Pawnee Bill Ranch
The Ostendorff Letters
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Anna: Thank you for downloading the Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast brought to you by the staff of the Pawnee Bill Ranch.
Erin: Welcome to the Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast. I'm Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch curator.
Anna: And I'm Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch historical interpreter.
Erin: Well, Anna, it's no secret that one of our favorite parts of working at the Ranch is dealing with people who knew Pawnee Bill and May when they lived here. Getting to talk to these people is almost like watching history come alive. But sadly, as time goes by, actually meeting these people is becoming a rarity. But, something equally as impressive is when we get to read documents that are in Pawnee Bill and May's own words. So, this winter we had the opportunity to do some research and we reached out to archives around the U.S. and we came across some documents that we thought would make really interesting subjects for our podcast.
Anna: Right. One of those institutions that house a piece of Pawnee Bill history is the University of Wyoming. Their collection covers a wide array of subjects from the American West. They have personal papers of Owen Wister who was the author of the Virginian. They have papers from Wyoming's first female governor Nellie Tayloe Ross. And they also have some personal papers of Buffalo Bill Cody. But there was one collection in particular that caught our eye when we were looking through their finding aids and that was because it contained a set of letters that shed some light on a remarkable piece of Pawnee Bill history. And it's all told from the perspective of a 24 year old May Lillie.
Erin: This collection we refer to as the Ostendorff collection and it contains a lot of wonderful items. We got really excited when we talked to the University of Wyoming and they were so generous to share with us. We love it when institutions share with us because that's what it's all about: sharing information and learning. There were photographs of the Wild West Show during its heyday, a catalog from Pawnee Bill's Old Town and Indian Trading Post, and a series of about a dozen letters written from Pawnee Bill and May to the Ostendorff family. The main recipient of the letter was a woman named Annie Ostendorff and the way that May writes to her, it is very apparent that they had this close female friendship. So, we decided to do a little research on the Ostendorff family and what we came up with was pretty interesting.
Anna: Yeah. Now, we're not exactly sure just how Annie Ostendorff met Pawnee Bill and May. Some of the letters allude to the fact that at one time she might have been a show performer. She probably might have been a trick rider because May makes reference to the girls all saying hello. This was before 1894 however because she stopped performing to settle down to raise a family. Her husband, Lewis Ostendorff was a publisher based out of New York City who did some work for Pawnee Bill during the run of the Wild West Shows. Annie was born Anna Paul in 1873 in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents were immigrants from Germany, which made hers and her siblings first generation Americans.
Erin: And that was the same for her husband, Lewis. Lewis Henry Ostendorff, Jr. was born in April 1854 in New Jersey. His father Lewis Sr. was from Germany and his mother, who has the best name ever, Mary McWhinney, was from Scotland. We aren't sure exactly how or when Lewis and Annie met, but on July 12, 1890, they were married in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Almost exactly a year later, on July 22, 1891, they welcomed their son, Robert Wilson Ostendorff, who was always called Robbie. He was born in Manhattan, New York City.
Anna: Yeah, so we have two families that are very good friends who are writing letters to one another during this time period. To set the scene a little bit, we have to go back to what was happening in the 1894 Wild West Show season. Now we talked about in a previous podcast Pawnee Bill's ill-fated balloon ride, which took place in Antwerp, Belgium in 1894. Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show visited Europe in that season. Before the season began, the Lillie's found themselves in Philadelphia, which kind of was their base of operations before they were here in Pawnee. They were preparing for their big overseas trip. The first letter we see from May was written on February 16th, 1894 in Philadelphia. Written to Annie Ostendorff, we learn a little bit about the preparations that were going on behind the scenes for the Wild West Show.
Erin: The letter says: "My dear friend, I will now try and answer your welcome letter. I intended to write to you a little while after I got home but I sent for some photos and that is what I have been waiting for. I have had an awful cold am just getting over it. We have been having awful bad weather it is awful cold today. I would love to get over to see you again. I suppose you heard of us going to Europe. I think it will be an awful nice trip. Mr. Lillie goes to Washington Monday for a few days. I expect to go down to Frederick soon to practice. Well, I am in hopes of seeing you before I go away. Regards to Mr. O from Mr. L and I. Your true friend, May. P.S. I send photo with this letter hoping you will like it. Bye Bye, May."
Anna: So, it's a pretty hopeful letter to a good friend. May was looking forward to the European show. She was getting ready to practice and she was preparing for this international trip and it seemed she'd been preparing for a while. I think it's interesting that we get to see a little bit of May's, almost education in a way, through these letters. She has this almost rough quality in the way that she writes.
