Delving further into Oklahoma history as of late, I learned about the 101 Ranch in Ponca City, Oklahoma. My brother George informed me that our grandmother Hetty (whom I mentioned in my Knabe piano post) even worked there for a time, and that the ranch was established after the closing of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, featuring similar types of acts. Intrigued by this news, I was compelled to take a further look into the history of the 101 Ranch. (1)
When I typed “101 Ranch” into Google as a preliminary search, I was met with many photos of cowgirls who took part in the show (unusual, I thought, to see so many women as a wild west show’s main attraction–but then I remembered the popularity of Annie Oakley, and the novelty of women shooting and riding like men-this may have followed in the same vein). I also noticed quite a few images and descriptions of a Black cowboy showman renowned on the ranch, by the name of Bill Pickett. Standing proud, Pickett cut a gallant figure in the early twentieth-century images:
I then learned that Bill Pickett reached star status on the 101 Ranch, and brought with him a whole new technique: bulldogging, or steer-wrestling, a technique to retrieve stray steers which was initially done by bulldogs-but Pickett believed he could perform the act just as well, and on a day he witnessed a bull about to gore his horse, he stepped in and wrestled the bull to the ground. (2) Thus, the bulldogging method was born. (3) With its high risk of injury to the rancher, the daringness of bulldogging made it a compelling site to observe, and Pickett sealed its status as a renowned part of rodeo shows. (3)
Bill Pickett was born Willie M. Pickett in Texas in 1870 to former slaves who were of Black, Caucasian, and Cherokee heritage. He worked as a ranch hand in his youth and then formed The Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association with his four brothers. (4) Pickett came to Ponca City’s 101 Ranch in 1905 and his bulldogging technique and other tricks were regaled. It was at the 101 Ranch that he gained the moniker “The Dusky Demon.” Colonel Zack Miller, one of the Miller Brothers who founded the 101, hailed Pickett as “the greatest sweat-and-dirt cowhand that ever lived-bar none.” (5)
“The Dusky Demon” achieved such success that he took his show to Canada, Mexico, South America, and England. (6) Pickett was also featured in the 1921 silent western film “The Bull-Dogger” by the Norman Film Manufacturing Company, a silent film producer creating films with Black casts between 1919 and 1928. (7)
Below is film footage of Pickett in “The Bull Dogger” from the Norman Studios YouTube channel:
Pickett was the first Black man to be inducted to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City, a place I loved to visit as a child. (8) Black cowboys have not often been depicted in popular culture, but plenty of white Westerners are household names (Wyatt Earp, Butch Kassidy, Billy the Kidd, Buffalo Bill). Maybe it’s time for a new film about Bill Pickett!
And here is a film about more Black figures of the West. Bill Pickett is included:
See you on the trail,
(1) Thank you to George Morris for clueing me in to the history of the 101 Ranch.
(2) Coppedge, Clay (1 December 2004). “Never Another Like Bill Pickett.” Texas Escapes. Accessed 6 February 2021. http://www.texasescapes.com/ClayCoppedge/Bill-Pickett-and-Bulldogging.htm
(4) David J. Wishart. “Pickett, Bill” in Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Accessed 6 February 2021.http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.afam.035
(5) “Bill Pickett” in 101 Ranch, The Greatest Show of the West. Accessed 6 February 2021. http://www.kaycounty.info/101_ranch/pickett-page.html
(7) Norman Studios, normanstudios.org http://normanstudios.org/about/