Pickett, Bill 1870–1932
Bill Pickett 1870–1932
Few entertainers have equalled the legendary Bill Pickett for bravery, showmanship, or physical prowess. A member of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Pickett spent most of his life touring in Wild West shows, “bulldogging” steers and performing other rodeo stunts in front of huge audiences in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The height of his fame came at a time when few blacks performed in show business, but Pickett never disguised his race or played the buffoon. Instead he earned immense respect and a good degree of awe for his ability to pursue longhorn steers and wrestle them to the ground-sometimes without using his hands. In his bookGuts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett, Cecil Johnson called Pickett “a genuine American hero, a man of courage and dignity, who did some incredible things that all Americans, white, black, and otherwise, should know about.”
Some historians estimate that one in every four cowboys in the American West was of African origin. Black men were often given the job of driving cattle as plantation slaves. Indeed, some of the cattle ranching practices used in America had their origins in the ranching traditions of African peoples. After the Emancipation Proclamation, good black cowboys could always find work breaking horses, driving cattle to market, branding stock, and patrolling the huge ranches in Texas and Oklahoma. The work was extremely dangerous, rigorous, dirty, and sometimes lonely, but it provided a good living and was far less tedious and confining than a job in a factory or a cotton field.
Cowboys tended to train their sons to the profession, but Bill Pickett seems to have picked up cowboy ways in partnership with his brothers. He was born in Travis County, Texas, about 30 miles northwest of Austin, in 1870 and was the second oldest in a family of 13 children. His father, Thomas Jefferson Pickett, was a former slave, and his mother, Mary Pickett, was part Cherokee Indian. When Bill was still a baby, his family moved to Austin. There he attended public school through the fifth grade-an accomplishment in a time when schooling was poor, especially for blacks. Even as a youngster Pickett began to earn pocket change working odd jobs at the ranches surrounding Austin. By the time he was 18, and the family moved again to smaller Taylor, Texas, he was able to help support his siblings with his earnings as a ranch hand.
Born December 5,1870, in Travis County, TX; died after being kicked by a horse, April 2, 1932 (some sources say March 23, 1932), in Pcmca City, OK; son of Thomas Jefferson and Mary Virginia Elizabeth (Gilbert) Pickett; married Maggie Turner, December 2, 1890; children: Nannie, Bessie, Leona, Willie, KleoraViiginia, Almarie, and Alberdia (all daughters). Education: Attended school through fifth grade.
Ranch hand near Taylor, TX, e 1880-88; professional rodeo and Wild West Show performer, 1888-1930, principally with the 101 Ranch and Wild West Show (1905-27); when not performing, worked as hand on 101 Ranch, Ponca City, OK.
Selected awards inducted into National Cowboy Hall of Fame, 1971; Pickett’s likeness appeared on a 29-cent stampin the’LegendsoftheWesf issue, 1993; a bronze statue of Pickett stands at the North Fort Worth Historical Society, Fort Worth, TX.
In the late 1880s, five of the Pickett brothers joined forces and opened their own stock business in Taylor. Their principal job was breaking wild horses, an extremely tricky occupation that required patience, strength, and a sophisticated knowledge of animal psychology. Some horses would fight for days before allowing a rider to stay on their backs, and the Pickett brothers were always in danger of being kicked, bitten, or bucked off. Nevertheless, the brothers became known for their abilities--and they had a reputation for not mistreating the animals.
Perhaps as a result of his bronco-busting activities-or perhaps from some infection he caught-Bill Pickett one day awoke to find himself completely blind. By that time he had married and was responsible for several young children. The ailment persisted for a year, proving very trying for the family, and then it disappeared as suddenly as it had come. The lasting effect of the blindness, for Pickett, was a fatalistic attitude he expressed as “What’s gonna happen, gonna happen.” What happened to Bill Pickett is the stuff of legend.
No one knows when Pickett bulldogged his first steer, but he is universally recognized as the originator of the sport. As a boy he spent much time on ranches observing the relationship between cattle and the bulldogs used to control them. Pickett noticed that dogs weighing less than fifty pounds could bring half-ton steers to their knees by biting the steers’ lips and holding on. One day, in pursuit of a wayward cow, Pickett threw himself onto the animal’s neck, grabbed it by the horns, twisted its face upwards, and took hold of its upper lip just as the dogs had. The ploy worked, and soon the cow was lying on its side in complete submission. Pickett called his maneuver “bulldogging.”
