Who Is Bill Pickett, Cowboy Rodeo Star?

Who is Bill Pickett? The cowboy rodeo star who inventor of bulldogging, also know as steer wrestling and the first black to be voted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

William "Bill" M. Pickett was born on December 5, 1870 at the Jenks-Branch community on the Travis County line near Austin, Texas. His parents, Thomas Jefferson and Virginia Elizabeth Gilbert Pickett, were ex-slaves who had thirteen children. Bill was the second child.

Bill had two cousins who were trail-driving horsemen. They would talk to Bill about protecting their trail crews against buffalo stampedes, roping steer, and breaking ponies. Bill loved to listen to these stories and wanted to learn these skills. One day when Bill was looking at cattle dogs controlling cattle, he saw a bulldog hold a cow's lower lip with its teeth. Bill thought that he could control an animal by using this technique. After this incident, Bill passed a group of Littlefield Cattle Company cowboys on his way home from school. They were having trouble branding their calves. Bill asked if they wanted his help. After the calf was roped and laid on the ground, Bill bit into its lip. He held the calf while the cowboys branded him. This is how Pickett invented this unique way of subduing cattle called bulldogging, also known as steer wrestling. At the age of fifteen, Bill worked as a cowhand on ranches throughout Texas. He learned to lasso and practiced his technique of bulldogging.

To earn extra money, Pickett rode bucking horses and gave demonstrations of his method of bulldogging and would pass the hat for donations. He would leap from a horse, grab the steer by the horns, and pull the head back and bite its upper lip. This would immobilize the animal and cause Pickett to fall to the ground with the animal landing on top of him. The technique, called steer wrestling, is forbidden in bulldogging today. Pickett, who was five feet, seven inches and weighed 145 pounds, would use this technique on steers weighing between 800 to 1,100 pounds. He was frequently injured and subsequently lost all of his teeth as a result of his technique. Throughout his life, it is estimated that he bulldogged about 5,000 animals.

Pickett married Maggie Williams on December 2, 1890 and they had nine children, seven girls, who lived to adulthood, and two sons, who died in infancy. Pickett lived with his family in Taylor, Texas where he was a member of the National Guard and deacon of the Taylor Baptist Church. After his marriage, he worked on farms and ranches and picked cotton to support his family. He eventually tired of this and went on the road, participating in rodeos. He became well known because of his biting technique and stories about him were printed in the Denver Post and the Wyoming Tribune. In the late 1890's he became blind for eleven months. After his sight was restored, he never had any more trouble with his eyes.

Pickett and his brother Tom gave bulldogging exhibitions at the first Taylor county fair in 1888. After that he began to tour and give shows in cities in Texas. In 1900, he began making out-of-state engagements. After performing in the Texas Fort Worth Fat Stock Show, he met Zack Miller, who along with his brothers, owned a profitable ranch called the 101, located near Ponca City, Oklahoma. They also owned a traveling Wild West show, which had ninety cowboys and cowgirls, three hundred animals, and sixteen acts. They asked Pickett to join their show and offered to let his family stay at the 101 Ranch while he was on the road. On June 11, 1905, the Millers staged a wild-west show on their ranch. About 65, 000 people attended the 101 show, which featured Pickett, known as "The Dusky Demon" and "The Bull-Dogger." Another 101 show was held at the ranch in 1906. From 1907 to 1913, Pickett and his show horse, Spradley, toured with the show throughout the world. The crowds stood and cheered at his breathtaking performances, from Madison Square Garden to the El Toro national building in Mexico City. In 1914, he performed for King George V and Queen Mary in England.

In 1905, Pickett appeared at Madison Square Garden in New York City with the famed humorist Will Rogers as his hazer. The hazer rides beside the steer and leads it into a straight run after it gets a head start on the bulldogger. The steer is often running from 20 to 25 miles per hour. The bulldogger then rides opposite the street, grabs its head by the horns, jumps off his horse, and uses his feet to stop the steer. When the steer stops, he wrestles it to the ground. As soon as the animal is lying on its side and all its legs point the same way, "Time" is called. Good bulldoggers, like Pickett, usually time between five and eight seconds. During this eventual performance at Madison Square Garden, the steer came out of the chute at a fast pace. I ran toward the arena's fence and jumped over. It ran toward the audience who panicked as they tried to run away from the steer's advances. Pickett and Rogers ran after the steer and caught it on the third balcony level. After Rogers turned it, Pickett grabbed its horns and brought it back to the arena. The audience was relieved and grateful.

After years of traveling with the 101 show, Pickett settled on the 101 Ranch where he worked as a cowhand and bulldogged in local rodeos. He also appeared in films, and became the first black cowboy movie star. Throughout his career, he was often identified as an Indian or other ethnic background because blacks were not allowed to compete in many rodeos. In March 1932, a horse kicked Pickett in the head, and he remained in a coma for fourteen days until his death on April 2, 1932. His funeral was held on the main porch of the 101 Ranch. His friend, Will Rogers, announced Pickett's funeral on his radio show. Pickett was buried about three miles from the 101 Ranch near Ponca City, Oklahoma.

Bill Pickett became the first black inducted in the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City on December 9, 1971. He was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy at Colorado Springs, Colorado. A bronze statue of him is displayed at the North Fort Worth Historical Society. In March 1994, the Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor. The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is the only touring black rodeo in the U.S. The profits from this rodeo go to the Bill Pickett Memorial Scholarship fund for students who compete in rodeos and/or are majoring in equine or animal science in college. In 1994, there were 215 living direct descendants of Bill Pickett. Zack Miller, owner of the 101 Ranch said of him, "Bill Pickett was the greatest sweat-and-dirt cowhand that ever lived--bar none."

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