Monday, December 5, 2011

Bill Pickett—The Original Bull Dogger

Bill Picket was a big man on a horse.

Somewhere in Texas not long before the turn of the 20th Century a young cowboy spent a hot afternoon watching how ranch bull dogs could isolate and take down a longhorn steer who wandered away from the herd.  The dog would “worry” the steer and most would head back to the herd.  But the occasional obstinate one would keep trying to dodge the dog.  That’s when the dog would close in, jump up and bite down on the sensitive nose or lip of the steer then bring it down to the ground.  The dog would hold on until the steer stopped struggling.

The cowboy, Bill Pickett told the other hands, “If a dog can do that, so can I.” The next time he chased a stray on horseback instead of throwing his lariat around the horns and jerking the steer off his feet, the standard cowboy way that often resulted in the animal breaking it neck, Pickett astonished his fellow workers by leaping of his running horse, grabbing the steer by the horns and biting down on its upper lip throwing it to the ground.  It was a reckless and dangerous maneuver and required daring, agility, and brute strength.  All of which Pickett had.

He was soon entertaining folks at the ranch rodeos held at the end of round-ups when the crews of all the local ranches competed in various riding and roping games.  Pickett even invented a name for the stunt—bull dogging in honor of the dogs that inspired it, not because he took down actual bulls, which were larger and considerably meaner than the neutered steers raised for beef.

Picket was born on December 5, 1870 on a ranch in Travis County in south central Texas.  That’s the country surrounding the state capital at Austin.  He was one of 13 children of Thomas Jefferson Pickett, a former slave, and Mary “Janie” Gilbert, a woman of mixed Cherokee and White ancestry.  He was educated in schools up to the fifth grade, which made him better educated than most of his peers.  His mother had hopes that he would take up a trade.

Instead at about the age of 12, the big, strapping boy went to cowboying.  His three brothers soon joined him.   By the time he invented his stunt he already had a reputation as the greatest working cowboy in Texas.

Pickett and his brothers were not as unique as you might think if you grew up on old movies westerns with no Blacks in sight. 

The Texas cattle industry exploded after the Civil War when men came home to find that four years of war and little market had produced hundreds of thousands of surplus longhorn cattle.  When the railroads crept into Kansas, it opened beef hungry Eastern markets to ranchers—if they could get their stock hundreds of miles north through rugged territory.  It was the birth of the cowboy as we know him today.  But there was a labor shortage.  That attracted rootless men who were used to physical hardship and could spend months away from family.  The man-hungry ranchers took on all comers—plenty of experienced Mexican Vaqueros, who transmitted their skills and horse culture to newcomers, veterans of both armies including many former cavalrymen, immigrants fresh off the boats at New Orleans and Galveston, and many former slaves with no land or better prospects.  Experts believe that close to a quarter of all Texas trail cowboys were Black.

By the 1890’s the mores of the Jim Crow South was taking its toll on the once rough-and-tumble racial egalitarianism of the range.  With the days of the great cattle drives largely passed as rail line penetrated the heart of cattle country, the need for large crews for mass drives abated.  Most hands worked “a brand” at the home ranch all year except for the spring round-up.  Many Black cowboys found themselves unwanted in the close quarters of ranch bunk houses.  

But true top hands like Pickett and his brothers could still find work.

By the turn of the century, however, the boys decided there was more money to be made on the emerging circuit of country fairs and rodeos than tying themselves to the often boring drudgery of ranch life.  They formed the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association and began to tour from Texas up through the cowboy country of Wyoming.  Bill’s bulldogging act was the center of their show, but there was plenty of riding, roping and general daring do.

Their fame spread, but occasionally they had to pass as Native Americans to participate in some shows and cowboy competitions.

Up north in Cheyenne they participated in some of the early Frontier Days events—the first truly modern rodeo combining elements of the cowboy round-up competitions with popular wild west shows for a largely tourist audience.

In 1905 Picket joined the top touring western show of its day—the Oklahoma based 101 Wild West Shows.  That’s where Buffalo Bill Cody went when his own show went bankrupt.  Picket was a star act who toured the nation as part of a large company that also included a couple of other real cowboys—Will Rogers and Tom Mix.

In the early ‘20’s Picket even attracted the attention of movie makers.  He starred in two 5 reel features made by The Norman Film Manufacturing Company of Norman, Oklahoma, The Bull-Dogger and The Crimson Skull.  The movies were mostly marked to Black audiences in segregated theaters.

During that same period, rodeo was emerging as an organized sport.  Bull Dogging became of the five standard events held most major competitions under relatively standardized rules.  The other events were bare back riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, and calf roping.  Some rodeos offered other events like steer roping—also known as steer bustingteam roping, chuck wagon and wild horse races, barrel racing for cowgirls, and calf or sheep riding for children.  In order to compete for coveted All-Around Cowboy prizes, a contestant had to compete and rack up points in at least three of the core events.

By the ‘20’s most competitors had abandoned the picket lip-bite.  But some cowboys in my day in the 1950’s still favored chewing the steer’s ear as they brought the animal down. 
As he neared 50 years of age Bill Picket was pretty beat up by a life of jumping off of moving ponies and hurling himself at thrashing beast four times his weight.  He retired from touring and competing, but not from cowboying.

Picket was killed when he was kicked in the head by an untamed bronco on April 2, 1932.  He was laid to rest in Kay County, Oklahoma near the monument to Ponica Chief White Eagle and the headquarters of the Miller Brother’s 101 Ranch.  In 1970 he was inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, part of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Today, the rodeo event that he invented is no longer called bull dogging.  It is called Steer Wrestling.  It is still one of the most dangerous athletic events in the world.

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