Friday, July 4, 2014

The Dusky Demon

by Phil Truman

Willie watched the big dogs work.

Willie M. "Bill" Pickett
The ten-year-old boy was riveted by their prowess. These mixed-breed bulldogs, fifty to sixty pounds of muscle, agility, speed, and fortitude,  would chase down a thundering thousand pound steer, leap fearlessly at the beast's face, and bring it to the ground with a clinching bite to the steers' lips holding it there until a cowboy could rope it.

Willie thought to himself, I bet I could do that. So he started practicing his own "bite 'em on the lip" technique on calves around the central Texas cattle ranch where he and his family lived and worked.

One of thirteen children born to former slave parents, Willie grew up learning the hard, gritty life of being a ranch hand. In spite of the prejudice and bigotry surrounding him, or maybe because of it, Willie developed himself into the hardest working and most skilled hand on the ranch. He could ride and rope with the best of them, better than most. But he went beyond. He came up with a skill no other cowboy had ever tried. He continued to perfect his "bulldogging" method eventually moving up to full grown cows and the longhorn steers which roamed the mesquite bush country. It was an astounding skill no one else could or would master.

Willie married in 1890 and settled in Taylor, Texas located some thirty-five miles northeast of Austin, and twenty miles due east of Round Rock. That's where he and Maggie began their family of nine children, and partnered with some of his brothers in a start-up business called Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. Their handbills stated:

"We ride and break all wild horses with much care. Good treatment to all animals. Perfect satisfaction guaranteed.
Catching and taming wild cattle a specialty."

Bill Picket 'bulldogging'
A rancher-client of the Picketts was so amazed with Willie's—now called Bill—steer lip-biting technique that he suggested Bill put on demonstrations at county fairs, and arranged for him to do so at several. The crowds were dumbstruck. The fair circuit and Bill's "act" became a regular part of the Pickett Brothers' business. In 1903 he met a promoter named Dave "Mister Cowboy" McClure, who told Bill he could take him to the next level. 

McClure promptly got Pickett bookings at some of the biggest rodeos in the ranching states. There was only one problem: blacks were barred from entering most rodeo contests. But being a savvy showman, McClure focused on Pickett's mixed-blood heritage (Cherokee, Caucasian, Negro) and billed him as "The Dusky Demon." Apparently it worked, as Bill went on to become a rage in the arenas of rodeo.

In 1905 Joe Miller, the eldest and managing brother of the vast Miller Bros. 101 Ranch in  northern Oklahoma, was putting together the first of his Wild West shows, a spectacle which would feature "five hundred cowboys, a thousand Indians, hundreds of buffalo, fancy riding, roping and shooting, and the Apache chief Geronimo." Joe heard about Bill Pickett, and dispatched little brother Zack to the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show where Pickett was performing.

Zack met up with Bill's new manager, Guy "Cheyenne Bill" Weadick, a trick rope artist from Alberta, Canada, who in 1912 would establish the Calgary Stampede. But in 1905 Zack Miller struck a deal with Weadick and Pickett to perform for the 101 Ranch Wild West Show.

In his Western Heritage and Spur Award winning book, The Real Wild WestMichael Wallis describes Bill Pickett's performance at the inaugural event before a crowd of 65,000:

The audience gasped as a thousand-pound steer charged into the arena, pursued by a mounted hazer whose task was to keep the critter on a straight path in front of the grandstand. From out of nowhere Bill Pickett appeared. Astride his bay horse named Spradley, the bulldogger was later described as being "hard and tough as whalebone."

Pickett coaxed the horse forward. In an instant, they were at full gallop and he was sliding off off Spradley onto the huge steer's back. He grabbed a flashing horn in each hand, dug his boots into the earth, and twisted the steer's neck until its head was turned upward. Pickett's teeth gnashed onto steer's lip. The cowboy lifted his hands in the air and gave his body a twist. The steer fell on its side and lay perfectly quiet as Pickett rendered it helpless. The crowd jumped to its feet, as if one body. The applause was said to be deafening.

Most who knew and worked with him agree that Willie M. "Bill" Pickett, the inventor of the rodeo event of Bulldoggin', was one of the greatest American "sweat and dirt" cowboys that ever sat a saddle or looped a reata. His lip-biting technique isn't used in the modern rodeo event of steer wrestling, but Bill Pickett's emulation of the big Texas ranch dogs' method of bringing down beeves gave the event its name.

Phil Truman is the author of the award-winning historical western novel,  Red Lands Outlaw, the Ballad of Henry Starra sports inspirational about small town schoolboy football entitled GAME, an American Novel; and Treasure Kills (formerly Legends of Tsalagee), a mystery/adventure in a small town. 

He's currently working on a series of western shorts put together in a volume called West of the Dead Line, the first four stories of which are available at Amazon in e-format only for 99 cents each. Volume I - six stories in all - will be available in print and electronic format in the Fall of 2014.  


  1. Excellent. Thanks.

  2. Fascinating stuff, Phil. Thanks! :-)

  3. Phil, It gave me goosebumps. Thank you for a fascinating piece of history. Doris

  4. My lips will never touch cow lips.

  5. Good story Mr. Truman. Bill Pickett competed in the 1920, 1921 and 1922 Dewey, Roundups in Dewey, Oklahoma - my home town. The Dewey High School athletic teams are still known as the Bulldoggers. We continue to be proud of our heritage and history. Hopefully no bull rights, or dog rights groups will file suit, attempting to force a name change, because they believe bulldogger is demeaning to either bulls or dogs.

    1. Actually I had in mind to start such a movement in Congress to ban any name that might lead to the abuse of domestic animals or which could be considered derogatory toward same. Bulls, dogs and bulldogging would be specifically excluded by my bill. With PETA behind me I am sure to succeed. Tough luck Dewey H.S. athletic teams.

  6. That must have been one heck of a performance to see. Still, the idea seems unbelievable. Thanks for tsuch a fascinating anedcote, Phil.

  7. Now that's fascinating. I bet Miz Maggie insisted he wipe his mouth real good before she kissed him.

  8. Thanks for a fascinating article!