By Bennett Owen
The Bill Pickett Rodeo circuit is celebrating its 27th year … a singular showcase for African American cowboys with four stops throughout the year capped off by a championship in September in our nation’s capital. It’s a going concern. Last weekend, Hayward, California, just outside Oakland. Next weekend, Los Angeles. (tickets available online at www.billpickettrodeo.com)
The legendary Bill Pickett was a giant of the west, larger than life whose sweat, pride and ingenuity commanded respect and earned deep and enduring friendships. He was born in 1870 on a dirt poor Texas ranch, one of 13 children, and yet by the early 20th century he was a star with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show…one of the great shows in the tradition of "Buffalo Bill" Cody. The two were good friends. As rodeo came into fashion, Pickett performed in the granddaddy of ‘em all, the Cheyenne Frontier Days.
There are many legends as to how Pickett invented one of modern rodeo’s signature events. My favorite has him spying his son in a pen with an angry Bull and wrestling the animal to the ground, in part by biting hard on his lip as he’d seen the cow dogs do. And thus the sport of “Bulldogging” … Steer Wrestling … was born. (The action starts at about 1:00)
Another cowboy and film legend, Yakima Canutt, later said that the resulting sport of “hoolihaning" was so dangerous to both contestants and stock that it was outlawed, following a rash of injuries and death.
Credit: Paris, LA
Nevertheless, Pickett rose to stardom with the wild-west show, performing throughout America, Canada, Mexico, South America and Britain alongside Buffalo Bill, Cowboy Bill Watts, Tom Mix and Will Rogers. His heroic feat of daring and bravery alongside Rogers in Madison Square Gardens is one of the favorite stories of my youth. Read it here.
In the 1920s, Hollywood beckoned and “The Dusky Demon” was featured in several films including “The Bulldogger.”
Pickett was roping wild stallions in 1932 when a bucking Bronc crushed his skull. His funeral was one of the biggest ever witnessed in Oklahoma and Will Rogers, on his radio show, eulogized his friend thusly: “Bill Pickett never had an enemy. Even the steers wouldn’t hurt old Bill.”
His longtime boss and friend, Colonel Zack Miller of the 101 Ranch called him "the greatest sweat-and-dirt cowhand that ever lived." He also wrote an epic poem about the man and you can read it here.
In 1971 Pickett became the first African American inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. The Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy have followed suit.