Bulldogger Bill Pickett and Blacks in the Old West

ns-posterbulldoggerIn the course of doing some research, I stumbled on a fascinating item about rodeo star Bill Pickett. He invented bulldogging, the only standard rodeo event that can be traced to a single individual. “The End and the Myth” describes it this way:

“He could throw a steer without using his hands, forcing the beast to the ground with his teeth—sunk, bulldog-fashion, into the animal’s lip.”

I didn’t expect to find a photo, but god bless the Internet—there’s a video on YouTube of Pickett doing just that in 1921. Audiences loved the stunt, and steer wrestling became a popular event, “although few cowboys were willing to copy Pickett’s lip-biting method, which was replaced by other techniques,” according to History.com.

Pickett was born in Texas in 1870. His father was a former slave, and Pickett was of African-American and Cherokee heritage. Later, he was often barred from competing in rodeos because he was black, so he would claim to be Comanche. In fact, “The End and the Myth” features a large photo of Ku Klux Klansmen in full regalia at a rodeo in San Antonio in 1924, taking advantage of the sport’s growing popularity to push their cause among the crowds.

bill-pickett-statue
Artist Lisa Perry’s statue honoring W.M. “Bill” Pickett in the Stockyards District of Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith via Library of Congress.

Pickett and his four brothers formed the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. (The 1994 U.S. postage stamp that was meant to honor Bill Pickett mistakenly featured a long-mislabeled photo of his brother Ben, forcing the recall of 5 million stamp panes from post offices around the country.)

Bill Pickett started out performing at local country fairs and ended up touring the world and appearing in movies. He died in 1932, after being kicked in the head by a horse.

Pickett became famous again 40 years after his death, when he was the first black man inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame. But the authors of “The End and the Myth,” published in 1979 as part of the stellar Time-Life series on the Old West, point out that although early books and movies in the Western genre generally maligned Mexicans, Chinese and Indians, blacks were largely ignored, despite their prevalence on the frontier:

“On the great cattle drives, about one cowboy in six was black. Two of the 10 U.S. Cavalry regiments on the Indian frontier were all black. There were black scouts, sodbusters, prospectors and townsmen (as well as black cardsharps and cattle rustlers). But when the real Old West ended, the white mythmakers who were to carry its legend into the 20th century simply left the blacks out.”

It is heartening to see Pickett’s legend living on via the internet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s