Who was Bill Pickett?


Under The Life of Bill Pickett 

The grave is marked with a sandstone tombstone that reads: “Bill Pickett - C.S.C.P.A.” The letters stand for the Cherokee Strip Cow Punchers Association.  Pickett, a black man who has been given credit for “inventing” bulldogging, died in the spring of 1932 after an altercation with a bronc in a 101 Ranch corral. He was 62.

Pickett worked for the Millers for most of his adult life. But his remarkable story begins not in Oklahoma but in south central Texas near Taylor, Williamson County.

His ancestors were of mixed “Negro, Caucasian and Cherokee Indian blood,” according to Colonel Bailey C. Hanes, “a not uncommon blend [in the 1800s] in the upper south.” In his book, Bill Pickett, Bulldogger (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1977). 

Thomas Jefferson Pickett was Bill Pickett’s father. He and Bill’s mother, Mary, produced thirteen children. Five boys, including Bill, may have been the first black entrepreneurs in Taylor, where they operated a business called “Pickett Bros. Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Ass’n.” 

Bill was born in 1870, five years after the Civil War ended and the Confederacy's slaves were emancipated. By the time he was 16, he was becoming interested in horses, cattle, and dogs.

Not many writers emphasize the influence cattle dogs had on the young man, but if it were not for these dogs, he might never have been the famous bite 'em-style bulldogger he was. There were “heel” dogs and “catch” dogs. The latter went to a critter’s head while the former harassed the heels. Cowboys used these cattle dogs because it was next to impossible to swing ropes or make cow catches in the thick tangles of brush that covered much of Williamson County.

Where Bill Pickett first grabbed a steer’s lip with his teeth (like the dogs did it) is unknown. You hear stories that he did it in the brush, on the range, in a holding pen. But wherever he did it, he was the first to do it and the first to be promoted in a specialty act.

When talking to old-timers, much of the fanciful element is reduced. They figure that Pickett went down the back of a cow brute, stopped it, then bit into the lip or nose and just fell away, dropping the steer by twisting its neck and assisted by leverage.

But an “eyewitness account” in the Tulsa World, Oct. It, 1931, described his fear in “shows” (there were no rodeos in those days) like this: “The steer plunged into the arena ... Pickett’s horse plunged full speed after it, and he leaped from the saddle. He turned a complete somersault along the length of the steer’s back, flying out and down over the curved horns to fasten his teeth in the side of the steer’s mouth.

With sheer strength, he dragged the running behemoth’s head to the tan-bark, thrust its horn in the ground, and its forward momentum threw the steer hocks over horns in a somersault of its own.”

Mrs. William Paxton Irvine once confirmed that “Bill Pickett was riding with my father, Lee Moore, near Thorndale, Texas, in the late 1880’s. They were rounding up cattle, and one steer was hard to turn. Bill took after the steer and bulldogged it.”

How he did this was not elaborated on, but he must have used the bite-’em style because Moore, who had a theatrical bent, booked Pickett in Texas and other states, describing him as a “bulldogger that did it with his teeth.”

His success and notoriety as the “only professional bulldogger in the world” caught the attention of the Miller Brothers, whose 101 Ranch Wild West Show was fast becoming the country's best entertainment. In 1905, they hired Pickett and brought him and his entire family from Texas to Oklahoma, housing them at 101 Ranch headquarters at Bliss (now Marland).

Of course, Pickett was on the road a lot, billed as “The Dusty Demon” on show flyers. When not on the road, he did all sorts of chores on the huge ranch. He picked cotton, maintained fences, built corrals, and broke and gentled horses. He was particularly good with horses, according to his great-great-grandson Frank Phillips. “My grandmother, Bessie Pickett Phillips,” said Phillips, “told me a lot about Bill ... how he pretended to be ‘the man of steel’ but how he was really hurting, in later years, following work each day.

“I think he was exploited in a way. He was black, yet he was unique in what he did. But then, in those days, all black athletes were exploited in one way or another, especially prize fighters.” Bill Pickett is certainly one of those colorful characters in the history of Wild West Shows and rodeos. Therefore, he was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, in 1971 – the first black rodeo athlete to be so honored.