Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
The lifestyle of cattle drovers on the move birthed the original cowboy sports, bronc riding and steer roping. Challenges were issued by neighboring outfits, along the trail or at the home range, and top hands ‘rode for the brand’ to prove superior ability in the work of their trade.
The 50th Anniversary program from the venerable “West of the Pecos Rodeo” at Pecos, Texas, tells us “[Rodeo] was born on a bet and bred of the same circumstances of history that created the sin-cities of Dodge and Abilene.
“It began shortly after Texans came home from the Civil War, to find their longhorn herds had multiplied, unchecked. Southern cattle markets, already depressed by the collapse of the confederacy, were soon glutted. So the Texans turned their herds to the north and to the west . . . first to better markets, then to the railheads at Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge, and later to the green pastures that stretched across the great plains to the Canadian line.
“The trail drovers were tough and independent, lived in the saddle and slept under the open sky. They sat their mounts like centaurs . . . drove the sword-armed cattle through drought and dust and blizzard across some of the wildest country man has pioneered . . . they worked with the rope and the horse.”1
Cowboy artist and dean of rodeo historians Clifford P. Westermeier concurs, noting that in the spring of 1866, “Both victor and vanquished, unable to return to the tranquility of an age that had passed from the pageant of civilization, turned toward new frontiers. Youths who had become men during the nightmare of four years of war, sought, with a taste of thrill, adventure and outlawry, further excitement.
“Thus, during that spring and the many that followed, men on horseback appeared on the plains of Texas. Weary men, but strong men, hopeful of furthering their fortunes, pushed into the heart of the great cattle country . . . They sought a life of freedom, adventure, and fortune, and in the cattle industry their quest came to an end….”
The Pecos writer imagines, “Between towns they made up their own amusement . . . a recreation that was typically tough. The hands of different cattle outfits, coming together on the trail or at roundup time, bet their scant wages on their skill at riding the rank bronchos or roping and busting the longhorn steers.
“It was a rough sport for short stakes. The prize money—the cowboy’s own bets—was held in a hat.” 3
Westermeier envisioned the same scenario, writing, “The cowboys and the cattle owners in these early days were often months, and sometimes even years, in getting to towns of any size, and their pleasure was curtailed to such an extent that, in order to indulge in relaxation, play and sport, they made their daily duties fill the need.
“When their work became a sport, it is natural to assume that within the various divisions of duty there developed men of superior skill, especially among the riders and ropers. They became the champions of the outfit of which they were members . . . Therefore, in the work of the range riders appears the beginning of a genuine, lusty, American sport with its full share of hard competition.” 4
Author Bil Gilbert, who penned a Playboy magazine feature on Casey Tibbs in 1973 said, “Rodeo was not and does not give the feel of being consciously invented . . . There is a sense of compulsion, necessity about rodeo, like a splinter working out of flesh. Rodeo was made by and for men who were half-mad from boredom, fright, loneliness, exhaustion, working too long and hard in a country that was too big and harsh. Rodeo was a release for men so desperate for release that they used whatever was at hand—the stock, the ropes, the leather they fought all day – and organized it into a country game that is not too different in spirit from Russian roulette.” 5
The world’s first rodeo announcer, W. B. “Foghorn” Clancy, put it this way: “Roundups brought cowboys of several ranches together to cut their own brands out of the collective herd. For entertainment the boys would swap yarns and brags, put on impromptu riding and roping contests, and bet on the outcome. You can see the birth of the rodeo in this natural beginning.” 6
Rodeo historian Chuck Walters said, “The golden days of the early cattle business are blended into folklore and history, providing one of the most colorful modern sports with its essential independence of changing times. Out of the cattle industry came stories and out of the stories came songs. Cowboys, camped on the plains and in the hills sang to the restless herds. For the cowboy belonged to a class of his own. His was the gaudiest, the loneliest, the most adventurous, the most monotonous profession in the world.
