleans to the Savage Club.
In general, the Georgians' decision to travel to distant lands was based on financial hardship, - touring meant profits. However, on occasion group leaders were targeted with bribes in their native villages. Their American employers paid relatively good money, up to $40-50 per month or 100 rubles. (The price of a cow in Georgia in those days was 3-5 rubles). In the Georgian newspaper Tsnobis Purtseli it was reported, “They are paid 100 rubles per month and are given a wonderful chance to see the world.” Giorgi Gvarjaladze wrote to his family, “In case I will be employed by the shows I will be financially secure. Mother, I was thinking about sending you some money but I had to quit my job and couldn't find another one for a while. Now, thanks to Panteleimon Tsintsadze I'm engaged in a show again and hopefully will get $12 per week. It amounts to 25 rubles. If things go well they may pay us $13 per week” The leader of the first team Ivane Makharadze stated: “It’s impossible for us to like the United States as much as we like our own country. We have come here just to earn more money than we could at home. We have come here only for six months... after that we will return to our wives and children.” Luka Chkhartishvili, a famous rider, also wrote, “I have father, mother, wife and children. They all live in Russia and I have to take some money for them in winter, if I don't break my neck, of course.” Asked by a reporter what was his idea of having fun in his country Luka responded with many gesticulations, “Plenty friends, plenty wine, good time” (Minneapolis Tribune, August 13, 1900).
It must be said that not all of the riders went to America voluntarily. A Gurian rider Vaso Tsuladze known by the name Sam Sergie (He performed in 1911-1914; reportedly he continued working in the Wild West shows after 1917) with his brother Onophre, also future Wild West performer fled to the States following a train robbery. It was said that during the robbery several people got killed. Later he used to show off a golden cigarette case engraved with a double-headed eagle, boasting that he took it from a Russian army officer. This is what had actually happened according to Onophre’s grandchild: some drunk Russian general and his fellows beat up several Lanchkhutians without any reason in Batumi. They heard this story in Lanchkhuti and discovered that the general was supposed to travel by that particular train. Vaso Tsuladze called on some people and armed men stopped the train in Lesa, near the Lanchkhuti station. They entered the vans and started looking for the general. Soon Vaso found him, beat him up and took away his golden cigarette case. Shortly Vaso went to the United States. After the 1917 Revolution he came back. When Soviet Russia annexed Independent Georgia in February 1921, Tsuladze fled to France. After couple of years he immigrated to America and in 1930 became a US citizen. Soon he changed his name to Sam Sergie. Sam Sergie was the owner of Stockman‘s Cafe in Fort Worth, Texas for several years. In 1950 he had changed the name to the Stock Yards Recreation Club and in 1952 changed to Sam‘s Club. Sam Sergie died in Fort Worth in 1965. Word has it that his lawyer took all his belongings after his death. Sam's Georgian friends in the United States protested but couldn't do anything at the time to stop the confiscation.
Unfortunately, the riders were not insured against tragic accidents. Who can count how often they used to break their arms and legs and many even died after such accidents: On July 3, 1901 an unknown Gurian rider died during a performance of Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show in the City of Iron River. On October 28, 1907 another unknown Georgian rider died during a performance of the same Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show in Amarillo, Texas. In 1914 Khalampri Pataraia was killed in Louisa, Kentucky... The Evening Times (Cumderland, Maryland, May 25, 1912) ran a story about Cossack Steve Graceley's death. George Henney, a friend of Graceley's was demonstrating a challenging trick during a break and was injured although not seriously. After some time Graceley, who had been in the riding business for 12 years, tried the same trick during a performance and fell from his horse and was admitted to the hospital where he died on May 26. According to the reporting journalist, he was 38. Graceley was buried at Cumberland cemetery. Soon after his death, Alexis Georgian informed journalists that Graceley's real name was Irakli Tsintsadze and he was 52. He had no relatives in America and apparently was deep in financial trouble and his friends had to collect the money for his funeral and family. They managed to raise $84; $40 that was spent on Tsintsadze's burial, the remainder sent to his widow and 6 children (The Billboard, July 20, 1912).
The reason the Georgians took on nicknames was that their real names were unpronounceable to the show's organizers and the public. The financial manager even had to call them by numbers on payday. Alexis Georgian must get his due for identifying Irakli Tsintsadze for us. The same can be said about George Henney; who was, reportedly, one of the Cossacks. The list goes on.
All the participants of the show, whether cowboys, Indians, Arabs or Mexicans used to tell journalists fictitious stories about themselves, which they would fill with blood and gore. The Gurians were no exception. Luka Chkhartishvili told a story to several newspapers of how he killed Dons Cossacks. He mentioned a different number of Cossacks in different versions of the story, with the number varying between one and twenty (The Morning Journal, May 20, 1894).