Erin: Yeah, it's really interesting to see the way that May wrote and the vernacular she wrote in. There's no doubt that she was a very intelligent and business savvy woman. She had a lot of common sense, but the way that she phrases things and the way that she writes and spells kind of tells us that she probably didn't have much formal education. In Pawnee Bill's biography, Glenn Shirley writes that May was a graduate of Smith's College and her father was a physician. But we've proven that to be false. She probably did attend a regular public school in Philadelphia but nothing beyond that.
Anna: Yeah, there are lots of Quaker schools and they like to give education to everyone, so it's very likely that she attended something like that. Now, there's a short letter that was sent to Annie before the Lillie's left for Europe. It doesn't have a date on it, but what May talks about kind of puts it in between the other letters. It says…"My dear friend, yours to hand." Yours to hand was kind of an old timey phrase that manes that May had received Annie's letter in the mail. "Glad to hear from you and to hear you are all well. We are in the best of health. The steamer Illinois left yesterday morning with part of the show. They had a beautiful day. There were about 75 people and 100 head of stock. We will be over Tuesday sometime after dinner. Mother wants me to stay home as long as I can but I would of come over sooner. Hoping to see you soon with regards to Mr. O and yourself. From Mr. Lillie and myself. Your true friend, May."
Erin: The next letter in the series is written in Antwerp, Belgium on June 3rd, 1894. We see in this letter that May thinks things aren't all they're cracked up to be in Europe. The letter says…"My Dear Friend, Yours to hand and was very glad to hear from you and to hear you are feeling better. We are all well at the show and are enjoying ourselves but I tell you this place is no America. I do wish I was back and if I do come back all O.K. I promise you I will never come over again. We have been having awful bad weather raining and so cold but it is very nice today. Business is not as good as it ought to be. Oh but I do get some handsome flowers Sunday night. I got a large basket and Monday I got a large bouquet and the flowers are handsome over here. I am never without them. Dear me but these shoes have spoilt me. I can't wear no others and they are about worn out. I shall soon send over for you to send me another pair over. So you was to Buffalo Bill's opening. I should loved to been there. That was funny in Little Robbie calling him Pawnee Bill. It would be awful nice if you could come over here I think the change would do you good. All the girls in camp send their regards to you and Mr. O. With best wishes to you and your hubby from Mr. Lillie and myself, I am your True Friend, May. Love to little Robbie from Mr. Lillie and I."
Anna: So, there are two things about this letter that I love. Number one, she's complains about the cold weather and she grew up in Philadelphia, so you would think she would be used to it by now. Number two, little Robbie went to the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and got to meet Buffalo Bill but called him Pawnee Bill instead.
Erin: Yeah. That happens a lot. Still today, people confuse the two.
Anna: So, what this letter kind of tells us and what we can corroborate in the route books is that the show in Europe was being plagued by bad weather and low attendance. Now, it seemed like May was really homesick for America at this time. You know, of course, when she married Pawnee Bill she had never been away from home so this is probably her first big international trip. But she enjoyed the nice Belgian flowers that she was being given during her performances. The next letter is dated October 31, 1894, so almost 5 months after the last letter. The letter head that this is written on shows a grand hotel known as the Hotel Bellevue, which is in The Hague, Netherlands. The Hague is on the ocean and the hotel is still in existence. It is a beautiful red roofed Dutch building and it's easy to see why May and Bill chose it as their vacation spot.
Erin: This letter is the longest of the group at three pages and it reads…"My dear Annie: Your ever welcome letter came and I was as pleased to hear from you but it was awful sad news to Mr. Lillie and I to hear of Mr. Ostendorff being sick. I do hope and pray he will recover soon. I also hope you are over your trouble. I know it is over by this time. Yes, it is awful the trouble you have had but we must have trouble before it comes all together. Mr. Lillie and I are in the best of health and our trip through Holland. We have seen many beautiful sights over here oh it is so much better than Antwerp and the people are so nice. My only trouble is I can't understand them very well and I don't seem to learn. It would be nice if you and Mr. O could come over. I might of saved him the spell of sickness but I do hope your next letter will say he is better and you are all O.K. with a nice little girl."
Anna: So, she couldn't speak Dutch and she was frustrated because she couldn't speak Dutch and she couldn't learn Dutch. You pointed out that she's saying that she could have saved Mr. O from his sickness if he'd only come to Europe with them.
Erin: I love that. She's like, maybe I could have kept him from being sick! What? How?!
Anna: She seems to have this big vendetta against Antwerp. I wonder if it had to do with the balloon ride. Like, I wonder if that had anything to do with it.