“. . . The sport of the early west was as startling and nerve-testing as its warfare was desperate and its adventure was thrilling. It took sport to take the sting out of the isolation, the loneliness, the dismal hardships of frontier life. In a country in which the cattle industry was of paramount importance, it had to be connected with the cattle industry. It had to be rodeo.” 7
Website historians for the Sheridan WYO Rodeo in northern Wyoming have yet another scenario in mind. Tongue in cheek they write,: “. . . local legend has it that the rodeo can be traced to Custer's Last Stand with his 7th Cavalry in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn some 75 miles north of Sheridan. Another regiment was camped near present-day Sheridan, and in their haste to reinforce Custer, the infantry tried to ride pack mules. Neither mules nor soldiers had experience as a mounted unit, and the resulting bucking and kicking evolved into the tradition we know today.” 8
However and wherever they originated, these competitions ‘came to town’ in settlements across the great American grasslands as entertainment for activities called Cattlemen’s Carnivals, Stockmen’s Picnics or Cowboy Tournaments. These festivities were staged on holidays, especially July 4th and Labor Day, and conducted with all the lusty youthful enthusiasm of the flourishing beef industry that spawned them. Eventually they evolved into true contests where spectators bought tickets, and prizes or money were awarded to the victors.
Another manifestation of the early quest for variety in cowboy sports, the Roundup Wagon Race was an event entire ranch crews could participate in. The wagon was home to the cowboys most of the year—spring works often lasting nearly to the time the fall works began—and they got plenty of practice pitching camp.
The 1909 Wyoming State Fair photo shows the left wagon’s crew handily winning, having their team already unhitched and unharnessed, with the harness lying on the ground in front of the wagon while they hurriedly unfurl the tent fly.
In an apparently closer race, the 1910 view shows both flys in place. Note the Cavalry contingency mounted on McClellan saddles at left of the 1909 view, and dismounted at right in the 1910 view. Fort Caspar was closed in 1867 and the Army abandoned Fort Fetterman, just 11 miles out of Douglas, in 1882, so these soldiers probably came from Fort D.A. Russell at Cheyenne. Drills and exhibitions by the Cavalry were frequently incorporated into the entertainment at early rodeos.Photos courtesy Wyoming Pioneer Museum
The term “rodeo” was not originally used to describe such entertainments. It is borrowed from the Spanish tongue, as are most terms related to the cowboy, his equipment and lifestyle. As author/historian Jimmy Walker puts it, “The sport of rodeo is unquestionably Anglo-American though, paradoxically, all the cowboy’s tools, skills, and animals were borrowed from Mexico or Spain.” 9
Some historians say “rodeo” is an Anglicized corruption of rodear, meaning “to surround” which handily translates to “roundup.”
Famous Mexican charro Francisco Zamoras (Rodeo Cowboy’s Association Contract Member) told me in a 1970’s interview: “In the charro tradition, rodeo historically denoted penning open cows in an enclosure similar to a bullfighting ring. To prompt their estrous cycles, the cows were choused around and around on horseback until they were hot and lathered.”
In other words, a primitive but very effective means of “synchronizing” calving; frequently accomplished today through drugs.
One rodeo historian says, “Just when the term ‘rodeo’ came into general use can never be established. It seems to have appeared around 1916 in newsprint, and was probably spoken much earlier to identify such contests.” 10
Whatever the roots of the name and whenever it came into vogue, the sport was born a century and a half ago.
In Walker’s words, “It all began after the mid-1800’s when the cattle industry was taking shape and men with hot irons were carving empires on the wild, hairy flanks of longhorns. One of the earliest rodeo-like performances was held June 10, 1847, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. After the roundup, some cowboys had a contest to see who was the best at roping and throwing. There were also ‘horse races, whiskey, and much dancing in the streets’ . . .
