Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Bill Pickett”

Rodeo as we know it took a while to evolve. Wild West Shows, Frontier Days Celebrations, Stampedes and Roundup Celebrations of various forms all had a hand in its formation. It is written there were as many as 100 different events, contests or displays the various producers chose from when organizing a show. One such event was simply known as “bulldogging.” It is was the precursor to what we know today as steer wrestling and is the only event in rodeo which can be traced back to one man who is credited with its origination. That man is Bill Pickett.

Pickett was born December 5, 1870 in Travis County, Texas, north of modern-day Austin. His parents were former slaves. He was a Black man, who also was said to have Cherokee Indian and Anglo in his blood. “His antecedents were of mixed Negro, Caucasian and Cherokee Indian blood,” according to Colonel Bailey C. Hanes, “a not uncommon blend [in the 1800s] in the upper south.” Hanes wrote in his book, Bill Pickett, Bulldogger (University of Oklahoma Press, 1977).

As a kid, Bill worked on local ranches, where he observed ranch dogs (often referred to as “bull-dogs”) bring wild cattle under submission by biting them on the nose and upper lip. He must have thought, “If it works for those dogs, why wouldn’t it work for me?” Bill started practicing his “bulldogging” technique.

Nobody knows for sure if he first started doing this on the range or in a corral. What we do know is that he figured out how to spur his horse along beside a bovine and jump onto it, grabbing ahold of its horns. He then maneuvered around so he could get a bite on the nose or upper lip, just like he’d witnessed those good dogs doing. Then he threw his weight to the ground, bringing the animal with him. It had no choice but to submit.

Before long, word got around about Bill’s stunt and he started doing exhibitions. Although he only had a fifth-grade education, he and his brothers were some of the earliest Black entrepreneurs in Texas during the late 1800s. They formed a group called, “Pickett Bros. Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association,” near Taylor. As word spread, Bill was requested more and more for exhibitions further away from home. He did shows all across the West.

By 1904, his technique and act down had been honed to perfection and he made an appearance at the prestigious Cheyenne Frontier Days. There he caught the attention of the Miller Brothers whose 101 Ranch Wild West Show was known worldwide. They hired Pickett in 1905 for his popular act and brought him and his family from Texas to Oklahoma, housing them at the 101 Ranch headquarters. He was billed as “The Dusky Demon,” and known at the time as “the only professional bulldogger in the world.”

He worked along side the likes of Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers and Tom Mix and performed with the Wild West Show in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, South America, and England. Colonel Zack Miller of the 101 Ranch described Pickett as “. . . the greatest sweat-and-dirt cowhand that ever lived, bar none.”

He was such a popular performer that he was also requested to appear in some early motion pictures. He was in the films, The Bull Dogger and The Crimson Skull and has been credited as the first Black cowboy movie star.

Bill worked for the Wild West Show (and Millers 101 Ranch) the rest of his life. He did everything for them from working cattle to picking cotton to training horses — and of course, performing in their shows. Along the way he taught bulldogging to many cowboys. The biting aspect of it eventually was dropped, but “steer wrestling” evolved and has since become on of the six “standard” events of rodeo to have survived out of the 100-plus various events tried throughout the years.

In 1890 Pickett married Maggie Turner and the couple had nine children. Over the years Bill sometimes entered rodeos as a Native American just because Blacks were often not allowed to compete due to prejudices of the day. There has been speculation that Bill would have several “World Championships” in the bulldogging event to his credit had he been allowed to compete like his white contemporaries. Of course, by the time World Championships were even counted, Bill would have been in his late fifties — so who knows. One thing is probable however, without Bill Pickett, there would not be a steer wrestling contest.

In 1932, Bill Pickett was kicked in the head by a horse while working at the 101 Ranch and died of his injuries eleven days later on April 4, at the age of sixty-one. His friend Will Rogers announced the funeral on his radio show, commenting: “Bill Pickett never had an enemy, even the steers wouldn’t hurt old Bill.”

Pickett is buried near a fourteen-foot stone monument to Ponca Tribal Chief White Eagle, on Monument Hill, in Kay County, Oklahoma.

Today there is a Bill Pickett Memorial rodeo series, held annually since 1984. They raise money for scholarships and according to the website, “The Bill Pickett Memorial Scholarship Fund (BPMSF) strongly supports education and benefits youth each year by providing scholarships to Black high school and college students involved or interested in pursuing careers in rodeo or animal science.”

In 1971 Bill Pickett became the first black honoree into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s, Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. In 1989, he was also inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame at Colorado Springs, Colorado.