pickett rodeo - 33rd anniv logo - lu vason & bill pickett

*Yes, this story is about the world famous Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, created/founded by the late Lu Vason, but first some rodeo history …

Many traditions here in America have their roots in slavery, the results of the actions of former slaves, expansionism, colonialism or a blending of all of them. The rodeo is no exception. Moving from necessity, and eventually turning into a sport, the events in a typical rodeo, calf roping, barrel racing, bull riding among others have obvious agricultural applications.

Like inventions, one has to ask how these techniques came about? The time factor as well as the locations surrounding the rodeo’s early beginnings rule out mass slavery in the same format that occurred in the southern states. The western states hadn’t been formed yet, and cattle slavery had been outlawed, nationwide. This was truly a new frontier where, for the most part, all men arrived on the same level and were forced to work with each other to survive and prosper.

pickett rodeo - barrol racer

Riding a wild horse, without a saddle, one handed, is a very difficult thing to do, but necessary back in the days of the Wild West where breeding farms had not been established, but horses where needed. Photo by Troy Tieuel

So how did these complex tools and techniques evolve into the sport that we see today? In one word: Livestock. The opportunities that rose from the trade of cattle and similar agricultural products, as well as the trade for gold and other precious materials provided the environment for entrepreneurship of all things related to what would become known as the ‘Wild West.’

Those who arrived and took on the mantle of ranch hand had both the incentive and motivation to improve the efficiency and quality of the work that they produced and the expanding west provided them the opportunity to finally make good on the myth of the American Dream.

Following the Civil War and the establishment of the Emancipation Proclamation allowed some newly freed African Americans to travel and discover their fortune just like their European counterparts. They also had one aspect that some Europeans did not: a work ethic that pushed them to do more with less, and in some cases, nothing at all.

pickett rodeo - lil fan & mommy meet horse

The real reason families nationwide should come out to the rodeo is the interactions between the youth and the animals. Kids love the rodeo and it allows their imaginations to meet up with real live events in a safe environment. Photo by Troy Tieuel

Following the Civil War, as African and Native Americans were freed from slavery, they traveled into the expanding west where the tales of a better life without the rules of slavery were very inviting. Although the European American brought his culture, that included racism, the native, African and even the Mexican were able to compete for work as ranch hands dealing with the newest western commodity: livestock.

Some Hispanic and Native American men and women who were born in the west or traveled from South America brought with them a high level of horsemanship that included dealing with moving and handling large groups of livestock.

According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), Spanish conquistadors and the Mexican vaqueros (a Spanish word meaning ‘cowboy’) developed and shared the skills of “riding, roping, and branding, along with the rope, saddle, spurs, chaps, and even the word rodeo (meaning ‘roundup’).”

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pickett rodeo - lil cowboy

Kids love the rodeo and it allows their imaginations to meet up with real live events in a safe environment. Photo by Troy Tieuel

Biography.com adds, “Although there were thousands of African American cowboys who helped to shape the history of the American West, their stories have largely been left out of accounts of that time.”

Men and women have to work and survive. In the West, the colonizing European, the freed slave, the Native American, the Spanish conquistadors, and the traveling Hispanics all merged and were forced to work together to build the society that would one day become the western states including California, Nevada, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana among others. Out of this competition for skilled workers, the rodeo was invented to showcase the techniques and abilities of this new working class man known as the ‘cowboy.’

The TSHA asserts that in places such as Texas, “When communities sprang up, social occasions, especially Fourth of July celebrations, gave cowboys a chance to challenge the bronco riding and roping skills of cowboys from other ranches. Soon, local contests became annual events.”

pickett rodeo - spanky the clown

At the Bill Pickett Rodeo, Spanky the Clown delights the crowd with silly antics and humorous jokes.

What the TSHA leaves out, is the contributions of the African American in developing aspects of the sport of the rodeo. According to Biography.com, a cowboy “known as the ‘Dusky Demon,’ Bill Pickett (1870-1932) was the best-known African American rodeo performer of all time.”

Pickett went on to ‘invent’ the practice known as “bulldogging,” or “steer wrestling.” Biography.com writes, “In [the steer wrestling] event, a 500-to 600-pound steer is released from a chute. One cowboy, called the “hazer,” rides alongside it to force it to run straight, and the contestant is timed while he rides up along side the animal, which weighs twice as much as he does, grabs its horns and head, plants his feet on the ground to slow it down, and wrestles it to the ground. When the steer is on its side, with all four of its feet pointing in the same direction, the cowboy has won. A good cowboy can wrestle a steer to the ground in five to eight seconds.”

“The reason it was a black cowboy, Bill Pickett, who introduced bulldogging to rodeo,” said Roy Tieuel, a modern-day cowboy and former trail boss of the Prairie View Trail Ride Association, “is because some early day black cowboys couldn’t afford ropes, so they caught steers with their bare hands.”

Today, the tradition of the rodeo is kept alive nationwide by many organizations, tours and competitions. One such organization is the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo Tour. This tour travels nationwide sharing the virtues of horsemanship and the history of the black cowboy, an aspect of American history that has been traditionally overlooked.

lu vason remembrance

Founded in 1985 by the late Lu Vason, The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo has traveled to 33 cities and is known as the world’s only Touring African American rodeo. This years cities included Oakland and Los Angeles, this past June and July, respectively.

The Bill Picket Rodeo will be arriving in Atlanta GA on August 5 through 6 at the Georgia International Horse Park located at 1996 Centennial Olympic Pkwy, Conyers, GA. From there it will move to Washington DC on September 23 through 24, at The Show Place Arena and Prince George’s Equestrian Center located 14900 Pennsylvania Ave., Upper Marlboro, MD.

Having all the trappings of a traditional rodeo, Bill Pickett Invitational features bareback riding, bull dogging, bull riding, barrel racing and mutton busting (a kids event where the children ride sheep.) In Los Angeles, it has traditionally brought out hundreds to the Industry Hills Expo Center for a two-day celebration of all things rodeo.

Culturally, the rodeo sits as a historic window to the life and times of early Americans. The animals involved in the rodeo are beautiful, majestic and intriguing to children and adults. It is a unique blending of history, cultures, and science that can only be found in America.

Bill Pickett-poster

“My great-grandfather’s [Bill Pickett’s] principal memorial,” wrote Frank S. Phillips, Jr. in his book ‘Guts,’ “is the rodeo event he created without which, although in a drastically modified form, no rodeo is complete.”

For more information about the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, go to: http://www.billpickettrodeo.com/index.php/tour/schedule.

Read more about Bill Pickett and the history of other black cowboys at http://biography.yourdictionary.com/bill-pickett#YWHob7AXsv5BUJEI.99.

Sources used for this story:
http://www.seecalifornia.com/events/california-rodeos.html
https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/llr01
http://biography.yourdictionary.com/bill-pickett
http://www.chron.com/life/rodeo/article/Day-brings-history-of-black-cowboys-to-light-1961273.php
http://www.aframnews.com/prairie-view-trail-riders-association/