“That riding and roping contests
were established as an amateur sport as early as the ‘60s is
indicated by the staging of performances at the front during the
This popular event at early cowboy celebrations required agility, guts, and a pretty well-broke horse! Photo courtesy Wyoming Pioneer Museum
As the popularity of these events grew, both contestants and fans sought diversity. Trick riding and roping, Roman races, hat races, relay races, tournament races, cowpony races, cowgirl races and roundup wagon races expanded the offering and entertained the holiday crowds.
Photo courtesy of Wyoming Pioneer Museum
To vary the entertainment fare, early rodeos employed paid specialty acts such as this diving horse.
These happenings weren’t
localized. From Dewey, Oklahoma, and Las Vegas, New Mexico, to
the Canadian prairies they met humanity’s need to socialize and
celebrate. Saskatchewan rancher T. B. Long, born in the 1870’s
and reared in Montana, offers vivid insight.
As this shot from an early Wyoming State Fair proves, the cowboy’s lust for speed and yen for adventure were well met in the Roman Standing Race. Photo courtesy of Wyoming Pioneer Museum
“The country was getting more thickly settled now and we had many good times with neighbors, in get-togethers of all kinds. Country picnics were held at Murrydale, our new post office. People would come from miles around and the women folk would bring piles of good food. Horse races, bucking contests, roping, foot racing and many other sports would be enjoyed at these picnics, they were the forerunner of the rodeo. The young men in this community were all good hands and good riders. There were many good exhibitions put on at these little country shows.” 12
According to Frontier Times, “There is no lack of cities claiming the honor of having staged the first genuine rodeo. Cheyenne, Wyoming, boasts that it is ‘The Daddy of ‘em All.’ Prescott, Arizona, the ‘Cowboy Capitol of the World,’ no less modestly proclaims its rodeo as ‘The Oldest Tournament in the World.’
“North Platte, Nebraska, says flatly that it held the first Western contest ever staged anywhere by any community. Other cities which claim the title are Caldwell, Kansas; Piney Ridge, Arkansas; and Canadian, Texas.” 13
We’d have to add Deer Trail, Colorado to that list. As longtime rodeo announcer Jack Hunter of Ardmore, South Dakota, said in his column “It’s Rodeo”: “Back in 1864 when an Englishman by the name of Emiline Gardenshire won the riding match between the Hashknife, Campstool, and Mill Iron riders at Deer Trail, Colorado, and received the mythical title of Broncho Buster Of The Plains, no one could have dreamed that rodeo would become one of America’s largest drawing spectator sports.” 14
Further information on that rodeo comes to us from rodeo historian Chuck Walters. He says, “The few records of inter-camp contests in existence are now yellowed with age, almost forgotten . . . The scribes who recorded the rich, ripe, racy action of cowboy contests on the plains, far from the populations of the cities, have indeed preserved the elusive origin of rodeo.
“One such reporter truly captured the spirit of rodeo in his journalistic interpretation of a contest on the plains. The date was July 4, 1869, the place Deer Trail, Colorado. All the cowpokes form the Mill Iron outfit were there, and everywhere the brands of the Camp Stool and Hashknife ranches were to be seen. The rules specified that “the horses should be ridden with a slick saddle’ . . . . The horses were all outlaws fresh off the range, impossible to break. The boys were anxious to compete for the day money…. The Mill Iron Englishman was awarded the title, ‘Champion Bronco Buster of the Plains’ and a suit of clothes for his magnificent performance….” 15
Was that celebration at Deer Trail truly the beginning? The controversy will always rage.
Westermeier points out, “An exact date of the first exhibition of the daily work and later, of the sport of the cowboy cannot be given. If such an attempt were made, it would bring forth vehement and justified protests from the various parts of the West, steeped so long in the traditions of the growth of the cattle industry. Each section jealously protects its contribution to the development of the cowboy sport.” 16
Read the rodeo advertising from these proud communities today and you’ll be convinced he’s right!
Saddle bronc riding was one of the original cowboy sports, practiced along the trail and on roundups. No arena fences are visible in this early shot, but there are plenty of cowboys around because a bronc can’t be saddled without plenty of help.
