December 5

This Day in History

Old West

Dec 5, 1871:

Rodeo star Bill Pickett born in Texas

On this day, the great steer wrestling rodeo star Bill Pickett is born near Austin, Texas.

The son of black and Indian parents, Pickett learned his roping and riding skills working as a cowboy on a Texas ranch. He attracted the attention of the Miller brothers, who ran the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, the successful touring extravaganza that also made stars of Will Rogers and Tom Mix. The 101 Ranch, and other Wild West shows, played a key role in the evolution of rodeos from small local competitions among neighboring ranch hands into stylized Hollywood-influenced entertainment productions. The Wild West rodeos even created new events like wild bull riding that—in contrast to real ranching skills like roping and bronc-riding—were never widely practiced by sensible traditional cowboys.

Bill Pickett introduced bulldogging, now better known as steer wrestling, to the world of rodeo entertainment. As a special attraction for the audiences of the 101 Ranch, Pickett rode his horse, Spradley, alongside a running longhorn steer. He grabbed the steer's head and bit its upper lip—an unorthodox but effective means of forcing the steer to follow Pickett's commands. Since bulldogs were known to control cattle by biting onto their lower lips and ferociously hanging on, Pickett's steer wrestling method became known as "bulldogging." Of course, it is unlikely that any working cowboy ever attempted to control a steer by "bulldogging" it, but the audience loved Pickett's stunt. Steer wrestling became a standard rodeo competition, although few cowboys were willing to copy Pickett's lip-biting method, which was replaced by other techniques.

Pickett's bulldogging performance made him a national rodeo star, but the American fascination for Wild West shows and rodeos faded after World War I, and the 101 Ranch closed in 1931. Pickett died a forgotten man not long afterwards, at age 70, from injuries suffered while working horses for the 101 Ranch in Texas. His contributions to the sport were recognized in 1972, when he was posthumously inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.

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