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He Took The Bull By The Horns

July 2024
13min read

In the early days of the century, a fearless cowboy named Bill Pickett roused audiences on two continents by giving the fledgling sport of rodeo one of its most exciting events.

Ask nearly any American today to define the word bulldogging and he’ll do a pretty fair job. So, for that matter, will many Europeans. But even as recently as the late 1800s, rodeo was still not much more than a Spanish word meaning roundup , and bulldogging was a term familiar only to a select group—people who knew Bill Pickett.

Pickett was a lonely man whose dark skin came from a Choctaw mother and a white-Negro-Indian father. Long a footloose cowhand, he had worked ranches in South America and in the American Southwest; he was nearing forty when just before the turn of the century he met Zack Miller in Fort Worth, Texas. Miller was one of three brothers who owned the sprawling, burgeoning 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, situated on the Ponca Indian reservation at the confluence of the Salt Fork and Arkansas rivers.

Miller was a good judge of horses and cattle and of the men who worked them. He signed Pickett on. It was the beginning of a friendship that spanned more than thirty years; Zack came to regard Pickett as “the greatest sweat-and-dirt cowhand that ever lived—bar none,” and those who saw him in action as a bulldogger came to regard him as a living legend.

The 101 had more than its share of top hands. Johnny Brewer could ride the saltiest of broncos; Jim Hopkins was a roper par excellence (once—dead drunk—he won a $500 steer-roping bet using a loop and casting style he had never tried before); Kurt Reynolds was a fine all-around cowboy. Pickett would have to prove himself, and he did so by bulldogging steers.

Pickett claimed to have originated the sport, and few have disputed it. Versions differ on how he learned and perfected his stunt, but there is little mystery about his technique. “The way Bill went at it,” runs an account in one history of the 101 and its men, “he piled out of his saddle onto the head of a running steer, sometimes jumping five or six feet to tie on. He’d grab a horn in each hand [digging in with his boot heels to slow the animal down] and twist them till the steer’s nose came up. Then he’d reach in and grab the steer’s upper lip with his strong white teeth, throw up his hands to show he wasn’t holding on any more, and fall to one side of the steer, dragging along beside him until the animal went down.

“Sometimes Bill would miss getting that tooth-hold. When he did, he’d just peg his steer by shoving the left horn into the ground, letting him roll, rump-over-head.” But it was the biting of the steer’s tender upper lip that turned the trick—and gave the sport its name.

Zack Miller recalled that he never saw a steer go after Pickett, once the animal had regained its feet. All Bill had to do, said Miller, was to stand his ground, it was all most impressive.

Pickett soon was putting his talent to good use. On some days there was time to spare, and cowpunchers from two or three outfits would get together to compete for small purses or personal bets. It was at these informal range meets that, thanks to Pickett, the sport of bulldogging began to spread. The 101 hands promoted many winning bets on Pickett; moreover, his specialty was irresistibly exciting. Others began hurling themselves onto the backs of half-wild Texas longhorns; there were several cases of broken bones, but few of diminished enthusiasm. The meets grew in popularity and were soon scheduled regularly. The purses increased—and so did the distances men would ride to vie for them.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Zack Miller staked his men to entrance fees and travel money—all he asked was fifty per cent of whatever prize money they pulled down. The 101 boys won so consistently that by 1900, hands from other spreads were branding the Miller employees professionals, outlawing them from the competitions. Zack shrugged, and his cowboys went back to the routine of running the ranch.

And the ranch was prospering. The 101 had attracted the eyes of dudes and easterners, and was fast becoming a favorite spot for western holidays. The booming tourist trade was mainly attributable, of course, to the 101’s stuntmen-in-residence. Doubtless many a tenderfoot returned to the East with spellbinding accounts of how a Negro cowboy, right before his very eyes, had barehandedly wrestled to earth a mean steer with a horn-spread—well, it was this big!

Pickett by this time was an integral part of the ranch. He no longer carried with him the vague sense of emptiness that had been so constant a companion in his peripatetic earlier days. The 101’s crew comprised men much like himself, men who understood and respected each other. He had a home now, he had friends, and he liked it.

One of Pickett’s pals was an easygoing young fellow named Will Rogers. Rogers was never a regular hand at the 101. He’d drift in, work for as long as he liked, and then drift on again, but he was an exceptionally good worker, and the arrangement suited Zack. At the 101, Rogers perfected a number of rope-twirling tricks that shortly earned him a trip to New York.

