March 10, 2016

Montana Frank and the Wild West Show

by Molly Kruckenberg, Research Center Director

Montana Frank Shows, poster,
printed by the American Show Print
in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, c.1910.
The MHS Research Center recently acquired the “Montana Frank” poster shown here.  As part of our acquisition process, we research potential contributions to ensure they fit within our collecting mission.  Sometimes the stories behind the items we acquire are as interesting or more interesting than the items themselves; that is the case with this poster.

“Montana” Frank McCray’s story reads like fiction – and some of it very well may be.  Known variously as Montana Frank, Colonel McCray, and Montana McCray, his life was as varied as his name.  Reportedly born in 1864 in the area that became Butte, long before the town was the “richest hill on earth,” Montana Frank variously reported that he was a scout for the Army at Fort Shaw, rode for the Pony Express, ranched near Wolf Creek, performed as a roper and rider in Wild West shows, wrote cowboy music, and mined in Idaho.

The son (again, reportedly) of Army Major Lyman F. McCray and Rosella Fanner (also seen as Rosellia Tanner), Frank spent his youth in Montana.  While many of his activities are undocumented in contemporary sources, later biographical newspaper articles provide self-reported details of his early life in Montana Territory.   As a child he moved to Fort Shaw with his family and, upon his father’s death when he was 17, he moved to Helena with his mother.  Shortly thereafter he returned to Fort Shaw, where he worked as a government scout.  At the age of 19 he married Elaine Powers of Helena. 

Montana Frank’s claim to fame is the time he spent performing in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of the Rough Riders of the World” show.  From about 1893 until about 1899 Montana Frank was a roper and rider in the show.  He performed with the show in 1893 when it set up an independent exhibition near the Chicago World’s Fair.  After leaving Buffalo Bill Cody’s show, he continued performing with the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuits. 

Stevens Point Daily Journal,
Stevens Point, Wisconsin,
July 26, 1917.
Wild West shows were immensely popular in the United States and abroad from the 1880s until the 1930s.  In addition to Buffalo Bill’s show, popular shows included the Miller Brother’s 101 Ranch Wild West Show and Doc Carver’s Wild West show.  These shows and scores of others toured around the United States as well as in Europe and Australia.

Sometime around 1910 Montana Frank attempted to organize his own Wild West show.  Evidence has been found of shows being performed in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Montana Frank had posters printed to advertise his show.  The MHS Research Center’s recently acquired Montana Frank Show poster is dated 1910 and was printed by the American Show Print in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  

Montana Frank lived the last decades of his life in Grangeville, Idaho, with his second wife Grace.  One of his later past-times was to write cowboy songs and melodies.  He passed away in Idaho in 1959.

“’Montana’ Frank L. McCray in front of log cabin,” Courtesy Buffalo Bill Center of the West, P.320.286.  (link to their online version of the image at
(Used with Permission)

• “Man Born in Butte in 1864, Frank McCray, Dies in Idaho.”  Montana Standard, April 5, 1959.
• “Montana Frank McCray, Last of Buffalo Bill Scouts, is Found Living in Salmon River Wilds.”  Helena Daily Independent.  April 11, 1938. 
• Russell, Don.  The Wild West; or, A history of the Wild West shows, being an account of the prestigious, peregrinatory pageants pretentiously presented before the citizens of the Republic, the crowned heads of Europe, and multitudes of awe-struck men, women, and children around the globe, which created a wonderfully imaginative and unrealistic image of the American West. [Fort Worth]: [Amon Carter Museum of Western Art], [1970].
• “Melodic Gift is ‘God-Given:’ Montana Frank McCray, last of Scouts and Frontiersman, Writes Songs.”  The Spokesman-Review.  August 1, 1937.
• “Last Buffalo Bill Scout, at 73, Finds Nature, Unmarred, Best.”  The Spokesman-Review.  July 11, 1937.
• Freeborn County Standard, Albert Lea, Minnesota, August 31, 1916.
• Advertisement, Stevens Point Daily Journal, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, July 26, 1917.