At first Pickett put bulldogging to use only to control animals that were being herded or shipped in rail cars to the slaughterhouses. Another idea occurred to him when he saw how people stared at his accomplishment. Beginning around the turn of the century, he began to put on bulldogging exhibitions at county fairs and with small rodeo companies, and soon he made a name for himself not as a ranch hand or bronc buster but as an entertainer.
One of Pickett’s first rodeo managers was a rancher named Lee Moore. Moore was the first to take Pickett’s demonstration out of Texas into neighboring states such as Kansas and Oklahoma. Everywhere Pickett went he caused a sensation. In 1903 Pickett signed on with another manager, Doug McClure, who liked to give his performers nicknames. Thus, in McClure’s promotional materials, Pickett became “The Dusky Demon,” a tag that, according to Cecil Johnson, “suggested that Pickett possessed some kind of supernatural powers that enabled him to cast a spell on the steers. The demon characterization also may have served to explain to the spectators the apparent disproportion between Pickett’s physical stature and the sizes of the animals he handled with such dexterity.” Pickett was a mere five-foot-seven and weighed about 145 pounds. Many of the animals he bulldogged topped out at 1,000 to 1,200 pounds.
In 1905 Pickett’s friend Will Rogers introduced the “Dusky Demon” to Zack Miller, co-owner of the magnificent 101 Ranch in Bliss, Oklahoma. Miller was looking for talent to fill the roster of a new Wild West show he was planning, and he had heard about Pickett from another Miller brother who had seen Pickett’s bulldogging act. Miller persuaded Pickett to come to the 101 Ranch and join its show as a featured performer. The offer was sweetened by the promise of a full-time job on the ranch during the off-season.
Thus began one of the longest and most fruitful partnerships in the history of Wild West shows. Pickett, still known as the “Dusky Demon,” became one of the featured acts in the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show. The show itself was a spectacular affair, at various times employing as many as 1,100 people and more than 600 animals-everything from the mundane to the exotic-as well as Sioux and Snake Indians, a troupe of Russian Imperial Cossacs, and rodeo riders and ropers. For the first few years with the 101 Ranch show, Pickett bulldogged longhorn steers with his teeth as he had in his early days. When various humane societies cited him for cruelty to animals, he modified his act into the sort of cattle wrestling seen in rodeos today--only the steers he wrestled were by some estimates twice the size.
Pickett’s fame took a quantum leap on December 23, 1908 in Mexico City, Mexico. Having traveled south with the 101 Ranch show-and having performed his bulldogging for Mexican audiences-Pickett became the center of an avalanche of negative publicity. Mexicans who held their sport of bullfighting in high esteem were shocked to see a black man jump from his horse and wrestle steers to the ground using little more than his teeth. The Mexican press printed remarks by Zack Miller to the effect that no bullfighter was as tough as Pickett, that Pickett could probably ride one of the meanest Mexican bulls, or throw two steers in the time it would take the best bullfighter to throw just one.
A challenge was levelled: Mexico’s leading bullfighters wagered 5,000 pesos that Pickett could not stay on the back of one of their fighting bulls for five minutes. Pickett accepted the challenge, and a crowd of more than 25,000 hostile Mexicans crowded into the city’s new bullring to watch him. Pickett was used to hearing cheers and applause for his labors. This crowd wanted him to be killed and booed him lustily. His pride hurt, the cowboy proceeded to accomplish the feat at great peril to his own life and at the cost of having his favorite horse gored. In the end, Pickett stayed on the bull five minutes but was injured by bricks and bottles thrown by the crowd. He suffered several broken ribs and narrowly missed being trampled by the animal after his injuries led him to lose his grip on its horns. Nevertheless, his victory was apparent even to the hostile crowd, and in the United States the event made headlines everywhere.
Between 1910 and 1914 Pickett performed almost continuously with the 101 Ranch show, appearing in arenas such as Madison Square Garden in New York, Boston Garden, and the Chicago Coliseum. At various times he shared billing with the likes of Will Rogers and Tom Mix, both of whom would go on to fame in motion pictures. As far as the Wild West show went, however, Pickett was the bigger star. Because the show was so large that it needed its own train, he rarely encountered the kind of racism that other black performers faced at the turn of the century: he had first-class accommodations on Miller’s train and was admitted to hotels with the rest of the company. When racist members of audiences turned on him occasionally, he would quickly be surrounded by fellow cowboys of both races who called him a comrade.