Erin: Oh, yeah. She hated Antwerp and everything about Belgium. But, she was a proud American. We can gather that.
Anna: And then one of the other big things is she alludes to Annie having some troubles. If you paid attention to that last line, she said "I hope you're okay with a nice little girl." So, surprise! The reason why Annie and Mr. O aren't in Europe is because Annie is pregnant with her second child! It's the first mention of this child in any of the letters, but it becomes very apparent that May is infatuated with this baby. She also talks about the plans for the rest of their season. May writes…"We leave tomorrow at twelve o'clock for the South of France. Our first stand is Lyons. We will stay South of France all winter and Italy and Spain and then play Sweden and other countries next summer and come home in the Fall. Now we will do this if we make money in France but if we don't we will surely come back to good old America and nothing would suit me better than to have Gordon say we go to America. I have enjoyed it over here ever so much but I would like to come home now. It is so very cold where we are but we go 500 miles south of here so I guess it will be warm."
Erin: So what we know now that May didn't know then is that things did not go well when they went to France. The Pawnee Bill Wild West Show never made it to Italy, never made it to Spain or Sweden. The attendance at that show in France, at the many shows in France, was low and to make back their money, they had to go back to the Netherlands to perform for Queen Wilhelmina. They were hugely popular in the Netherlands so they made money while they were there. We don't know what happened with the rest of the show season but they just could not attract good crowds.
Anna: Can you image a two year stand for this Wild West Show in Europe? It ended up being like, what, a half of a year, but they had originally planned for a two year tour.
Erin: Yeah, two year show. But it seemed at the time that Pawnee Bill was excited at the next chapter of his show. She goes on to write…"Gordon is down to the train they are loading the stock and baggage. He is just wild to go to France. Of course you know it will be better when we come home we can advertise of being in these different countries. You can write to me all along and I can tell you how we are doing. Then we come home we will sure come and see you. "
Anna: May's letter then turns to talk of little Robbie again. We know that she and Pawnee Bill loved children and it seemed that Robbie Ostendorff kind of captured her imagination so maybe she saw something in little Robbie that she really liked. She writes…"So Robby is riding a bucking horse. He must do it for Pawnee Bill when he comes. Gordon did laugh when I read it to him. I expect he is a big boy by this time. It is time to eat as I will close with love to you. Best wishes from Mr. Lillie to you. I do hope Mr. O will be better and you are in good health. Kiss Robby for us. Your true friend always, May. P.S. Write as soon as you get this address."
Erin: And the fact that they have their three-year-old on a bronc kind of points to the fact that Annie Ostendorff was a trick rider or a horse woman or something. Even though we don't have records to prove it in our archives, I mean, we don't have a complete cast roster, but I mean who else but a trick rider puts their three-year-old on a bronc? I don't know!
Anna: I mean these people are living in the Bronx! There are probably not many people in the Bronx that know how to ride a bronco. So, you have to imagine that she had some sort of horse experience.
Erin: The last letter in the collection to Annie was addressed from Philadelphia. So they're back home by this point on February 5th, 1895. It says…"Mrs. Ostendorff, my dear friend. I will answer the letter you sent to mother. I have been expecting a letter from you since I have been home. We got home a week before Christmas and had a very nice voyage over. I thought of you while I was in New York. We got in at the wharf at nine o'clock and we left on the eleven ten train so you see we didn't stay long in New York. I was so anxious to see my mother and all the folks. Gordon and I are in the best of health. I hope you have got over your trouble all right and in good health. How is Mr. Ostendorff? I do hope he is well and home. We often speak of you both and wonder how you are. Gordon said Sunday night "May write Mrs. Ostendorff and see how they all are." I expect Robbie is a big boy. What is the baby? A boy or a girl?" And what I really find interesting in reading all these letters is you can really see a difference. She refers to pregnancy as your trouble. "The trouble." So, it's very different.
Anna: And we know how much trouble she had with her own pregnancy, so yeah, she does refer to it a lot as "the trouble." The letter continues "Gordon is very busy getting the show ready. He is buying horses now. We are going to have a neat show next summer if nothing happens. I think we will open April the 26th. Gordon is going out West to buy some ponies for we can't get what we want in this part of the country. Our show closed in Lyons France and we sent the Indians home and Gordon and I stayed in Paris for eight days and we just had a lovely time. I think the city is just grand. I would love to go over there and stay in Paris about two months there is so much to be seen. I tell you it is a gay town. If Gordon comes over to New York City I will come over to see you. Have Mr. O write him a long letter for I will be so glad to hear from you! With kind regards and best wishes for you and Mr. O from Mr. Lillie and myself. Kiss Robby for me. Your true friend, May."
