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."
Further Reading on Bill Pickett
"Bill Pickett," Bill Pickett-Micro Reference Entry, http://www.cs.uh.edu/~clifton/pickett.micro.html (February 26, 1999).
"Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo Schedule for 1998," Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, http://home.earthlink.net/~bettypage/Opening.htm (February 26, 1999).
"Bulldogger Bill Pickett: Famous Black Cowboy," Bill Pickett:Champion Cowboy, http:camalott.com/~rssmith/pickett/htm (February 26, 1999).
"Coming to Cowtown to Catch Bill Pickett in Action," Virtual Texan, http://www.arlington.net/comm/virtual/pickett3.htm (February 26, 1999).
"A Great-Grandson Remembers Rodeo Star Bill Pickett," Virtual Texan, http://www.arlington.net/comm/virtual/pickett1.htm (February 26, 1999).
"Guts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett,"Barnesandnoble.com, http://shop.barnesandnoble.com (February 26, 1999).
'The Legendary Bill Pickett," Virtual Texan, http://www.arlington.net/comm/virtual/pickett.htm (February 26, 1999).
"Legends of the West Stamps Recalled," Stamp on Black History, http://library.advanced.org/10320/Legends.htm (February 26, 1999).
"Steer Wrestling," Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede, http://www.westwyoming.com/cody-stampede/steerw.htm (February 26, 1999).