Nowhere was Pickett treated better than in Europe. The 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show made a journey abroad in 1914, performing in England before some members of the royal family. Pickett’s performance was so impressive that he found himself invited to white-tie dinners in some of the country’s biggest mansions. The natives of Paris were equally enthralled. Unfortunately, the onset of World War I sent the show back to America prematurely, and all of its animals were requisitioned by the British government.
The onset of vaudeville and motion pictures robbed the Wild West shows of bigger audiences, and after a brief appearance in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1917, Pickett restricted his cattle wrestling to rodeos. By the time Pickett switched from exhibition bulldogging to competition bulldogging, he had many younger imitators, such as Milt Hinkle, who often rode off with the prize money at the rodeos. As for Pickett, he made two short film documentaries, The Bulldogger in 1923 and The Crimson Skull in 1924. A copy of The Bu lldogger has made the records at the Library of Congress, and it provides fine footage of Pickett performing his specialty as well as roping and riding.
Between 1920 and 1924 Pickett spent more time working on ranches than performing in rodeos and exhibitions. In 1924, at the age of 55, he was named to the cast of a revived Miller Brothers Wild West Show that was expensively mounted but failed to turn a profit. When the show folded, Pickett returned to his home near the 101 Ranch in Ponca City, Oklahoma, and resumed his duties as a ranch hand for the Miller Brothers.
As Bill Pickett entered his sixties, he was remarkably spry and healthy, considering his long years as a bulldogger. He lived long enough to see his beloved 101 Ranch fall into foreclosure, and it was that event that hastened his own end. On the day that the ranch was put up for auction, Pickett was sent with a few other ranch hands to separate the few horses Zack Miller could keep from a larger herd that would be sold. In the process of completing this task, the 62-year-old Pickett was kicked in the head by a half-wild sorrel. He was rushed to the hospital in Ponca City, but he never regained consciousness. After lying in a coma for eight days, he died on April 2, 1932. He was buried just outside the boundaries of the 101 Ranch in a cemetery that also holds the remains of the great Ponca chief White Eagle.
Had Bill Pickett been a white man, he would have been inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame early in its existence. Most rodeo historians agree that no single performer contributed more to the complicated series of rodeo events than did Pickett with his bulldogging techniques. As it was, Pickett was finally named to the Hall in 1971, almost 40 years after his death.
Another tribute in 1993 brought its own share of controversy. Pickett was chosen to grace a 29-cent postage stamp in the much-heralded “Legends of the West” issue. However, when the stamps were released, scholars noticed that the picture of Pickett was not Bill Pickett, but rather his brother Ben. The entire run of stamps was recalled, but not before a few had been sold. This caused an enormous controversy among stamp collectors, who clamored for the original issue. In the end, a limited number of sheets with the picture of Ben Pickett were sold to satisfy collectors. The rest, with the real Bill Pickett pictured, came on the market a few weeks later. If Bill Pickett had been all but forgotten as a tum-of-the-century cowboy, he became legendary once again as the featured face on an incorrect postage stamp.
Pickett’s legacy has outlived any racist attempts to sabotage it, and today he is widely recognized as one of the finest cowboys in the history of the American West. As Johnson put it, “Many insist that [Pickett] was without debate the greatest all-around work and show business cowboy ever to straddle a horse…. He was the quintessence of the American cowboy.”
Dunham, Phillip, and Everett L. Jones, The Negro Cowboys, Dodd, Mead, 1956.
Goss, Clay, Bill Pickett: Black Bulldogger, Hill & Wang, 1970.
Hanes, Colonel Bailey, Bill Pickett: Bulldogger, University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
Johnson, Cecil, Guts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett, Summit Group, 1994.
Jordan, Terry G., North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers: Origins, Diffusion, and Differentiation,
University of New Mexico Press, 1993, pp. 119, 213.
Porter, Willard H., Who’s Who in Rodeo, Powder River Book Co., pp. 96-97.
Weston, Jack L., The Real American Cowboy, New Amsterdam Books, 1985.
