Friday, November 10, 2017

The Rodeo: Essential Wild West Show

Rodeo as we know it didn't exist until the late 1800's, but its roots reach back to the Spanish settlement of California and the vast cattle ranches there. Duties on these early ranches, as in modern ones, included roping, horse-breaking, riding, herding and branding. These chores evolved directly into the rodeo events of tie-down roping, team roping, and bonc-riding.

The early 1800's saw the westward expansion of America's borders. Easterners came into contact with Spanish, Mexican, Californio and Texican cowhands and began to copy and adapt their styles. Especially after the Civil War, the cattle business boomed in the West. This was the era of the cowboy and the long cattle drive. At the end of these long drives, American cowboys would hold informal competitions between different outfits to see who were the best riders, ropers and all-around drovers. It was from these competitions that the rodeo was born.

Toward the end of the century, the expansion of the railroads and invention of barbed wire brought an end to the era of the open range. Many cowboys, no longer needed on the vast ranches, sought work with a new phenomenon: the Wild West Show. These shows were partly theater and partly competition, and much of the pageantry and showmanship of rodeo comes directly from them. In fact, today many rodeo competitors call the rodeo a show and themselves performers.

At the same time as the Wild West shows, other cowboys were still holding their informal competitions, only now in front of paying spectators. Small towns across the frontier would hold annual stock horse shows, known as rodeos (ro-DAY-oh; from the Spanish rodear, to surround) or "gatherings," and cowboys would often travel to these gatherings and put on what was known as cowboy competitions. The term rodeo did not come to mean an entertainment event until the 1920's.

Of these two types of shows, only the cowboy competitions would survive. The Wild West shows eventually began to die out, due to the high cost of mounting a performance. Producers began to back the less expensive cowboy competitions at the local stock horse shows, and the joining of the competition with the showmanship of the Wild West show created what we now know as rodeo.

Many towns began to organize their own rodeos, with cowboys paying to compete for prizes and spectators paying to watch. In 1897, the first Cheyenne Frontier Days celebration was held in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It became the single largest riding, roping and western show in the nation.

The only rodeo event with a single, identifiable originator started in 1904, when black cowboy Bill Pickett gave a demonstration of what he called "bull-dogging." Pickett's "dogging style" included biting the upper lip of the steer he was wrestling. The first female joined the show in 1913, when Tillie Baldwin put on a bull-dogging exhibition. Born Mathilda Winger in Norway, she changed her name when she joined Captain Jack Baldwin's Wild West Show in Texas.

Next up: The Ins and Outs of the Rodeo

J.E.S. Hays


  1. Thanks for the history lesson. I saw my first rodeo in Mesquite, Texas. Quite a spectacle.

  2. I grew up with rodeo. In the West, rodeo competitors call themselves "athletes," because they are. These days, "cowboy" is a common term but not very many years ago, that word more often referred to a dude.