Foghorn Clancy says, “One day late in June, 1883, an argument came up in the general store at Pecos, Texas, as to the best bronc rider and fastest roper in that section . . . so large that all the cowboys never got together on any one roundup. So a contest was arranged for the Fourth of July celebration that year on the flat ground adjoining the courthouse….
“In the years that followed, a roping and riding contest at the close of a big roundup became habitual.” 17
Walker’s version of that is: “In June of that year a bunch of cowhands were swapping lies in front of Red Newell’s Saloon. The conversation turned toward the subject of who was the best roper and rider. Trav Windham, boss of the Lazy Y, leaned against a hitching post. He was well known in that country for his speed with a rope. Fate Beard of the Hashknife outfit slouched against the corner of the building and put in a few words as the argument grew hotter. Others crowded about.
“Pecos was a wild town, proud that it had more saloons per capita than any other community in Texas. Gambling tables ran all night, employing two shifts of croupiers. It was the kind of town where an argument might have reached the leather-slapping stage if someone hadn’t suggested a cowboy contest to be held on July Fourth to determine the best hand in the section.
“There would be no admission charge for spectators, no arena fence, no grandstand, no bucking chutes. But there would be a big celebration with free barbecue and dancing in the streets. And for the first time, prizes were to be awarded.
“The prize money of $40 was posted by the ranchers. A cowhand working for $12 to $25 a month on the range felt that the top prize of $25 was worth his best.”
Photo courtesy of Sharlot Hall Museum
Cowboy Juan Levias looks quite distinguished going down in history as winner of “the first medal given in a cow boy contest”. His “medal” was a shield-shaped wooden plaque with engraved metal plate reading: “CITIZENS PRIZE; Contested for and Won by Juan Leivas [sic] over all Competitors at the Fourth of July Tournament Held in Prescott A.T. 1888. FOR ROPING and TIEING STEER; Time 1:47 ½; 100 yards Start”. Today it is one of the most treasured displays at Prescott’s Sharlot Hall Museum.
Clancy’s date of 1883 may have been an error of memory or research, or simply a typographical mistake. At any rate, the true date of Prescott’s first “official Cow Boy Tournament” was July 4th, 1888. According to former State Historian of Arizona, Sharlot M. Hall, “Juan Levias from the Jim O’Neal ranch on Date Creek” laid claim that day to winning “the first medal given in a cow boy contest.”
Justifiably proud of her home town, on the occasion of the 1924 Prescott Frontier Days event, July 1 – 4, Sharlot wrote, “ . . . Prescott, the Jewel of the Mountains, in the cool green pines . . . the first tournament, when no one had ever heard of an automobile and there was a string of cow ponies tied to the railing all around the plaza, and in front of every store and out into the pines around the old race track. Ranch wagons were parked under these pines then, cowland folks with spring wagons and top buggies, the fastest teams curried and brushed and shining like the glossy hair of the pretty girls.
“Cowboys galloped up and down as they do today, but those ‘punchers’ wore the wide-brimmed, lower-crowned, pale-tan ‘Stetson’ sometimes with the big braided silver roll that marked the Texan— they would have scorned the Mexican type hat of their sons and grandsons of today….
“Prescott did not know that she had set out to make world contest rules that day when the long horned range steers bawled from genuine fright behind rail fences, none too strong for those mountain-bred outlaws.
“The ropers and riders were all local cow men, just in from the June rodeo, sunburned like saddle leather and hard as nails. The ponies were harder than their riders and knew the job as well….
“Yah! A few of us remember the slim, dark boy, the wonderful black horse, the snoop of singing riata over wide horns, and the big mountain steer went down in the dust and pulled horse and rider right over and over by sheer weight. Head Aitken says: ‘The horse rolled right over. I thought the boy was killed, but when the black got to his feet like a cat and set back on the singing rawhide the boy was on his back; another instant and the steer was tied. The black king of cow ponies was lifting his big eyes to the cheering crowds, and the first winner of a cow boy medal was brushing the dust off his black sateen shirt.’ No gay silk shirts for the medal winners those days.