Known as the "Dusky Demon," Bill Pickett (1870-1932) was the best-known African American rodeo performer of all time. He invented the rodeo sport of bulldogging, now known as steer wrestling, and entertained millions of people around the world with his riding and roping skills.
Western legend, Bill Pickett, was only five feet, seven inches tall and weighed only 145 pounds, but he was all muscle, a larger-than-life Western legend in his own time. His rodeo career spanned more than 40 years. He rode wild broncos and bulls, and was a professional cowboy and rodeo champion. Pickett performed all over the world in wild west shows, circuses. world's fairs, and worked for 25 years with the 101 Ranch's Wild West Show in Oklahoma.
Invented Steer Wrestling
Steer wrestling, which is still a major event at all rodeos, was invented by Pickett. In this event, a 500-to 600-pound steer is released from a chute. One cowboy, called the "hazer," rides alongside it to force it to run straight, and the contestant is timed while he rides up along side the animal, which weighs twice as much as he does, grabs its horns and head, plants his feet on the ground to slow it down, and wrestles it to the ground. When the steer is on its side, with all four of its feet pointing in the same direction, the cowboy has won. A good cowboy can wrestle a steer to the ground in five to eight seconds, making the sport the fastest event in rodeo.
Pickett's signature move was to grab the steer by the horns, twist its neck, and bite the steer on one lip, then fall backward and pull the shocked animal to the ground. This event has since been modified to lessen the danger and hurt to the animal. Pickett got the idea for "bulldogging," or steer wrestling, when he was ten years old and working as a cowboy in Texas. Frequently, the cowboys would have to catch a single animal, but there was so much brush nearby that ropes would snag and roping was impossible. In this situation, they had to wrestle the steer to the ground by brute strength or wrap its tail around their saddle horn before throwing it to the ground. Pickett, wrestling with a tough and determined longhorn cow, remembered a big dog he had seen, which brought down steers by gripping their noses in his teeth. Pickett bit the cow's lip as he had seen the dog do, and immediately brought her down. He used his biting trick to hold calves down while they were being branded, and to catch wild cattle in the brush. In the late 1880s, he began performing his stunts at county fairs and other public events.
An African American Cowboy
Although there were thousands of African American cowboys who helped to shape the history of the American West, their stories have largely been left out of accounts of that time. Only recently have historians reclaimed this important part of American history. Pickett's great-grandson, Frank S. Phillips, Jr., has helped to fill in some of the missing information about Pickett. Phillips was raised by his grandmother, Bessie Pickett Phillips, Bill Pickett's second-oldest daughter. She told Phillips many stories about Pickett and other cowboys of Texas and Oklahoma. "As I grew older," Phillips recalled in his foreword to Cecil Johnson's book Guts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett, "I went to the movies and saw most of the cowboys she mentioned, but no Bill Pickett and no black cowboys at all, not even in disparaging roles. There was no mention of black cowboys, in the wild west magazines or in any of the western novels. I could not understand why."
Pickett was the second of 13 children born on December 5, 1870 in Travis County, Texas, to Thomas Jefferson Pickett, a former slave, and his wife Mary (Janie) Virginia Elizabeth Gilbert. He attended school until the fifth grade but then left to become a full-time ranch hand and improve his roping and riding abilities.
On December 2, 1890, Pickett married Maggie Turner. The couple eventually had nine children. To support his growing family, he began performing more widely, at bigger events, sometimes with his brothers. In 1905, a newspaper, Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, described him as "a man who outdoes the fiercest dog in utter brutality." This sensationalism surely drew the crowds of the time to see him.
Joined the 101 Ranch
In 1907, Pickett went to Fort Worth, Texas, to wrestle some steers, make some money, buy a few presents for his wife and children and visit a cousin. He had no idea that Colonel Zack Miller of the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch had come to town specifically to see his act.
The 101 Ranch was founded by seven men who realized that land in what was known as the "Cherokee Strip" was good for cattle. They leased 60,000 acres from the Cherokee Tribe and later added 100,000 acres leased from the Ponca Tribe. G. W. Miller, the founder, had created a ranching empire with over 200 cowboys by the time he died. When his three sons inherited the ranch most of their cowboys were not allowed to enter rodeos because they were too skilled and would be unfair competition. The Miller brothers decided to hold their own exhibition rodeos with their own cowboys-one of whom would soon be Bill Pickett.
