Bill Pickett — the first Black athlete inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame — continues to make an impact on cowboying long after his death.
If you’ve ever sat in a rodeo arena, you’ve most likely witnessed Bill Pickett’s legacy whether you realized it or not. The Texas-born cowboy is the father of the rodeo event bulldogging — also known as steer wrestling.
Born in 1870, and raised in Taylor, Texas, Pickett dropped out of school at a young age and saddled up to become a ranch hand. It was during his time cowboying that he invented bulldogging — lunging at a steer and biting (yes, biting) its upper lip, causing the animal to fall over so he could get it into a corral. Legend has it that Pickett had witnessed a bulldog use this method successfully, so he decided to give it a shot himself.
An eye-witness account published in the Tulsa World October 11, 1931, described “The Bull-Dogger” in action at a show.
“The steer lunged into the arena . . . [Pickett's] horse plunged full speed after it . . . the rider 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 tanbark, thrust its horn in the ground, and forward momentum threw the steer hocks over horns in a somersault of its own.”
Soon after his invention, Pickett and his brothers formed the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders that toured rodeos throughout the West — creating a name for Pickett. In 1905, Pickett was discovered by the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show, where he began touring the world in shows alongside Western icons including Buffalo Bill, Tom Mix, Will Rogers, and Lucille Mulhall.
In 1932, he passed away at the 101 Ranch in Ponca City, Oklahoma, after being kicked in the head by a horse. He was laid to rest at the Cowboy Hill Cemetery with a simple headstone reading “Bill Pickett, C.S.C.P.A” — the abbreviation for the Cherokee Strip Cow Punchers Association.
“He used to ride me on his horse,” Pickett's relative Margaret Buckner McKeever told the Washington Post in 1995. “Since I was so small, I thought he was a giant. But he was really a small man. He just had big ideas and did big things.”
Pickett’s legacy lives on after his death — through the sport of steer wrestling and the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo — though today’s rodeo athletes no longer bite at the steer’s lips. The Western trailblazer was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1972, the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1989, and the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2018. Statues of him stand in the Fort Worth Stockyards and in his hometown of Taylor, Texas.
More About Bill Pickett
From podcasts to books to films, there's plenty of information out there if you'd like to learn more about the legendary cowboy.
This biography written by Bailey C. Hanes “brings together all that is known about Pickett, sorting out the facts and legends.”
This illustrated book written by Andrea Davis Pinkey tells the “true sweat-and-dirt tale of the feisty cowboy-child who became the most famous black rodeo performer who ever lived.” It also includes the history of more Black cowboys of the Wild West.
This 54-minute podcast episode by iHeartRadio tells the story of the "greatest showman of Wild West." The show's host, Zaron Burnett, does a wonderful job bringing history to life through storytelling, spot-on music and audio, and high-quality production. You can stream this free episode anywhere you listen to podcasts.
Released in October 2021, the TV western The Harder They Fall features a man named Bill Pickett played by Edi Gathegi. But the similarities of the character and real-life cowboy stop at the name. The film’s Bill Pickett is an expert sharpshooter, while the real-life Bill Picket was a cowboy, Wild West Show performer, and inventor of steer wrestling.
Photography: (All images) courtesy Wikimedia Commons Public Domain