Bill PickettJun 25th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: The West
1870-1932 Bill Pickett was the most famous African American rodeo performer of all time, and the first black cowboy movie star. He invented a way of controlling steers called “bulldogging,” and became a star attraction of wild west shows. Now known as “Steer Wrestling,” the event he created remains a popular part of rodeos to this day.
Pickett was born in Travis County, Texas, in 1870, the second of 13 children. His parents were emancipated slaves. As was common for African Americans in the region, he also had Cherokee ancestry. The young Pickett showed an interest in animals, and after finishing fifth grade, began working as a ranch hand. He learned the skills required for a cowboy including riding horses and roping and herding cattle, combined with a temperamental toughness and resilience. Pickett excelled in all regards and was soon giving exhibitions, passing a hat for donations. By 1888, the family had settled in southwestern Texas near Taylor, and that year, Pickett performed in the town’s first fair. He and his brothers founded their own horse-breaking business called Pickett Bros. Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Ass’n. Pickett became a deacon of the Baptist Church, joined the National Guard, and married Maggie Turner in 1890 with whom he would have nine children.
Stories vary as to how he invented bulldogging, but Pickett was surely inspired by the way ranch dogs would incapacitate much larger bulls by biting their lower lip or nose. In one version, a bull refused to let Pickett herd it into a corral, angering him so badly that he leapt from his horse, bit the bull’s lip, and wrestled it into submission. Pickett’s five-foot seven-inch 145-pound frame relied on bravado and muscular power. One observer described him as “a man who outdoes the fiercest dog in utter brutality.” He combined this with a easy-going manner and humble attitude that made him popular with his coworkers. He performed throughout the south and as far as Wyoming and North Dakota in the late 1880s and into the 1900s under the management of independent rodeo promoters. His performance in 1904 at America’s most famous rodeo, the Cheyenne Frontier Days, was considered extraordinary. In 1905, he and a young Will Rogers appeared together at Madison Square Garden in New York, where they fought an out-of-control steer that jumped the fence into the audience.
Star of the 101 Ranch
That year, Pickett signed on with Zack Miller’s 101 Ranch and Wild West Show in Marland, Oklahoma. The ranch was a cattle operation of roughly 100,000 acres with 200 cowboys on staff, including many of the best wranglers in the west. Pickett became a full-time employee in 1907 and relocated there with his family in 1908. The affiliated Wild West Show was also the preeminent show of the era. Such luminaries as Buffalo Bill Cody, Tom Mix, and Will Rogers had appeared with the 101, and Pickett, billed as the “Dusky Demon,” quickly became its star attraction. An account from a local newspaper described Pickett’s style in this way: “The steer lunged into the arena…Pickett’s horse plunged full speed after it… the rider leaped from the saddle. He turned a complete somersault along the length of the steer’s back, flying out and down over the curved horns… to fasten his teeth in the side of the steer’s mouth. With sheer strength he dragged the fuming behemoth’s head to the tan-bark, thrust its horn in the ground, and forward momentum threw the steer hocks over horns in a somersault of its own.” The dangerous practice would evolve into the current form of Steer Wrestling, but Pickett was a celebrity for it in his time. In addition to performing throughout the United States, he was seen in Canada, Argentina, England, and Mexico.
His performance in Mexico in 1908 nearly started a riot. Miller bet $5,000 on Pickett’s ability to bulldog a Mexican fighting bull before a crowd of over 25,000. Pickett succeeded in holding on for fully seven minutes, flung around like a rag doll on the bull’s back, but the onlookers took offense at what they deemed a desecration of their national sport. They threw bottles, stones, knives, and cans, wounding Pickett and his horse. President Porfirio Diaz, seeing the potential for an actual riot, called in the army under whose protection Pickett escaped.
Pickett was often barred from competing with white cowboys and would, therefore, represent himself as Cherokee. At the same time, he became the star of several western films including one about African American cowboys; the advertising described him as the “World’s Colored Champion,” and the “Colored Hero of the Mexican Bull Ring in Death Defying Feats of Courage and Skill.” He retired from rodeo soon after 1916, bought a small ranch of his own, and eased into a well-earned retirement. When he heard that the 101 Ranch was having financial problems, he signed back on to help his former colleagues. It was there in 1932 that he was kicked in the head by a stallion while roping horses. He died 11 days later from a fractured skull.
Miller buried him at a nearby monument, calling him the “greatest sweat-and-dirt cowhand that ever lived, bar none.” His tombstone says simply “Bill Pickett – C.S.C.P.A.,” placed there by the Cherokee Strip Cow Punchers Association, and his funeral was announced by Will Rogers on his national radio show with the homily “Bill Pickett never had an enemy, even the steers wouldn’t hurt old Bill.” By the time of his death, he had entertained millions of fans worldwide. In 1971, Pickett was the first African American admitted to the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. And in 1989, he was inducted into the Prorodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy. The only touring African American rodeo in the United States is named the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. A sculpture showing him bulldogging a steer is displayed at the Fort Worth, Texas, Cowboy Coliseum, and the postage stamp with his image honors legends of America’s Old West in which African American cowboys played a vital part.