In the fall of 1904, Zack hired a good-looking French-Canadian-Italian from behind a bar in Oklahoma City. If they could make a half-decent cowboy out of him, Zack thought, he’d be just the man to entertain the dudes. Some of the hands had to saddle his horse for him a time or two, but soon Tom Mix was handy enough with a rope and horse to convince any tourist he had been at it all his life. Mix took his place next to the other experts at the 101: he was the greatest teller of tall tales they’d ever heard. He could ramble for hours about his crucial part in winning the Boer War, about his exploits as a Texas Ranger, about his childhood as the adopted son of a Comanche chief—and about how he’d taught Bill Pickett the proper way to bulldog a steer. Zack said Mix could color a story redder than a Navajo blanket.

In February of 1905 Zack met J. L. Gue, a promoter for an annual horse fair at Madison Square Garden in New York. Gue was looking for a gimmick to increase gate receipts. Zack handed him a cigar, started talking as Gue was lighting up, and a few hours later walked away with a signed contract.

Zack and two dozen of his best hands—Pickett and Rogers among them—made the trip East. Gue had arranged for them to put up at a swanky Fifth Avenue hotel, but when its manager insisted that they wear coats and ties to dinner, Zack told him, “Why, me ’n’ the boys had rather eat in a stable than dress up like show monkeys for a chance to eat in that damned dining room of yours.”

Gue hastened to smooth the ruffled feathers. Soon he moved the noisy crew into the Putnam House; it was nearer the Garden, and the management turned the whole place over to them. This was more like it: here they could (and did) whoop it up; soon they worked out a room-buzzer code with the bellhops—a hand could get the drink of his choice just by buzzing so many times.

The Garden’s opening-night crowd was small, but none among it ever forgot the performances of Bill Pickett and Will Rogers.

At one end of the arena Pickett was mounted on Spradley, a four-year-old he had nursed back to health when as a colt it had driven a large splinter into its chest. To his right was Rogers, ready to ride haze. Between them was a closed chute.

The chute’s gate banged open, and a large Texas longhorn shot out. Pickett and Rogers shot after it. At full speed the animal headed straight for the high, closed gate at the opposite end of the arena. Spradley couldn’t cut down the distance, and Pickett figured he’d make the catch when the longhorn turned. But it didn’t turn, fnto the air it went, splintering the top boards of the gate, and into an aisle that led up into the first balcony of the grandstand. Spradley cleared the gate without breaking stride; close behind was Rogers, no longer an effective hazer, but a more than interested onlooker.

Spectators scrambled over each other as the bellowing steer, two horses, and two shouting cowboys clattered upward—to the third tier, where Pickett left the saddle and hit the steer just as Rogers snaked his lariat over its hind legs. Pickett hung on to the animal’s horns while Rogers dragged and bumped the protesting renegade back down into the arena.

For the remainder of the engagement the houses were good, although it was said that aisle seats were less in demand than usual. Gue’s show had made money for the first time in years; he hired a special coach with an open bar for the riders’ train trip home.

Early that summer the 101 was the convention site of the National Editorial Association. The climax of the week-long fete was a gala western spectacular—Indians, ropers, marksmen, riders, and a mock attack on a covered-wagon train—all of it open to the public. Regional newspapers had publicized the event months in advance, but still the Millers were astounded—64,000 people showed up for the big day. If people were that hungry for an authentic touch of the West, Zack and his brothers were ready to feed them.

The 101 Wild West Show opened in Kansas City in the spring of 1906, and by the time the seventy-five-man troupe returned to the ranch for the winter, the show was a solidly established success. It netted $30,000 in a single week, playing to record crowds at the Chicago Coliseum in 1907, and from there it went to Jamestown, Virginia, for a 100-day run. Profits soared in 1908, and advance ticket offices were sold out weeks before the troupe arrived. The Millers were riding high.

The wild West show hit Mexico City one night in mid-December, 1908. A few days later Pickett, then forty-seven years old, risked his life in El Toreo, the new steel and concrete bullring, in one of the strangest combats in the chronicles of the West.

The Mexicans were critical of the 101 show, and looked upon the norteamericanos with contempt and distaste. Pickett drew particularly heavy fire. His act was vulgar and disgusting, said an editorial in El Heraldo, and the man himself lacked the dignity, the grace, and the courage of a matador. The Miller brothers responded by offering a thousand pesos for Mexican charity if there was a single bullfighter in the city who could pull off Pickett’s stunt.

Bienvenida, a popular matador, accepted the wager and the time was agreed upon. El Heraldo devoted three columns to the event, smugly predicting that Bienvenida would “teach the boasting Americans a lesson in grace and courage.”

The day and time came—and went. The Millers sent a man to Bienvenida’s quarters. The messenger returned with a note from the matador: his backers had advised him that it would be demeaning to participate in such a crude and barbaric spectacle. But they had an alternative proposition. They would pay $5,000 if Pickett, bare-handed, would take on a fighting bull in the arena.