“The boy, Juan Levias, is a handful of dust, remembered by a few of us of that old day, but the medal is the treasure of the Prescott Frontier Day association.“Yes, Prescott Frontier Days has set the standards and made the traditions for 40 years. It set romance and adventure into glowing pictures long before a movie was ever filmed.” 18
To further muddy the waters I’ll inform you that, right here in my home state of Wyoming, the Lander Pioneer Days rodeo is currently (the summer of 2012) advertising the “118th Anniversary” of the “Oldest paid rodeo in the world!” That would indicate their “paid” event started in 1894. We’re left to figure out if that means the audience paid to attend, or the rodeo paid the competitors. Probably the latter…
Walker sums it up like this, “Actually, the beginning of rodeo was a spontaneous thing that happened all over the cow country about the same time. At the spring and fall round-up’s when several outfits met to cut out cattle and brand the calves, each outfit had its top hand who was good with a rope or a bronc. The cowboys who rode with him would bet a month’s wages that there wasn’t another hombre in sight who could match him. The contests that followed sent many a rider home broke – but determined to return next year for a share of winnings.” 19
With the indomitable power and fervent rush of a prairie wind, the breathtaking pageant of the West wrote itself wildly across the rangelands of America. Stagehands would soon appear to bring order to the chaos and organization to a group of men totally adverse to the concept.
Long before the West grasped the magnitude of the production, the stage would be set for the birth of her most unique and thrilling extreme sport.
4 Man, Beast, Dust—The Story of Rodeo, p.30, 31
5 “Casey Tibbs . . . maybe the best bronc rider ever” by Bil Gilbert, Persimmon Hill Volume 11, Number 1, pps. 26 & 28
6 My 50 Years in Rodeo, p.9
7 “The Legend of Rodeo” by Chuck Walters, 1955 Annual, Rodeo Sports News, p. 29
9 “The First Rodeo,” Frontier Times, April/May, 1963, p.25
10 “The Legend of Rodeo” by Chuck Walters, 1955 Annual, Rodeo Sports News, p.31
12 “70 Years A Cowboy,” Canadian Cattleman, November 1960, p. 24
13 “The First Rodeo,” Frontier Times, April/May, 1963, p.25
14 Quarter Horse Digest, January, 1961
15 “The Legend of Rodeo” by Chuck Walters, 1955 Annual, Rodeo Sports News, p. 29
16 Man, Beast, Dust—The Story of Rodeo, p.30
17 My 50 Years in Rodeo, p.9 & 10
18 1924 newspaper clipping “Frontier Days at Prescott From 1888 to 1924” by Sharlot M. Hall, Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum, Prescott, Arizona
19 “The First Rodeo,” Frontier Times, April/May, 1963, p. 25
© 2004, Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns, All rights reserved
Rodeo Halls of Fame
Thanks to Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns for the initial rodeo hall of fame in this list. Your additions are welcome, email us.
Black Hills State University Rodeo Hall of Fame
California Rodeo Salinas
Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall Of Fame
Casey Tibbs Foundation and Rodeo Center
Florida Parishes Arena Hall of Fame
Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame
Lea County (New Mexico) Cowboy Hall of Fame
Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame
Montana Pro Rodeo Hall and Wall of Fame
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Rodeo Hall of Fame
National Multicultural Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame
Nebraska Sandhills Cowboy Hall of Fame
North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame
Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame
Senior Rodeo: Hall of Fame
San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo Hall of Fame
St. Paul Rodeo Hall of Fame
More about Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
image by Trace Frost, www.tracefrost.com
Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
Find more about Rhonda
Sedgwick Stearns in our feature here
and visit her web site, www.doublespearranch.com.
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