Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Lucille Mulhall – First Cowgirl”

To see a petite young lady roping and tying a steer or performing stunts a-horseback is special. To do it in the early 1900s, an era of rough and tough, “real” cowboys, and do it as well as, or better than the men is incredible.

Lucille Mulhall was born October 21, 1885, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Colonel Zack and Agnes Mulhall. The family relocated to Oklahoma during the great land rush of 1889 and homesteaded one-hundred-sixty acres. The Mulhalls eventually laid claim to about eighty-thousand acres of rangeland located north of Guthrie —some of which was leased land. However, much of it was open range they simply controlled and claimed by virtue of use and being on it (a common practice of the day).

By age seven, Lucille was riding the range, being taught cowboy ways by the men who rode the plains, in what was then “Indian Territory.” Zack Mulhall once claimed that when his daughter was only thirteen, he told her she could keep as many of his steers as she could rope in one day. He bragged, “She didn’t quit until catching more than three-hundred head!”

Col. Zach Mulhall (a title bestowed upon him despite never serving in the military) started a “Wild West show” in the early 1900s. Many early movie cowboys, including Tom Mix, and Will Rogers got their start in Mulhall’s Congress of Rough Riders and Ropers. Lucille also starred in the show. She was among the first women to compete in roping and riding events with men and earned many championship titles. Today she is celebrated as the first cowgirl.

Will Rogers wrote, “Lucille’s achievement in competition with cowboys was the direct start of what has since come to be known as the Cowgirl. There was no such a word up to then as Cowgirl.”

The term was coined to describe Lucille when she dazzled Easterners in her first appearance at Madison Square Garden in 1905. “Against these bronzed and war-scarred veterans of the plains, a delicately featured blonde girl appeared,” a New York reporter wrote. “Slight of figure, refined and neat in appearance, attired in a becoming riding habit for hard riding, wearing a picturesque Mexican sombrero and holding in one hand a lariat of the finest cowhide, Lucille Mulhall comes forward to show what an eighteen-year-old girl can do in roping steers. In three minutes and thirty-six seconds, she lassoed and tied three steers. The veteran cowboys did their best to beat it, but their best was several seconds slower than the girl’s record-breaking time . . . The cowboys and plainsmen who were gathered in large numbers to witness the contest broke into tremendous applause when the championship gold medal was awarded to the slight, pale-faced girl.”

However, Lucille was a cowgirl long before becoming an entertainer. “By the age of fourteen,” the New York Times reported, “She could break a bronco and shoot a coyote at five-hundred yards.”

Newspapers tagged her with titles like “Daring Beauty of the Plains,” Queen of the Range” and “Deadshot Girl,” but the one that stuck was “Cowgirl.” It has been argued that the term “cowgirl” had been in use since before she was even born, but few would argue that Lucille was the first to give it national meaning.

Even the great Geronimo was an admirer of Lucille’s talent and once gave her a beaded vest and decorated Indian bow — items she reportedly treasured her entire life.

Teddy Roosevelt was also among Lucille’s fans. While campaigning in Oklahoma as a vice presidential candidate in 1900, he saw her perform. It was the Fourth of July, and she roped in front of a large crowd at a “Cowboy Tournament” in Oklahoma City.

The Daily Oklahoman reported, “Roosevelt was most enchanted with the daring feats of Lucille Mulhall. She rode beautifully throughout the contest and lassoed the wildest steer in the field.”

Teddy Roosevelt was so impressed by Lucille’s skills that he invited the Mulhalls to join him and a select group of the Rough Riders for a private dinner. That night Lucille gave the hero of San Juan Hill a silk scarf she had worn during the contest.

Zack Mulhall then invited Roosevelt to stay at his ranch — Teddy accepted. After watching Lucille’s skills with a horse, rope and gun on the ranch, Roosevelt encouraged her father to get her more exposure. “Zack, before that girl dies or gets married or cuts up some other caper,” Roosevelt reportedly said, “you ought to put her on stage and let the world see what she can do.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Legend has it that during the visit, Roosevelt went riding with Lucille and they spotted a grey wolf. This whetted Roosevelt’s appetite for a hunt. The wolf eluded them that day but Roosevelt told Lucille if she could catch the wolf, he would invite her to his inaugural parade.

Some claim she later roped the wolf, then killed it, others say she shot it at five-hundred yards. But by all accounts, she sent the pelt Roosevelt who displayed it in the White House after he and McKinley won the election. Lucille and family attended the inauguration and Roosevelt reportedly gave her a saddle and an 1873 Winchester.

Besides starring in Mulhall’s Wild West show, Lucille also performed in the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West show (another well-known wild west show from the day), in Vaudeville, and Lucille’s career even took her to Europe, where she performed for heads of state and royalty. In 1913 she and her brother, Charley, formed a company and produced “The Lucille Mulhall Roundup.”

Lucille became known world-wide as the greatest (and first) cowgirl — the result of her fine roping skills and an uncanny knack with horses. Her talents were, in part, fine-tuned by another natural cowboy — Will Rogers, who was a life-long friend of Lucille’s (both came from Oklahoma ranching backgrounds). Couple that with her slight figure and ladylike demeanor and you had a cowgirl anomaly. More important however, she was authentic, genuine and generous — crowds loved her.

It has been said that she had a natural connection with horses. She claimed her horse, Governor, knew many tricks. In an interview Lucille said, “My system of training consists of three things: patience, perseverance, and gentleness. Gentleness I consider one of the greatest factors in successful training. Governor, the horse I ride in our exhibitions has nearly forty tricks. He can shoot a gun; pull off a man’s coat and put it on again; can roll a barrel; can walk up stairs and down again — a difficult feat; is perfect in the march and the Spanish trot; extends the forelegs so that an easy mount may be made; kneels, lies down and sits up; indeed, he does nearly everything but talk.”

She was briefly married in 1907 to Martin Van Bergen, a cowboy singer who was an opening act in the show. Together they had a son. She was also married in 1919 to Tom Burnett, whose father had established the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas. Each marriage lasted only a few years and it was reported that Zach Mulhall remained the most important man in her life.

Lucille basically retired from world-wide travel in 1917 as live Wild West performances were being overshadowed by the up and coming Hollywood westerns. However, she continued to perform throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, mostly in Oklahoma and Texas. She made her last known public appearance in September of 1940.

Lucille Mulhall died near the home ranch in an automobile accident on December 21, 1940. She was only fifty-five years old. She was posthumously inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1975 and National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1977. Long live Cowgirls!