The Millers—and Pickett—quickly accepted this challenge, although there were certain rather ugly stipulations. Pickett was to fight without benefit of picadors, the mounted lancemen who take the bull’s first charges and tire it, or banderilleros, who weaken the bull’s shoulders with barbed shafts. Bill was to remain in the ring for fifteen minutes; although he would not be required to down the bull, he would have to maintain direct physical contact with it for five consecutive minutes.

On the day of combat, 25,000 Mexicans packed El Toreo. Among them were President Porfirio Diaz and other dignitaries who came, as El Heraldo put it, to watch Bill Pickett “sacrifice himself on the altar of American egotism.”

In the pre-performance parade that afternoon, local matadors carried a coffin upon which was inscribed El Pincharino, fairly translated as “one who has been gored through.” There was little question in the minds of the spectators as to what the outcome would be; it was strictly a matter of time. Local bookmakers, it was said, were giving Pickett four minutes.

The bull selected was a tough, experienced fighter that had been spared by an admiring crowd because of his good performance in the ring a week earlier. He was called Chiquito Frijole, “Little Bean,” because of his oddly speckled skin.

The Millers had expected to give their regular wild West show that day, with Pickett’s act as the grand finale. But the mood of the crowd was all too apparent. They were not willing to wait. “El Pincharino!” they shouted. “Chiquito Frijole!” “Viva el toro!

As for Bill Pickett, he was ready. Not that he was unaware of the mortal danger. The night before, Pickett had come to Zack Miller asking for a promise. It he died out there in that Mexican bullring, he said, he wanted his body taken back to the 101 Ranch and buried in good, hard ground where the coyotes could not “scratch out his bones.” Zack had given his word.

Pickett’s heels touched Spradley, and the horse moved forward. At the far side of the arena a gate opened, and into the sunlight charged Chiquito Frijole. A great thunder rolled up from the crowd: “Muerte al Negro de Oklahoma!

The bull did not wait for the fight to come to him: he dug at the sand and snorted, head twisting, and then began his charge. Pickett held the reins loosely; Spradley, well enough versed in mean animals, did a dancing step, marking time, waiting for the bull to come. Chiquito Frijole’s head dropped, his horns ready to disembowel. At the last instant Spradley side-stepped, and the bull rushed past.

The bull refused to maintain a straight line, and as Spradley pursued him, he wheeled—again the horse had to dodge. Spradley’s footwork kept him out of danger, but Pickett had no opportunity to engage the beast. When Chiquito Frijole overshot twice again, Pickett turned and rode to the barricade.

The rider was worried because he now realized he would have to present a stationary target—his horse —to lure the bull into position. “A pony’s gonna die before I can get close enough,” he called to the Miller brothers. “I can’t risk my Spradley horse.”

Cobarde!” screamed the crowd, thinking Pickett was conceding defeat. The impresario rose, reached for his handkerchief, and pointed at Pickett.

“Go back in there, Bill, and get that bull,” urged Zack. “If you don’t, they’re going to get all of us!”

Pickett, face twisted, jerked the reins and galloped out again. Chiquito Frijole barrelled forward, and Pickett drew Spradley up short. The horse screamed as the bull’s horns pierced its hind quarters. As the bull pulled back for another thrust, Pickett left the saddle and slid backward over Spradley’s rump and onto the bloody horns. Dragging Pickett, Chiquito Frijole made straight for Spradley, but the limping pony escaped through a hastily opened gate.

Bill Pickett had a rough ride. His antagonist raced across the arena, head high and tossing. Bill jammed his heels into the ground—it had always slowed longhorns—to no avail. The bull, now throwing the cowboy against a wall, now on its knees trying to impale him against the arena’s dirt floor, made Pickett abandon all thoughts of fancy, aggressive bulldogging. He just wanted to hang on. The bull whipsawed him like a rag doll.

Kurt Reynolds, leaning over the barricade, winced. “He can’t last long,” he shouted. “He’s being murdered! How long has he been on?”

Zack glanced at his watch. “Two minutes.”

Somehow, Pickett wrapped his arms around the bull’s neck, locking his wrists under its throat. He pulled his legs up and squeexed his knees against the animal’s nostrils. “The hold was Pickett’s favorite,” a member of the 101 said later, “and never before had a four-footed creature withstood it.” The bull was weakening.

This was not at all what the crowd had come to see. A bottle glinted in the sunlight as it arched through the air, landing a few feet from the combatants. The crowd surged to its feet, screaming for blood. Bottles, cushions, and fruit cascaded down.

“Time!” cried Zack.

Chiquito Frijole pirouetted and whirled. Pickett, hugging the bull’s head as if welded to it, was still choking off the animal’s breath. The rain of debris continued.