One Georgian spectator gives us more of an insight into the relationship between the Georgians and the representatives of other nations: “I would like to tell you one very exciting story: during the Boer War, a number of wounded Boers were invited to join the circuses. Boers were the American's favorites and they used to attract huge audiences. While they performed for Buffalo Bill's Wild West show they stayed away from cowboys and Mexicans and kept company only with the Gurians. They even used to eat dinner together though they couldn't even talk because of the language barrier” (Tsnobis Purtsely, April 12, 1903). Frida Mgaloblishvili, the Wild West shows woman employee added, “We don't socialize a lot with others and it has nothing to do with our arrogance. It's a sort of a custom to cling to each other.” One newspaper reports on this, “Everyone in the show got along like one big family. The main exception was the objection of the cowboys to the Russian Cossacks, who mistreated their horses and really caused an ill feeling with many who dearly loved their horses.” The article doesn't say much about the bad treatment of horses but it must be noted here that the Georgians didn't use spurs, which are very painful to horses; instead they wore soft leather riding boots and used whips. As the whole, the Georgians were treated friendly and the riders of various ethnic origins usually were companionable when their paths crossed.
The Gurian riders, most of whom had never even been in Tbilisi, were seriously impressed by the Western countries, especially by the United States. Their favorite was California. “The climate, fruit and hospitality remind us of our home country” (Kvali, April 16, 1903). Nikoloz Chkonia, a rider, wrote in a letter to his family: “...I’ll just tell you that we have toilets made of marble stones. They look very expensive.” According to Kirile Khoperia, they lived in multistoried buildings in which they used moving rooms (elevators) to get to their floor. It astonished the Gurians. He mentioned the unusual cleanliness and order in the streets. Giorgi Chkhaidze wrote his family: “There are so many wires in the streets that birds often fly into them and fall down dead.” “We are much respected here, especially by ladies, - said one Gurian rider, - One wealthy American woman even offered a friend of ours to marry her but the poor bastard chose to tie the knot with a Georgian lady and now he relishes all the inconveniences of life in Guria” (Tsnobis Purtsely, April 12, 1903). Still, there were Georgians who entered into marriage bonds with the American ladies and settled down there. Some of the riders became citizens of the United States and used to say that if they ever returned to their motherland, they would introduce American democratic principles and laws there as well...
According to the rider Giorgi Chkhaidze once the Gurians passed by some wonderful apple orchards. One of them jumped over the fence, picked some apples and gave them to his friends. The next day an article describing some Cossacks who had stolen apples was published in a newspaper. In Guria nobody would have said a word about a few apples, but in the United States media were looking for sensational stories concerning anything related to the Cossacks. Chkhaidze recalled that they were so ashamed that they would not even go out.
For the sake of fairness it must be noted that the Georgians tried their best to behave well. Based on the words of Kirile Khoperia and Giorgi Chkhaidze, they usually visited the restaurants dressed in their best and always kept an eye on each other in case they didn't know how to handle an unknown dish. The journalists used to write about the riders appetite and how they could digest even a stone if it was served to them. One time, the Georgians, not conversant in English, entered a canteen and asked for scrambled eggs. The waiter didn't understand until Serapion Imnadze crouched and doodled around the place like a hen. They had scrambled eggs that day. The chief cook of Buffalo Bill’s Show stated in one of his interviews: “...We prepare 800 to 1000 individual steaks every morning and serve them for breakfast... Oh, the boys love the steaks! The Cossacks and the Indians want ‘em three times a day-and they get ‘em, too!” (Chicago Evening Post, June 6, 1896)
The Wild West Show’s female employees brought more grace to the Georgians performances. It is known that four Georgian ladies used to participate in these shows in the United States: Frida Mgaloblishvili, Christine Tsintsadze, Maro and Barbale Zakareishvili. After 1917 Russian Revolution 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.
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 American families and lost ties with their homeland. In one case, a rider who had a family in his native Guria wedded an American woman and returned to Georgia after a while. But when he was about to go back to the States the Bolsheviks wouldn't let him out of the country and he committed suicide.
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. Daughters of the rider Pavle Makharadze recalled: “They used to take different things that had been brought from the United States from the families of all riders. Finally they took a comb and a tab from our family. My mother was so horrified that she fell ill. She was always waiting for the Bolsheviks to come again.” Nervous stress was too much for many, - some committed suicide, others died in oblivion...
The connection between Buffalo Bill and Georgian trick riders represents one of the oldest known relationships between Georgia and the United States of America. These trick riders who performed for Buffalo Bill and other American showman might be viewed as the first Georgian ambassadors to the United States.
* * * * * *
In addition, Irakli Makharadze has produced an excellent documentary film about the Georgian Trick Riders which is available on-line.
Thanks to Salome and Nino Makharadze for translating this article.
© COPYRIGHT 2001 - 2015