Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Pecos Bill is a semilegendary cowboy-culture hero of the Southwest. According to tales, Bill was the strongest, meanest cowboy west of the Pecos River, the greatest roper and bronc buster and gunfighter. He rode a panther that weighed as much as three steers and a yearling and used a rattlesnake for a quirt. He invented calf roping and branding and built the first six-shooter. He could ride a cyclone while rolling a cigarette with one hand. He dug the Rio Grande one droughty year so he could get water from the Gulf of Mexico up to the Pecos. He staked out New Mexico for his ranch spread and used Arizona as a calf pasture. He became the mythical cowboy supertype.

Bill was born in the early 1830s of pioneer Texas stock. When another family settled fifty miles downriver, his family moved west because of the crowded conditions. Bill fell out of the wagon when it was crossing the Pecos, and because there were so many kids in the family, his folks did not miss him until it was too late to go back. Bill was raised by coyotes, and for food he ran down deer and jackrabbits. Bill was ten years old when a cowboy rode up on him while he was squeezing two bears to death to get meat for supper. The cowboy finally convinced Bill that he was human by pointing out that he had no tail. So Bill threw in with humans and began the adventures that have earned him literary and folkloric fame.

Pecos Bill first came to literary life in an article by journalist Edward O'Reilly in The Century Magazine in October 1923. O'Reilly claims to have heard stories about Pecos Bill in his childhood and from cowboys sitting around the chuck wagon. In 1934 Mody Boatright took O'Reilly's stories and expanded them into three chapters of his Tall Tales from Texas Cow Camps. Because the only known means of dissemination of Pecos Bill tales has been in published literature, some scholars question the validity of Pecos Bill as a true folk character. The final authority on Texas legends, J. Frank Dobie of the Texas Folklore Society, asserted that Pecos Bill was unknown before O'Reilly's article. Dobie based his judgment on his own encyclopedic knowledge of southwestern folklore and on the fact that O'Reilly once admitted, in a lawsuit against a writer who plagiarized his article, that he had invented Pecos Bill. Pecos Bill seems to have been more the product of journalism than folklore.

F. E. Abernethy Stephen F. Austin State University

Boatright, Mody. Tall Tales from Texas Cow Camps. Dallas: Southwest Press, 1934.

Botkin, B. A. "The Saga of Pecos Bill." In A Treasury of American Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1944: 180–85.

O'Reilly, Edward. "The Saga of Pecos Bill." The Century Magazine 106 (1923): 827–33.

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