“They re not going to ring that bell, Joe,” yelled Zack to his brother. “The sons of bitches aim to let that bull kill Bill Pickett!”

The next few minutes were so tense, so confused, that afterward everyone had his own version of just what had happened. Zack Miller’s memory was that Joe shouted to an arena attendant to open the gate; Zack and some of his hands spurred through to rescue Pickett, two of them lassoing the bull’s legs immediately. Someone else remembered that a cowboy ripped off his red shirt to distract the animal while Bill slipped off. Still another is said to have whipped out a skinning knife and sunk it in the bull’s flank. At any rate, Pickett got away while the crowd raged murderously. President Díaz, fearful of mob action, ordered a troop of rurales to guard the cowboys; in fact, the 101 crew had a twenty-four-hour guard for its remaining few days in Mexico. Incredibly, Pickett’s most serious injuries were three broken ribs and severe skin lacerations. Perhaps more incredible was the fact that the Millers collected on their bet.

The 101 Ranch and its wild West show became a part of the nation’s vocabulary in the following decade. Zack and his cowboys performed coast to coast, from Canada to the Rio Grande. In 1914 the Millers received an invitation to the Anglo-American Exposition in London. The show was split, and Zack, with the prime half, stepped onto British soil on April 29. They played to record crowds, and one night had the honor of performing before King George V and Queen Mary. At one point, his Majesty became so excited that he broke into applause all by himself; the Queen, shocked at so flagrant a breach of royal etiquette, slapped the King’s hands. Pickett’s act was as popular in England as it was at home, and brought him an invitation to dine at the castle of an earl. Bill had a tough time figuring out when to use which pieces of flatware, and was just as happy to wind up the evening eating leftovers in the show’s mess tent.

In October of 1914—some three months after Austrian Archduke Ferdinand was murdered at Sarejevo—the first peal of the show’s death knell sounded. A royal courier delivered an official letter to Zack. In the top left corner were the words “National Emergency"; in the right, “Impressment Order Under Section 115 of the Army Act.” The first paragraph began: “His Majesty having declared that a national emergency has arisen, the horses and vehicles of the 101 Ranch Show are to be impressed for the public service.”

By the following week the show’s animals, wagons, and stable gear had been confiscated for the British Army. Zack and his performers booked passage on the overloaded American mail ship St. Paul, along with seven hundred other Americans fleeing the war. The better part of the show had been left in England, and the possibility of America’s entering the conflict diminished the popularity of the stateside remainder. After two straight years of losses, the show was sold.

Bill Pickett was now fifty-five years old. Many of his old friends were gone, and the ranch itself had changed its personality, had grown too big and unwieldy. But when the war was over and good times followed, the Millers decided to try once more, and in April of 1925 a new and lavish 101 Touring Show opened in Oklahoma City with a roster of new stars like California Frank, Cotton Ashley, Buck Lucas, and Buff Brady. But, for all its color, it was doomed—by such formidable competition as Ringling Brothers and Sells-Floto, by top performers’ demands for top salaries, by income taxes and lawsuits, by the deaths of George and Joe Miller in the late twenties, and finally by the Depression.

Rodeo, of course, survived the bleak and dispiriting thirties and remains a thriving institution. The 101 Ranch was not as hardy. Bankrupt, it was ordered liquidated by the District Court of Kay County, the sale of properties to begin on March 23, 1932. Zack Miller, recuperating from a nervous breakdown, filed a petition the day before the auction, and was given twenty-four hours to cut out his personal stock from the ranch’s horses. Bill Pickett, seventy-one years old and now retired, had bought and stocked 160 acres near Chandler, Oklahoma. He visited the 101 occasionally, and did so now to help his friend.

On the morning of the twenty-third, Bill entered a corral, rope in hand, to cut out a skittish sorrel. He sailed the loop over the animal’s head on the first toss. The horse backed to the fence and reared. Pickett climbed the rope hand over hand. Again the sorrel reared. Twenty-five years earlier the darkskinned bulldogger would have scrambled easily to one side. But now a hoof struck his head and he fell to his knees, dazed, still clutching the rope. The horse rose and plunged, and Pickett’s skull was fractured.

A doctor was rushed to the ranch, but could do nothing. Pickett hung on, unconscious, for eleven days. Zack Miller, against his own doctor’s orders, maintained a bedside vigil until his old hand died.

Pickett was buried at the 101 atop a soapstone hill—in the hard ground he had requested so long before.

Zack wrote the epitaph for Pickett’s headstone, an epitaph for a man who had given the nation one of its most exciting rodeo events, for the only man of the West ever known to brace a Spanish fighting bull with his bare hands, for an old friend.

It was the simply put sentiment of an aging, mournful man:

He left a blank that’s hard to fill

For there’ll never be another Bill.

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