Bill Pickett was born to Thomas Jefferson and Mary Gilbert Pickett in Jenks-Branch, Williamson County, Texas in 1870, one of 13 children. His heritage was African-American and Cherokee. He is credited for having invented the method of steer wrestling commonly called “bulldogging.” For this, his showmanship and his other skills he became the first person of African-American descent to be inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, among his other honors.
Bill was a natural born cowboy and became a ranch hand about the time he reached the age of 11 or 12. Before Bill was 20 years old, the family moved to Taylor, still in Williamson County, but east northeast of Round Rock, where he and his brother had a horse breaking business and Bill worked in the cattle pens. A year or two after that, he was invited to join the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Show where his events were roping and riding bucking horses.
In some respects, ranch life and culture was more easily integrated than other aspects of society following the Civil War. There were many African-American cowboys, all across the Southwest. While not universally true, many times a cowboy could be accepted on the basis of his abilities rather than his color. Pickett’s strong blend of skills allowed him to work comfortably in this business. During his career, Pickett performed in county fairs, rodeos and Wild West shows all over the United States and in some foreign countries alongside Anglo cowboys, and was billed as “The Dusky Demon of the Prairies.”
(Image credit: screen shot of Bill Pickett from The Bull-Dogger film)
Many rodeo events have their origin in basic ranch skills: bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, calf roping and steer roping. Timing of the ranch based events, steer wrestling and bull riding were added to create a means to compete and to judge performance. The Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Show was more similar to the later Wild West shows, rather than the sport of rodeo as it exists today. In addition to regular ranch skills, the Miller Brothers show included specialty acts, trick shooting, trick riding, staged scenes like Indian attacks, stagecoach robberies and the like.
While with the Miller Brothers outfit, Pickett performed with future film cowboys like Tom Mix and Buck Jones, then known as Charlie Gilbert. It was during this period that Pickett came up with his unique method of wrestling steers to the ground. He witnessed cow dogs latching onto the steers’ noses or lips and he literally did the same at first, though the event quickly evolved to a different technique that has been used ever since. Steer wrestling a 1,000 lb. animal was no small feat for any cowboy, but the 160 lb. and 5’7″ Pickett was able to do it.
During his time with Miller Brothers, Bill also appeared in two films around 1921. They were The Bull-Dogger and The Crimson Skull. The Bull-Dogger was made to document and promote the Miller Brothers outfit, while The Crimson Skull had a dramatic western story line. They were directed by Roger E. Norman and produced by the Norman Film Manufacturing Company. Both films were shot concurrently and in the vernacular of the day were billed as having “all colored” casts.
The Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Show folded during the Depression and Pickett went back to cowboying. However, his time as a cowboy at the 101 Ranch in Oklahoma was sadly limited as he was injured by a three year old chestnut bronc he was riding in a rodeo near Ponca City, Oklahoma. The horse got spooked, jerked Pickett down and in its panic, kicked him in the head on March 15, 1932. He never regained consciousness and died about two weeks later on April 2, 1932.
His death ended the career of a charismatic cowboy whose appeal extended across racial lines. He is interred near the White Eagle Monument a short distance out of Marland, Oklahoma, due north of Stillwater and almost to Ponca City. Bill Pickett is by many accounts the most famous and well known African-American cowboy in history.
In addition to being named to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s rodeo Hall of Fame, he was named to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. He was one of 20 cowboys whose image appeared on in the U. S. Postal Service’s “Legends of the West” commemorative stamp set. His hometown of Taylor dedicated a statue of him just a few weeks ago. For the last 33 years, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo has been held at different venues across the United States. This year the locations include Denver, Memphis, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington, DC. In 1998, a bronze statue of Bill Pickett was unveiled at the Fort Worth Stockyards just in front of the Cowtown Coliseum, where Pickett had performed at its grand opening in 1908.
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