In August 1904 an Eastern writer named John Dicks Howe attended the big Cheyenne Frontier Days cowboy carnival. Howe may have known almost nothing about cowboys, but like the 20,000 others in attendance, he recognized that he had seen something extraordinary. “The great event of the celebration this year was the remarkable feat of Will Pickett, a negro hailing from Taylor, Texas,” he explained after watching Pickett leap from his galloping pony and “attack a fiery, wild-eyed, and powerful steer and throw it by his teeth,” biting the animal’s soft underlip and rolling it to the ground with his hands still in the air.
Pickett was in his early thirties, handsome and wiry-strong at 5’ 7” and 160 pounds. Howe’s account for Harper’s Weekly launched his national reputation, especially in the East, where “bulldogger” was largely a foreign term. But Pickett was already well known around the Southwestern circuit, where an agent had attempted to evade the color line by stressing his mixed heritage (which included Cherokee), dressing him in a Spanish toreador’s costume and calling him vaguely the “Dusky Demon.”
At the end of the Civil War, Texas’s Juneteenth proclamation had freed more than 200,000 enslaved Texans; some established their own farming communities and others hired out as cowboys. Pickett’s parents were slaves, already skilled with livestock, who’d traveled in a caravan from South Carolina to Texas in 1854. They had thirteen children, including Bill, who was born on December 5, 1870, in Travis County.
Bill Pickett may have developed his unique style after watching bulldogs flush a steer from the brush, one nipping its heels and the other biting its lip until it stood still enough for branding. Whether or not he invented bulldogging, he certainly made the sport his own, adding a riding leap to the wrestling of steers.
“Willie” Pickett and his four brothers started their own business, Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association; Pickett first demonstrated his steer wrestling publicly at county fairs, often passing the hat.
In early 1905, months after his breakthrough performance at Cheyenne Frontier Days, Zack Miller of Oklahoma’s famous 101 Ranch traveled to Fort Worth to watch Pickett bulldog two steers. He quickly recruited Pickett for a grand show the Millers had planned: The National Editors Association was having its big convention in Guthrie, Oklahoma, that year, and the 101 Ranch was feeding the appetite for mythical Wild West entertainments even as the real cowboy West declined. Over 65,000 men and women arrived on thirty trains for the “Miller Brothers’ Big Round Up” on June 11, 1905. The “Dark Demon From Texas” was added to the day’s events.
It took a pretty spectacular act to hold the stage with what else the Millers had planned, including an Indian “Buffalo Hunt,” where poor old Geronimo himself was brought in to kill his “last” (and first) buffalo, firing a Winchester from a moving car. Though technically still a guarded prisoner of war, the eighty-year-old Geronimo did his job, while Pickett astonished the editors by throwing a thousand-pound steer with his teeth, more or less as the program had incredibly promised. Only the burning of an emigrant wagon train by seeming hostiles affected the crowd more.
But Pickett’s most famous achievement occurred three years later in Mexico City, when the 101 Ranch Wild West show landed there in December 1908. Show organizers had expected the usual crowd approval, but in Mexico bullfighting was king — not American rodeo, and certainly not wrestling with bulls — and ticket sales were disappointing. According to Michael Wallis’s history of the 101 Ranch, The Real Wild West, one night at dinner Pickett’s boss, Joe Miller, was mocked by some Mexican bullfighters, who boasted that they could easily do what they’d seen Pickett accomplish that afternoon. Miller dared any of them to attempt bulldogging; only one accepted, but he later claimed he was forbidden by contract to risk injury outside of bullfighting. Seeing a way to at last sell tickets, Miller publicly wagered 5,000 pesos plus the gate receipts that Pickett could survive five minutes against the fiercest Mexican bull the authorities could produce.
The Mexican public was outraged by his open mockery of bullfighting, and crowds turned out to see the Yankee die. The matadors carried in a mock black coffin for Pickett, who took a fortifying swig of Miller’s whiskey before riding toward the speckled beast. The bull gored Pickett’s favorite horse and, without cape or sword, Pickett then leapt on the bull’s head, holding on to the horns despite being shaken and thrown against the walls. As the minutes passed, the crowd, most of whom had rooted patriotically for the bull, hurled things at Pickett, breaking his ribs with a beer bottle and bloodying his face with a stone. When he finally slumped to the ground, he was rescued by a 101 man waving a red shirt. Pickett had lasted seven and a half minutes. Despite a riot that had to be contained by soldiers, Miller collected on his bet.
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Pickett saw none of the wager money, but he was known for that gutsy victory the rest of his career. In 1921 he was billed as “The Colored Hero of the Mexican Bull Ring” when he made the first of his two films, naturally called The Bull-Dogger, now mostly lost except for a few grainy action passages. The ads for movie-house proprietors showing this first movie starring a black cowboy read, “Give Your Colored Patrons a Treat. Book a picture that’s different.” As patronizing as that may sound today, it was better than what followed over the years, as Hollywood opted to screen a whiter West, starting with Pickett’s friend from the 101 Ranch, Tom Mix, who made 370 Westerns before he died in an Arizona car crash.
Pickett stayed with the 101 Ranch show the rest of his life, making his family’s home on the property and throwing steers for the Millers all over the world. He died on the ranch when he was in his sixties: Kicked and stomped by a riled horse he was roping, he lingered eleven days with a fractured skull. Zack Miller, the brother who had first hired Pickett, called him “the greatest sweat-and-dirt cowhand that ever lived — bar none.”
Bill Pickett lives on in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo: MLK Jr. African-American Heritage Rodeo, which rides into the Denver Coliseum at 6 p.m. Monday, January 21; tickets range from $25 to $45 at nationalwestern.com.