Pickett began working for the 101 Ranch, and according to Cletus Johnson, was later described by Colonel Zack Miller as having "guts, bull strength, and the same peculiar sense of timing that makes art out of dancing." Pickett became the act's star attraction and appeared with the show for ten years. He traveled all over North America as well as in Argentina and England, where he performed for the British Royal Family. During this time, bulldogging, the sport he had invented, became a major rodeo event. It was modified because most cowboys did not want to take a big mouthful of a steer's lip or nostrils and because humane societies objected to the practice. Pickett often pretended to bite the animal while wrestling it down and was sometimes fined for cruelty to animals because of this convincing pretense.
An Exciting Career
At a show at Madison Square Garden in New York City, a steer was frightened by the noise of the crowd, stampeded right out of the chute, jumped over the arena fence and thundered up into the stands. The steer climbed up the seats, as people scattered right and left in front of it. The legendary American humorist, Will Rogers, was Pickett's partner and the hazer for this event. He got the steer to turn around at the third balcony and Pickett rode his horse up into the stands, among the panicked people, and grabbed the steer by the lip. Rogers then roped the steer by the leg and dragged both steer and Pickett back down into the arena.
Some people claimed that Pickett had wrestled a buffalo bull and a bull elk with full horns to the ground. This may have been just publicity, but whether or not it's true, it is certain that none of the animals he threw ever tried to gore him after he got them on the ground.
In 1890, Pickett performed in a Mexican bullfighting ring after one of the Miller brothers bet 5,000 pesos that Pickett could ride a Mexican fighting bull for five minutes. He stayed on the animal for seven and a half minutes, winning the bet, but his horse was gored and Pickett broke three ribs and was severely gashed. Men from the 101 Ranch ran into the ring and roped the bull. The Mexican crowd, angered by what they saw as disrespect for their bullfighting tradition, threw bottles and trash at Pickett and the other cowboys until mounted police stopped them.
Richard E. Norman, a traveling filmmaker, made a feature film about African American cowboys called The Bull Dogger, starring Bill Pickett. Norman used extra footage from shooting this movie to make another film called The Crimson Skull, which also included scenes with Pickett. When the films were released, they were a big hit among African Americans who had heard of, but had never seen, African American cowboys.
Retired from Performing
In 1916, Pickett retired from performing and lived on a small ranch he bought near Chandler, Oklahoma. When the 101 Ranch ran into financial troubles in 1931, he returned to help. In March 1932, Pickett tripped while roping a stallion and fell under the horse, which kicked him in the head. For the next 11 days he clung to life with a fractured skull. Finally, on April 2, 1932, he died in a hospital in Ponca City, Oklahoma.
Pickett's funeral was one of the largest ever held in Oklahoma. He was buried high on a hill at White Eagle Monument, where the Cherokee Strip Cowboy Association set up a limestone marker in his memory. According to Frank Billings, Colonel Zack Miller of the 101 Ranch called him "the greatest sweat-and-dirt cowhand that ever lived," and wrote a poem in his honor.
A Legend of the West
The United States Post Office issued a stamp honoring Pickett as part of its "Legends of the West" series. After the stamps had been distributed, someone discovered that the image on the stamp was actually that of Pickett's brother Ben. The Postal Service recalled the incorrect stamps and then printed new ones with Pickett's photo. By that time a few sheets of the stamps had been sold and, because they were rare, were worth thousands of dollars. Other stamp collectors demanded that the Postal Service issue the incorrect sheets so that they could have a chance to own the rare stamps, while the lucky few who already owned them sued the Post Office, hoping to prevent them from allowing other collectors to have the stamps. The lawsuits were a failure and the Postal Service finally organized a lottery to distribute 150,000 sheets of the "Ben Pickett" stamps to collectors.
Pickett was the first African American cowboy ever inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame. A statue of him wrestling a steer is on display at the Cowboy Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas. A yearly event, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, is named after him. It has been running for more than 15 years in Los Angeles and is one that city's largest African American events. "My great-grandfather's principal memorial," wrote Frank S. Phillips, Jr. in his book Guts "is the rodeo event he created without which, although in a drastically modified form, no rodeo is complete."
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