Many of the things we attribute to the old southwest tradition were handed down from other times, places, and cultures. I want to discuss American rodeo, but I must first acknowledge the origin of modern rodeo events.
Men have been messing around with bulls since the time of the Minoans (between 3,000 and 1,450 BCE) (please note that “BCE” does not mean before cellphones or ethernet). The Minoans of the island of Crete didn’t have professional golf back then, so they amused themselves with the equally aggravating sport of pulling bulls to the ground by their tails. It was aggravating because once a very angry bull was on the ground, what then? It may have been “then” that the Minoans came up with such other amusements as bull jumping, bull riding, and bull wrestling. No one in the ancient world kept score, so we don’t know how many Minoans were gored, stomped, or kicked in the head.
In Spanish Mexico, haciendas challenged one another in demonstrations of horsemanship, including all the skills expected of the vaquero: cattle wrangling, bull riding, and bullfighting. To my knowledge, these American demonstrations began in the early sixteenth century. I’m not entirely sure about this, but I suspect that bull riding evolved after far too many shots of tequila, which then turned into one of those los dobles desafíos van primero things for which Spaniards are famous.
Today, and every year since zero, people travel to Pamplona to run with the bulls. It is an exciting event because not every bull appreciates the competition. My wife and I visited Pamplona on 12 July 2018 and watched the event. Neither of us likes tequila, and we’re both in our 70s. So, even though we didn’t do any running, it was still an interesting event.
When the Spaniards colonized Mexico, the settler’s first mandate was to raise horses; their second was to keep Indians from learning how to ride them. However, by 1528, the Spaniards had established vast estancias and since most Spaniards were steadfast in avoiding any semblance of manual labor, they had little choice but to train Indians as herdsmen. The Indians not only became excellent horsemen, but they also began the evolution from traditional Spanish Charro (horseman) to Mexican vaquero (cowboy). Some historians also credit the Mexican Indian as the inventors of the charreada, which originated in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua, and Guanajuato. The charreada, which is the forerunner of American rodeo, involved demonstrations of ranching skills and animal husbandry.
Today, Mexican charreada include nine events for men and one for women. They all involve horses and cattle. Before 1910, Canadian, Mexican, and American horsemen competed for trophies and recognition, but following the Mexican Revolution (ending in 1921), international competition ceased because Mexico’s land reform initiatives broke up the old Spanish hacienda system. Fearing the end of this long-held tradition, Mexican charros formed associations to keep the charreada alive. Motion pictures of the 1920s and 1930s helped maintain public interest in the charreada while promoting the popularity of old Mexican music (singing vaqueros). Singing cowboys also found audiences in the United States through such Hollywood stars as Ken Maynard, John Wayne, Dick Foran, Gene Autrey, Tex Ritter, and Roy Rogers.
In Mexico, participants in charreada wear traditional charro clothing, which includes tight-fitting suits, chaps, boots, spurs, and wide sombreros. From the fairgrounds of Spanish Mexico to the racetracks, fiestas, and festivals of modern Mexico, charreada and rodeo continue to attract audiences to observe horsemanship, roping, and cattle wrangling.
Before we get to the subject of the American cowboy, which everyone knows was that fellow who ranged cattle from South Texas to Montana, an activity that began in earnest around 1850, there was another and somewhat older American horse and cattle tradition: a cowman called the Florida Cracker.
The term “cracker” was used in the Elizabethan period to describe braggarts and blowhards — “crack” meaning an entertaining conversation (to crack a joke). William Shakespeare used the term in his play, King John, “What cracker is this same that deafs our ears, with this abundance of superfluous breath?”
In the mid-1700s, the ruling classes in Great Britain and the American colonies applied the term cracker to Scots-Irish and English American settlers in the remote southern backcountry. We know this because of a letter dispatched to the Earl of Dartmouth: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers: a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”
The term easily transferred to southern Georgia and Florida cowboys, many of which were the descendants of earlier colonizers who had moved south to seek their fortunes. In Florida, those who owned or worked cattle were traditionally called cowmen, but by the 1800s, they were also referred to as cow hunters because they sought out cattle scattered over wooded rangelands during roundup periods. Beginning around the 1820s, the terms cowman and cracker were used interchangeably because of similarities in their backwoods culture.
The Florida Cracker was distinct from the Spanish vaquero and the western cowboy because they did not use lassos to herd or capture cattle: their primary tools were well-trained dogs and cow whips. Cracking whips to move/herd cattle resulted in the term “cracker.” Because Florida horses and cattle were smaller than Spanish or Texas breeds, they were collectively known as scrub breeds. The cattle averaged 600 pounds on market day. They had large horns and large feet, which suited them to grazing on the swampy grasslands of the central peninsula.
