(1870 - 1932), Rodeo Star
By Paul Harwitz
Bill Pickett, the oldest of 13 children, was the son of a former slave. He rose from obscurity to become the most famous Black rodeo performer.
Bill Pickett is credited with inventing the rodeo event called bulldogging, also known as steer-wrestling, in 1903.
In 1971, he became the first African-American cowboy to be inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame. To date, he remains the best-known rodeo performer of color, even though there have been many, and many famous ones, since his time.
Fort Worth's Cowboy Coliseum displays a statue of him wrestling a bovine.
Tradition has it that in 1903, in Rockdale, Texas, a stubborn Texas Longhorn steer absolutely refused to cooperate and would not enter a corral, no matter what. Not only that, but it raised such a ruckus, pawing and running and acting just generally ornery, that it kept deliberately scattering the herd. At this point, Bill's patience ran out and he got, to say the least, angry about the whole situation. He rode his horse at high speed alongside the cantankerous, rampaging ruminant, jumped off his steed onto the back of the willful critter, and wrestled that beeve down to the ground with tremendous strength as he held onto its formidable horns. The Longhorn kept resisting, whereupon Bill bit it on its lower lip and slammed the steer onto the dirt.
People were so impressed that large numbers of them would pay cash money to see Bill Pickett "bulldog" steers.
One of the most memorable, and still talked-about, events in the history of rodeo involved Bill Pickett, who was appearing in Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1905. Guess who his hazer was? It was a young white guy named Will Rogers. Yes, it was that Will Rogers. Some say that the youthful hazer's eventual rise to fame and super-stardom was at least partially a direct result of what happened during that unforgettable performance.
The steer, not caring about doing what it was supposed to do, came racing out of the "chute" like a runaway freight-train. It headed straight for the arena's fence, and jumped over it! The people there panicked as the vicious beast kept racing at them, apparently trying to trample them. People lost all reason and went into blind, hysterical, screaming fits, trying desperately to escape the rampaging steer.
The enraged animal butted into the grandstands and started running up the steps. Members of the panicked audience, now unwilling participants, tried like crazy to get out of its way and keep out of its way.
Bill Pickett and Will Rogers, however, did not panic. By the time they had pursued the raging steer to the third balcony level, Will was able to turn it, and Bill was then able to grab its horns and wrestle it back down to the arena. By their instant teamwork, Bill Picket and Will Rogers undoubtedly saved the lives of countless innocent people. The audience certainly got more than their money's worth from that unplanned, daring rescue!
Bulldogging, as a modern rodeo event, requires jumping from a speeding quarterhorse onto the back of a steer running at full-speed (20 to 25 miles per hour), grabbing its horns, and wrestling it to the ground. However, bulldoggers these days do not bite the animal's lips or nose. Rodeo officials and cowboys try to make sure that the animals are not injured by bulldogging. Of course, the cowboys are also trying to make sure that they themselves don't get injured either.
You have to be really strong, really athletic, and really brave to attempt bulldogging. You also have to have a "hazer," who rides alongside the steer and forces it into a straight run after it gets a planned head-start. The bulldogger rides on the opposite side of the steer, leans over far enough to grab hold of its head by its horns, leaps off his horse, and attempts to use his feet as if they were brakes to stop the forward momentum of the hefty steer. As soon as he can get the animal to stop, he "wrassles" it to the dirt. "Time" is called as soon as the critter is lying on its side, with all four legs pointing the same way. A really good bulldogger usually has a time of between five seconds and eight seconds. That's enough time for him to get really hurt, though. Think about it.
If you like to collect memorabilia, the United States Post Office spotlighted Bill as one of the stars of its "Legends of the West" stamp series. An interesting controversy embroiled the USPS over this stamp. No, it didn't have anything to do with "race." If you're that curious about what the controversy was, find out for yourself by looking it up in books and web-sites devoted to philately, which is the formal name for the hobby of stamp-collecting. It's one of the strangest stories in the history of stamp-collecting, not only in the United States, but world-wide.
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is America's only touring Black rodeo. Part of the profits go to the Bill Pickett Memorial Scholarship Fund, which was set up for students who either compete in rodeo and/or are working towards a degree in equine science or animal science.
To find out when and where The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo will be performing near you, you can check on the world-wide web, or you can call their headquarters, at (303) 373-1246. Their address is:
The Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo
4943 Billings Street
Denver, CO 80239-4320
Books about Bill Pickett include:
"Bill Pickett: African-American Rodeo Star" (Part of the "Legendary Heroes of the Wild West" series of books), by Carl R. Green & William Reynolds Sanford, Enslow Publishers, 1997.
"Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin' Cowboy," by Andrea Davis Pinkney & Brian J. Pinkney. Harcourt Brace, 1996.
"Guts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett," by Cecil Johnson & Bill Pickett, Summit Group, 1994.