PICKETT, BILL (1870-1932)
Credited with inventing bulldogging (steer wrestling), Willie M. "Bill" Pickett performed with Wild West shows and rodeos for several decades. In recognition of his athletic prowess and crowd-pleasing abilities, in 1971 he became the first African American cowboy inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
One of thirteen children, Pickett was born in Travis County, Texas, thirty miles northwest of Austin. His ancestry was African American, Caucasian, and Cherokee. Growing up in rural Texas ranch country, Will, as he was known in his youth, learned to read brands and toss a rope. By his own account, one day he watched a small dog bite a cow's lip and successfully control the large animal. Pickett decided that he could do likewise and first demonstrated his lip-biting technique to a group of cowboys in 1881.
Pickett worked on various central Texas ranches during the late 1880s and 1890s. He married Maggie Turner in 1890 and together they raised nine children. In partnership with his brothers, he started the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association in Taylor, Texas, advertising that "We ride and break all wild horses with much care. Catching and taming wild cattle a specialty."
During the early 1900s Pickett demonstrated his toothy bulldogging technique at county fairs and other gatherings throughout the Great Plains. In 1904 he performed at Cheyenne Frontier Days. The following year Pickett joined the famous Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West Show. Over the next several years he performed with Tom Mix, Guy Weadick, Milt Hinkle, and other Wild West show stars. Later Pickett estimated that he bulldogged some 5,000 steers during his long career.
While working with the 101 outfit, Pickett became known as Bill rather than Will. Strong, athletic, compact (five feet seven inches, 145 pounds), and mustachioed, he dressed like a Spanish bullfighter. The 101 program listed him as "the Dusky Demon who throws steers with his teeth." In late 1908 he brashly agreed to take on a Mexican fighting bull. The bull gored both Pickett and his prized mount Spradley, one of several times that Pickett was injured.
In the 1920s Pickett mostly retired from competitive bulldogging but continued to give exhibitions. He starred in a few Western movies that showcased his rodeo feats. Pickett returned to work for Zack Miller and continued to break horses. His wife's death in March 1929 devastated Pickett, but he continued to work on the Miller ranch. He died at the 101 Ranch on April 2, 1932, after being kicked in the head by a horse. Miller's eulogy aptly summarized Pickett's achievements as the "greatest sweat and dirt cowhand that ever lived–bar none."
Richard W. Slatta North Carolina State University
Hanes, Bailey C. Bill Pickett: Bulldogger. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977, 1989.
Johnson, Cecil. Guts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett. Fort Worth: Summit Group, 1994.
Russell, Don. The Wild West: A History of the Wild West Shows. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1970.