Today, cattle ranchers in Florida proudly refer to themselves as “crackers.” Others, primarily punk Negroes, and white liberals from the northeast, derisively refer to all southerners as crackers … which, of course, displays their profound ignorance. The most famous of Florida Crackers was Bone Mizell (1863-1921), the subject of a Frederic Remington painting. Florida’s Silver Spurs Rodeo began in 1941 and has since become one of the largest rodeos in the United States — billed as the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi River.
As previously indicated, many of the American cowboy’s skills and traditions originated with the Spanish vaquero. Rodeo, which initially meant “round up,” also evolved from Spanish/Mexican traditions, but there may never have been the popular sport we know today as American rodeo were it not for a black cowboy named Bill Pickett.
Willie M. “Bill” Pickett was Texas-born in 1870. He was the second oldest of thirteen children of Thomas J. Pickett, a former slave, and Mary “Janie” Gilbert. Bill had four brothers and eight sisters. As with most children in the early 1880s, Bill left school after the fifth grade to become a ranch hand. Now, contrary to the scenes depicted in Hollywood movies, ranching is not only hard work but also dangerous. The average life expectancy of a cowboy between 1850-1900 was 25-years. Gunfights and Indian engagements factored in a few of these, but most young men were killed in horse accidents which caused broken necks and concussions. More than a few cowboys died after an irritated cow gored them, and a few more came to the end of their roundup by being struck by lightning.
If anyone was “asking for it,” though, it was probably Bill Pickett. The man was fearless. Bill Pickett, you see, invented bulldogging in the 1890s — his own unique method of capturing steers. From a galloping horse, Bill jumped onto the back of a racing steer, and after grabbing ahold of the animal’s horns, he would lean into the animal, bite its upper lip, and pull on its horns to throw the animal to the ground. He then tied off the animal’s hooves to keep them on the ground. Despite his profession, Bill lived to the age of sixty-one (although his death in 1932 was attributed to being kicked in the head by a horse). People fascinated by the publicity of Pickett’s bulldogging began showing up as local rodeos to watch him do it.
Shortly after the 1904 Cheyenne Frontier Days celebration, the famous 101 Ranch of Oklahoma hired Pickett to perform during “wild west” exhibitions, which took him throughout the United States and Europe. Everyone was impressed with Bill Pickett, including other cowboys who duplicated his stunts. There were soon enough of these bulldoggers for promoters to stage contests that became a regular part of the rodeo exhibitions.
Women joined the rodeo as competitors in 1913 when Tillie Baldwin demonstrated her trick riding and horse racing skills. She was the first female to take on the bulldogging contest. It didn’t kill her — but neither did her activities encourage a rush of females to join the rodeo – a fact that may go a long way in settling the argument about which sex has the most brains.
Within a few years rodeo associations outlawed the “lip-biting” aspect of bulldogging. Today, we remember bulldogging as an event entirely attributed to Bill Pickett. All of Pickett’s honors came to him long after his death, however. In 1971, Bill was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame; in 1989, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame; in 1997, the Texas Trail Hall of Fame, and in 2003 the National Multicultural Western Heritage Hall of Fame.
- Allen, M. Rodeo Cowboys in the North American Imagination. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998.
- Bennett, D. Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship. Amigo Publishing, 1998.
- Candelaria, C. Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture. Greenwood Publishing, 2004.
- Clancy, F. My Fifty Years in Rodeo: Living with Cowboys, Horses, and Danger. San Antonio: Naylor Press, 1952.
- Hanes, B.C. Bill Pickett, Bulldogger: The Biography of a Black Cowboy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
- Johnson, C. Guts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett. Fort Worth: Summit Group Publishing, 1994.
 A Spaniard will argue vociferously that there is a world of difference between charros and vaqueros, and it’s true. The Spanish horse tradition originated in Salamanca, Spain … gentlemen horsemen who are masters of the horse, who observe long-held traditions in etiquette, mannerisms, and dress. Vaqueros, who are fine horsemen, are generally not regarded as gentlemen.
 In its original use, the word rodeo meant the roundup of cattle for branding, counting, and preparation for marketing.
 One of my personal acquaintances years ago, a Marine officer, paid for his college education by engaging in bull riding contests in California. By the time he was 40 years old, the man could hardly walk. After he died at age 55, his widow told me that he’d lost his mental capacity several years earlier. She suspected it came from having his brains scrambled in the rodeo.