Bill Pickett (ca 1870-1932), African-American Cowboy
- Successful showman and cowboy
- Invented the art of “bulldogging
“Almost totally missing from the traditional history of the American West is the role of the Black cowboy as well as other Black pioneers who traveled through and settled during the nineteenth century in the vast territory west of the Mississippi,” writes Bennie J. McRae, Jr. in a 1996 book, Lest We Forget. McRae notes that though history books and Hollywood manage to expunge blacks from the record, of the estimated 35,000 cowboys that worked the ranches and rode the trails between five and nine thousand (about one-third) were said to have been African-American.
Many rode the Goodnight-Loving Trail in the late nineteenth century, yet the well-loved movie, Red River, depicts not a single black cowboy.
If you have heard of one black cowboy, it is probably Bill Pickett, who achieved fame for the technique he developed for steer wrestling.
Bill Pickett’s actual birth year is uncertain, but he was the second of 13 children born to Thomas Jefferson Pickett, a former slave, and Mary “Janie” Gilbert. The family’s ancestry was African, white and Cherokee.
The family lived in Jenks Branch Community in Texas. This was an area of Texas settled by a family named Miller who then opened the land for other African-Americans to come to settle there after the Civil War.
Bill Pickett attended school through the fifth grade, after which he got a job on a ranch where he became a great rider and ranch hand. Legend has it that Bill Pickett, was only 5’7” and weighed only 145 pounds. He must have been all muscle.
In 1890 Pickett married Maggie Turner, a former slave and daughter to a white southern plantation owner. The couple had nine children.
By 1888, Pickett and his brothers started their own horse-breaking and cowboy services company in Taylor, Texas–the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. They advertised: Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders advertised “catching and taming wild cattle a speciality.”
Invented the Art of Bulldogging
Bill Pickett frequently performed in local rodeos and became known for a skill developed by watching other cowboys herd cattle. Cattlemen knew that, with the help of a trained bulldog, a stray steer could be caught. The bulldog would halt the steer by using its teeth to clamp down on the steer’s sensitive nerve in the upper nose and lip. The steer wouldn’t move after that.
Pickett decided that if a bulldog could bring down a steer, so could he. He practiced by riding after a steer, springing from his horse, and wrestling the steer to the ground. He then bit and held the steer’s lip until the steer held still. He became known as the “bulldogger.”
Pickett gave exhibitions in Texas and throughout the West usually riding his horse Spradley. He signed on with the 101 Ranch Show (similar to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show) in 1905, becoming a full-time employee in 1907.
The show was based in Oklahoma, and Pickett’s family moved there with him. During the off season he worked as a cowboy and also competed against white contestants in hundreds of rodeos around the West. In order to enter these events, Pickett had to register as an Indian; an African-American would not have been permitted to compete. Had he not been so often banned from competing with white rodeo contestants, Pickett might have become one of the greatest record-setters in his sport.
Pickett was also the first “Hollywood” black cowboy. He worked with an all-black production company, Richard E. Norman Studios, and starred in Crimson Skull (1921) and The Bull-Dogger (1922), both filmed in Oklahoma.
The American fascination for Wild West shows and rodeos faded after World War I, and the 101 Ranch Show closed in 1931.
Pickett died in 1932 from injuries sustained while working the cattle on a ranch. He is buried near a 14-foot stone monument to Ponca Tribal Chief White Eagle and the tribe’s friendship with the Miller Brothers on Monument Hill in Kay County, Oklahoma.
Thirty-nine years after his death, Bill Pickett was inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame (1971), the first African-American to receive this honor.
He was also honored by being selected to be featured on a 1994 U.S. postage stamp. Experts say the stamp actually depicts one of his brothers.