Bill Pickett: Rodeo, Facts & Biography

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

When you think of the Wild West, rodeos probably come to mind. But how much do you know about Bill Pickett? In this lesson, you will learn about Bill Pickett, one of the most prominent African-American cowboys in American history.

The Wild West

Life for a Texas ranch hand in the early 1900s was a lot like what you'd see in an old Western movie. They spent their days in the saddle rustling cattle and breaking in bucking broncos. For Bill Pickett, his experiences growing up on a Texas ranch set the tone for his future life as the most famous African-American rodeo star and cowboy in American history.

Early Life

The exact birthday of William 'Bill' Pickett is unknown; some say he was born on December 5, 1870, while others say he was born around that time. Bill was the second of 13 children. Imagine how crowded that household was; with so many birthdays to remember, it's no wonder that Pickett's remains a mystery!

Pickett's parents were of mixed heritage; he was part Native American and African American. He was born just a few years after the end of the Civil War. Slavery was abolished in the United States, but the rights and mobility of his family were still very limited. He was born on a Texas ranch, and as a result, he grew up working on a ranch.

Bill Pickett's education stopped at fifth grade. While kids today continue their education, Bill was just beginning a long career as a ranch hand and eventually a rodeo star. Imagine yourself at fifth grade. Were you ready for a full-time job? How about a full-time job working with crazy cattle and bucking broncos?

Career

In 1888, Pickett and a few of his brothers decided to go into business. They were all skilled ranch hands and knew how to break in stallions and rustle steers; sticking with what they knew best, they formed the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. Bill was a bronco buster during the week, but on the weekends, he blew off steam by performing tricks at a local rodeo.

He quickly gained attention for a new style of steer wrestling that he invented. Called bulldogging, Pickett mimicked the bulldogs that ranchers used to wrangle stray steer. The dogs would jump up and bite the steer on the lip and nose; the bite was enough to stop a steer in its tracks and force him to stay still. Bill would jump off the back of his horse, land on the steer, and then bite the steer on its lip just like the dogs did. His act became sensational, because seriously, who wouldn't want to watch a guy jump onto a bull and wrestle it to the ground by biting it?

Bill Pickett handbill
Bill Pickett handbill

By 1905, Bill Pickett was making a name for himself in the rodeo community and began working part time with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show. Two years later, Pickett was one of their most popular stars, and he and his family relocated to Oklahoma to join the show full-time. Throughout his career, Pickett participated in countless rodeos. His African-American heritage was a large obstacle for entering many rodeos; depending on the competition, he wasn't allowed to compete against white cowboys because he was black. To get around this rule, he entered many of the rodeos as a Native American.

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