William “Bill” Pickett
December 5, 1870 – April 2, 1932
Notable: Cowboy & Entertainer
William “Bill” Pickett was born 30 miles north of Austin in Travis County, Texas. He was the second of 13 children who would be born to Mary Virginia Elizabeth Gilbert and Thomas Jefferson Pickett. The couple had been previously enslaved and while the details of his ethnic makeup are unclear, Pickett was of both Black and Native American descent.
Growing up in Texas, Pickett spent time on ranches where he began learning how to ride horses and rope cattle at a young age. After completing the fifth grade, Pickett went to work on a ranch and officially became a cowboy. As a ranch hand, Pickett began to learn simple tricks that he performed on the weekends.
Pickett and his family relocated to Taylor, Texas when he was in his late teens. He along with four of his brothers established Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. Through this company, they offered services that included herding cattle as well as cattle and horse breaking, the practice of taming wild cows and horses. Around the age of 20, Pickett married a formerly enslaved woman, Maggie Turner, and their marriage would produce nine children.
By young adulthood, Pickett had grown to be relatively slight in build. He stood at five feet and seven inches and weighed about 145 pounds. While observing herder dogs on ranches, Pickett noticed that while they were even smaller than him, the dogs were capable of subduing and controlling steers that were far larger than them.
The noses and lips of steers are quite sensitive. Herd dogs would bite down on their nose or lips which would cause the steer to stop moving. Pickett adapted this method for subduing steers. He would chase after a steer on a horse, jump from the horse to the cow’s back, wrestle the steer to the ground, and then bite the cow’s lip until it stopped moving.
Bulldogs were typically used to herd steers and utilized this biting submission method so the practice came to be known as “bulldogging”. As the first person to popularize the practice, Pickett was given the nickname “The Bulldogger”. (Bulldogging is obviously dangerous so do not attempt this with steer, other animals, or humans. Also, it’s pretty gross to bite a cow on the nose or lip.)
In 1888, Pickett performed locally in his first rodeo. He went on to perform in more rodeos across Texas and elsewhere in the Wild West under “The Bulldogger” and “Dusky Deamon” monikers. Crowds went wild upon witnessing the spectacle of Pickett using his bulldogging skills at rodeos and fairs. He quickly became a popular performer on the rodeo and fair circuit. Bulldogging evolved into steer wrestling which became a standardized competition at rodeos and one of its main events.
Pickett capitalized on his popularity by joining the 101 Ranch Wild West Show. He remained a standout performer while working alongside other big-name Wild West figures. Pickett transitioned from being a contract performer with the 101 Ranch to a full-time employee in 1907. In addition to working as a cowhand on the ranch in Oklahoma, Pickett continued to perform. The following year, he relocated his family from Texas to Oklahoma where he would be based for much of the rest of his life.
Despite his skill and contributions to rodeos, Pickett still had to contend with racism. As with other facets of society at the time, many rodeos did not allow Black participants to compete against White people. Thus Pickett was frequently barred from participation. To get around these exclusions, Pickett often had to register in rodeos as a Native American or otherwise attempt to obscure his identity as a Black person.
Even in the face of adversity, Pickett established a noteworthy record as a rodeo competitor and performer. He would have achieved even greater acclaim had he been allowed to openly compete on equal footing with White cowboys.
Pickett performed in hundreds of rodeos and even appeared in two silent films in the early 1920s. These performances saw him travel across the American West, the rest of North America, South America, and England. Sources vary on the exact decade but Pickett stopped performing in rodeos at some time between 1916 and the 1920s though he continued to work as a ranch hand.
Unfortunately, William “Bill” Pickett died on April 2, 1932, as a result of injuries he sustained from being kicked in the head by a horse. Decades after his death, Pickett was inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame and the Prorodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy. Pickett is regarded as the first Black cowboy star. When he was featured on a US postage stamp in 1994 it became one of the most popular and sought-after collectible stamps.
- Alexander, Kathy. 2022. “William ‘Bill’ Pickett – Texas Bull-Dogger.” Legends of America. October 2022. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/bill-pickett/.
- “Bill Pickett: Rodeo, Facts & Biography.” 2015. Study.com. October 19, 2015. https://study.com/academy/lesson/bill-pickett-rodeo-facts-biography.html.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. 2023. “Bill Pickett.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. April 5, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bill-Pickett.
- Kelly, Kate. 2022. “Bill Pickett (Ca 1870-1932), African American Cowboy.” America Comes Alive. April 1, 2022. https://americacomesalive.com/bill-pickett-ca-1870-1932-african-american-cowboy/.
- LeCompte, Mary Lou. 2021. “Pickett, William (Ca. 1870–1932).” TSHA Online. Texas State Historical Association. January 7, 2021. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/pickett-william.
- “Pickett, William.” n.d. Oklahoma Historical Society . Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=PI003.
- Ravage, John W. 2020. “Bill Pickett (1870-1932).” Blackpast.org. December 2, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/pickett-bill-1870-1932/.
- “William ‘Bill’ Pickett African-American, Rodeo Cowboy, Cowboy Hall of Fame.” n.d. AmericansAll. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://americansall.org/legacy-story-individual/william-pickett-0.
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