Erin: So, was that baby a boy or a girl? We kind of think May wants it to be a girl.
Anna: Yeah, she keeps saying is it a little girl? Is it a girl?
Erin: Since there were no more letters between the two women that we have, there very well could have been but we don't know of them in existence, we had to do some additional research to uncover the answer to that question. Along with these letters, Pawnee Bill wrote several to Lewis Ostendorff which mostly discuss business matters. Lewis was printing biographies and programs for Pawnee Bill to sell while in Europe. There were a few letters dated past 1917 in which Pawnee Bill is talking to another gentleman though. He refers to the man as My Friend and Namesake or Friend Ostendorff. While doing some genealogical research on the family, we discovered that Annie had given birth to a little boy. So a little baby brother for Robbie was born on November 17, 1894.
Anna: And that little boy was really special. The Ostendorff's decided to name their son Gordon Lewis Fred Ostendorff in honor of their dear friend Pawnee Bill, which is why he refers to him as my friend and namesake. Sadly, Annie Ostendorff died fairly young at the age of 43 on May 14, 1910. Lewis Ostendorff passed away at the age of 68 on January 16, 1923. Robert, so little Robbie, settled into life as a cashier for various businesses in and around New York. I know he got married and he did have children. Gordon Ostendorff's life, however, started to mirror his dear friend and namesake though.
Erin: That's right. It's really kind of a cool turn of events. There is a very short letter from Pawnee Bill that is dated October 31, 1917. It reads…"Friend Gordon, I was glad to hear you are doing so well. Hope it will continue. Your work was satisfying last year and if I go out would like to have you with me. Best Wishes, Yours. G.W. Lillie." Gordon Ostendorff, the little baby that May had been so excited about, grew up to be a cowboy just like Pawnee Bill. He toured with a few shows and on his WWI draft card, he lists that he is a cowboy, but unemployed at the present.
Anna: Yeah, and Pawnee Bill alludes to trying to get a show together at Coney Island so, you know, they were trying to get these little shows in and around the country. And then I know he tried to do another big tour again.
Erin: Pawnee Bill was nothing if not optimistic.
Anna: The final letter in the Ostendorff collection is one written to Gordon from Pawnee Bill sometime after 1936. It sheds some light on the fact that even though Gordon Ostendorff was approaching 50 he was still out riding with these shows. Pawnee Bill writes: "I am now past 75 and have excellent health and enjoy my life about as much as I ever did. In reference to your saddle, I am sorry to say that I don't have an extra second hand saddle. My last two saddles that I have are the ones that I use and Mexican Joe uses so I wouldn't dare send it away. The only other saddle that I know of in town is at the second hand store and it is such an old rattle trap that I couldn't advise you to buy it. However, once in a while we have a chance to pick up a good second hand saddle and if we do, I will let you know."
Erin: Wow. It's really interesting to hear just how much the world changed in the 50 years that these letters spanned. In 1894, Pawnee Bill was off buying ponies from his show in the Western United States and in 1936 there are no second hand saddles to be had.
Erin: It's also really amazing that these two families stayed in touch for so long. Even after Lewis and Annie died, their sons Little Robbie, Robert, and Gordon shared a special bond with the Lillies that lasted up until the end of their lives.
Anna: That concludes our Ostendorff letters podcast. We just wanted to take this opportunity to read you some of Pawnee Bill and May's letters in their own words because it shows that they were real people and it is always fun to peek into people's private correspondence and their privates lives and these relationships that they had with one another.
Erin: Right, it shows them in a really personal, relaxed way and it gives us a glimpse of how they would have communicated with friends. These letters also shed light on a very interesting time in Pawnee Bill and May's lives – when they were building a business together and trying to tour Europe. I think it also kind of shows May in a vulnerable way. She was hopefully but she was also disappointed.
Anna: And very homesick.
Erin: Very homesick. May has always got a positive spirit in everything, but these letters kind of show some cracks in that. We hope you've enjoyed our podcast. We are a little late in bringing it to you because we've been busy putting on a Wild West shows. We hope you got to see our show in June. It was June 13th and 14th. If not, it will be our new tradition to stage a show on Father's Day weekend every year. So, hopefully when our summer settles down a little bit, we are still really busy with groups and some other things going on, we hope to get back in a routine for sure this fall. But thank you so much for listening and for your support of the Pawnee Bill Ranch. I'm Erin Brown
Anna: And I'm Anna Davis. Thank you for listening and we will see you next time!
Anna: The Pawnee Bill Ranch is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. For more information, go to www.pawneebillranch.com. Or find us on Facebook under Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum.