Professional Rodeos / Cowgirl Story

There’s an old story that the name “cowgirl” was first uttered by none other than Theodore Roosevelt. As many people know, Teddy Roosevelt, was enamored by the American West and during this time in the 1880’s had traveled to the Badlands of Dakota Territory and bought himself a ranch. In fact, Roosevelt ultimately ended up with two ranches. The story goes that Teddy asked a young lady named Lucille Mulhall, fourteen years old, to rope a wolf on his ranch. Lucille did ride and rope the wolf and Roosevelt referred to her as a cowgirl. It’s been reported that from about that time on, the term cowgirl came into common usage. Lucille went on to be one of the first women to compete with men in roping and riding events. She was known as the “Rodeo Queen”, “Queen of the Western Prairie” and “Queen of the Saddle”. Many women during the early days of the professional rodeos were star attractions.

bonnie mccarroll rodeo cowgirl

Bonnie McCarroll

Theodore Roosevelt, being from the east coast may not have known it, and probably didn’t, but women on horseback and performing ranch chores that are commonly attributed to cowboys was nothing new. The pioneers themselves traveling on the Oregon Trail often included women who did just about everything that a man did. It was a necessity more than a desire. Women rode horses, roped a steer, reined wagons and often times had to hunt for the family dinner. The difference is that these duties handled by women have not been publicized to the same extent as those of the cowboy or western pioneer male. Probably the best promoter of what a woman could do on horseback was Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody was at awe at the talent these female riders had. Buffalo Bill of course had his very successful Wild West on tour in the 1880’s and 1890’s and he was the man above all who could showcase the talent these early female riders possessed.

The Wild West’s biggest female star was Annie Oakley but Annie was a great sharpshooter. She wasn’t considered a star of horsemanship. Buffalo Bill did indeed employ women as riders and stunt riders. These included professional rodeo performers such as Georgia Duffy and Emma Lake Hickok. In fact, by the time Cody took his show to Europe he already had a list of trick riding cowgirls who could rope and race better than any man. This was in the 1880’s. It wain his show.s said that by 1887, Buffalo Bill had a dozen women performing in his show.

cowgirl lucille mulhall

Lucille Mulhall

Women rode rodeo broncs as early as the year 1897 in Cheyenne Wyoming. This was a rider named Bertha Kaepernik. A woman named Prairie Rose Henderson entered a Wyoming bronco contest in 1901 even after the judges told her that women weren’t allowed to compete. Prairie Rose’s popularity was such that sponsors began putting on female bronco riding events.

Prairie Rose Henderson 1880-1939

As mentioned above, Prairie Rose Henderson made quite a name for herself as a bronc rider. She was also very well known for the fashions she wore during her performances. Competing in rodeo events was one of the few lucrative jobs for women at the turn of the 20th century.. Even though the female performers earned less than men, they still made a lot more money than other women and had a good time doing it.

Prairie Rose was born to a Wyoming ranching couple. She grew up breaking horses for her parents and neighbors and she was determined to become a cowgirl. Her very first competition was at the Cheyenne Frontier Days event. While Prairie Rose was primarily a bronc rider she also participated in relay racing, flat racing, roping and trick riding. By the year 1906, cowgirls were bronc riding and relay racing and were quite a popular draw. Prairie Rose wore what was dubbed the “Turkish Trousers”. She designed her own, what was considered, outlandish costumes and this increased her popularity even more.

Prairie Rose Henderson’s domestic life was a bit complicated. She ended up marrying three times. Not much is known about the first marriage. Her second husband was a trick roper and they moved to Arizona to perform in silent westerns. Her last husband was arrested for cattle rustling in Wyoming.

annie oakley

Annie Oakley

During the 1930’s Prairie Rose went missing during a snow blizzard. The story is that she apparently went looking for a lost horse and became lost. Nothing was ever heard from her and there were no indications of a crime. Her body was found years later in 1939 and was identified by the rodeo trophy buckle and ring she was wearing when she disappeared.

Bertha Blancett 1883-1979

Bertha Blancett was another very talented cowgirl who was credited with advancing the female rodeo event. Coming from a Colorado ranch, Bertha Kaepernik was a great bronc rider in professional rodeos. According to the book, Bertha Kaepernik Blancett, The Woman Who Stayed Aboard, by author M.J. Van Deventer, Bertha’s father, William Kaepernik, placed the five year old on a horse and said “stay aboard”. That advice stayed with Bertha and served as a defining moment in her life. Bertha honed her horsemanship skills by helping her father work the cattle on their ranch. She joined several Wild West shows, including the 101 Ranch Show, where she married a man named Del Blancett. In 1912, Bertha Blancett and Del toured Australia with other rodeo performers as part of the Atkinson Show. When they came back to the U.S., she and Del entered rodeos and won all over the country. Their next move was to Hollywood.

Bertha and Del relocated to California where, with her husband, she worked in films under contract to Bison Pictures. Between movie productions, she competed at rodeo events. While in Hollywood, the Blancett’s became friends with such early western film stars as Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson.

rodeo bronco buster

Rodeo Bronco Buster

When her husband Del passed away, Bertha lost much of her enthusiasm for riding. She did come back for a while as a string rider. That was the rider at the rodeo who picks the rough string riders off their horses when the buzzer sounds. Bertha retired in 1934 and remained at her home in Porterville California until she passed away at 96 years of age. Bertha Blancett was a true pioneer of women’s rodeo competition.

Bonnie McCarroll 1897-1929

Bonnie McCarroll was a bronc riding champion. Other talents were bulldogging, steer riding, and of all things, automobile jumping. Bonnie was born on a rancjh near Boise Idaho in 1897. By the year 1922, she had won bronc riding competitions in both Wyoming and New York City. These were the Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Madison Square Garden Rodeo. Just like many of the performers with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in the 1880″s and 90’s, Bonnie performed in front of kings, queens and presidents.

Bonnie McCarroll unfortunately had a short career and life. Her plans were to retire after performing in the 1929 Pendleton Round Up in Pendleton Oregon. She and her husband Frank were to retire to their home in Boise Idaho. During this exhibition she was thrown from her mount who tumbled and landed on top of her. Although she was quickly rushed to the hospital, Bonnie died of spinal injuries. As a direct result of her death, rodeo officials began exercising more scrutiny towards rules and regulations for women in bronc riding. The Pendleton Rodeo dropped female bronc riding altogether. Bonnie McCarroll was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 2002.

There are many more women who performed in rodeos and Wild West shows. The women highlighted in this article represent only a few. While the publicity tells the story of their accomplishments in the rodeo and in toruing shows, the fact is that many females rode on cattle ranches long before their exploits came to light on the show circuit. The fact that these early riders were able to break into what was considered an all male sport is a tremendous accomplishment in itself.

During your travels and road trips there are some very good venues to learn more about many of the early cowgirls and a list of their achievements. In Fort Worth Texas is the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. The location is 1720 Gendy Street  Fort Worth, TX. Also, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. Address is 1700 Northeast 63rd Street. Another is the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame located at 101 Pro Rodeo Drive in Colorado Springs, CO.

(Photos are from the public domain)

Building the Transcontinental Telegraph Lines / Westward Expansion America

When you research western history, one of the most significant events that helped the United States solidify itself was the creation of a transcontinental telegraph system. In fact, the telegraph system was the sole reason the Pony Express had such a short existence. The Pony Express ended at about the same moment that the last telegraph wires were joined together. It wasn’t even a surprise. Everyone well knew that the telegraph system to California would be completed more sooner than later. Pony Express riders would pass work crews stringing the lines.

Building of the Telegraph Lines

Pony Express rider passing telegraph line work crew

Very similar to how the transcontinental railroad would be completed in 1869, the telegraph lines built to transmit the Morse code translation, would be constructed from both ends simultaneously.

At the start of the Pony Express in 1860, lines from the east reached St. Joseph Missouri. From the west they reached Placerville California in the Sierra Nevada foothills. A Pony Express rider carrying a mochila with telegrams heading west from St. Joseph would drop them off in Placerville where they would then be telegraphed to San Francisco. St. Joseph Missouri would be the terminus for telegrams to be sent further east.

As you might expect, building the telegraph lines between Missouri and California was not the easiest job in the world. It all began in earnest with the passage of the Pacific Telegraph Act by Congress in 1860. So why was 1860 a pivotal year for communications?

The Telegraph and the Civil War

The public domain map below shows the route of the first Transcontinental Telegraph line. The lines used to send and translate Morse code to text would change America’s communication systems forever.

The year 1860 marked the beginnings of the American Civil War. California became a state in 1850, at a time when the California Gold Rush was in full swing. The United States was spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific with a lot of frontier in between. The federal government needed some way to communicate rapidly with it’s far flung state of California.

To demonstrate the problem, a letter sent from Washington D.C. to San Francisco California in 1860, prior to the Pony Express, had two options to be delivered. In the 1850’s, the method was by Pacific Mail ship from San Francisco to Panama, then through the Panamanian jungles to another ship on it’s east coast, then on to Washington D.C. or New York. This was a journey of perhaps two months. If the ship happened to be using the Cape Horn route, it would take longer.

he second method came into being in 1858. This was the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line which ran from Missouri to California via the southwest. The Butterfield route via El Paso and San Diego was scheduled to take about twenty-five days covering it’s 2,795 mile distance. Not fast, but a marked improvement over the steamer mail service. What was fast was the Pony Express system which made the Missouri to California trek through the middle of the country in ten days. In fact, prior to the telegraph, this was considered lightning speed.

Pony Express Postmark

Several other telegraph bills were passed by Congress, and one of those appropriated $40,000 a year, for ten years, toward the building and maintenance of a telegraph line between the Atlantic and Pacific States.

The mergers and consolidations that would be the history of the later railroads, were similar to what was being set up to construct the transcontinental telegraph. The various California telegraph companies would merge together to build the line from California to Salt Lake City. The Western Union, who was awarded the contract, would build from Salt Lake City eastward. The California companies did formally  meet and agree on their consolidation. The new California telegraph company was named the Overland Telegraph Company with capital of $1,250,000. They would complete a telegraph line from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.

Building the telegraph lines between Omaha Nebraska and California presented a host of problems. Materials were put together in the latter part of 1860. Major problems in supplying the construction crews were overcome but there was a constant shortage of sources of telegraph poles on the Midwest plains and the deserts of the western portions.

The Civil War made heavy demands on both labor and supplies. Add to this the task of completing the line over the high and rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. Materials for the western section were shipped around the Cape Horn to San Francisco, a similar route as taken by many prospectors heading to the California Gold Rush a decade earlier.

In addition to the geographic difficulties, there was always some threat of Indian attack. The Indians were a bit perplexed as to what exactly was going on. Watching work crews stringing wire from pole to pole raised there curiosity. It was reported that many Indians thought that the wire represented some sort of mystical powers not really understanding the concept of electricity flowing over wires. As a side note, there was an effort made prior to the construction of the line to try to explain to the Indians what was about to occur and why.

Western Union Telegraph Key, circa 1900

Edward Creighton, a Western Union general agent, organized two teams of builders, one to work on the line from the West , the other from the East. On October 18, 1861, the workers of the one subcontractor, Pacific Telegraph Co. reached Salt lake City. This completed the eastern section of the line out of Omaha. The western section was shorter in mileage but the terrain was quite different. The western section of the telegraph was finally completed on October 24, 1861. This date marked the time that the Pony Express system was considered obsolete.

An historic event took place immediately upon completion of the line. Using the key telegraph system in Morse code, a message was telegraphed to President Abraham Lincoln from the president of the Overland telegraph Company which officially read, “I announce to you that the telegraph to California has this day been completed. May it be a bond of perpetuity between the states of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific.” Truly, this was a major milestone in communication and unified the country as never before. The Morse code sound traveled across the country at virtually the speed of light.

Here are links to two other articles you should find interesting regarding the westward expansion in America. The Pony Express Trail in California and the story of the Central Pacific Railroad, a part of the first transcontinental railroad.

On our Western Trips site you’ll enjoy the article on The Great Train Robbery and the Union Pacific Posse.

Visit the Locust Grove Museum

There’s an interesting historic site tied in with the transcontinental telegraph system. Locust Grove is a villa in the Italianate style designed in 1850 for artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse by architect Alexander Jackson Davis. None of the original furnishings survive from the Morse family’s years at Locust Grove. Of special interest however is that the Museum Pavilion is the home of a permanent exhibit that explores Samuel Morse’s two careers, first as an artist and later as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code.

William and Martha Young brought a new vision to Locust Grove after acquiring the estate from Morse’s heirs in 1895.  According to the Locust Grove Museum, In 1975 Annette Innis Young, the last member of the Young family to live at Locust Grove, created a not-for-profit foundation to preserve the estate for “the enjoyment, visitation, and enlightenment of the public.”  Her bequest included more than 125 acres of gardens and grounds. The Locust Grove Estate is located at 2683 South Road, Poughkeepsie, NY .

(Western Union telegraph key photo is from author’s private collection. Other images shown are in the public domain)



Pawnee Bill and His Wild West Show

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was the most acclaimed entertainment troupe in the latter 1800’s and at the turn of the century. Old West shows were quite in vogue in the last part of the 1800’s. No other show of it’s kind, and most likely no other show period, had the world acclaim that the Wild West had.

The Buffalo Bill show was in demand. When traveling throughout England and the Continent during the 1880’s and 90’s, the Wild West performed for heads of state, royalty and influential people of all callings. There was never another group of entertainers quite like Buffalo Bill Cody assembled. Some of these entertainers grew famous during their years with the Wild West, most notably Phoebe Ann Moses, the sharpshooter with the stage name Annie Oakley.

Pawnee Bill

gordon lillie and may manningA man named Gordon William Lillie, born in 1860, was also a Wild West showman. Lillie was known by the name “Pawnee Bill” and there were several reasons for this. In 1879, Gordon was working on the Pawnee Indian agency in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

The photo left is of Pawnee Bill and May Lillie

In 1883, he was given the opportunity to work with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show as the Pawnee interpreter. This work with the show would ultimately give him his nickname Pawnee Bill. The need for an interpreter accompanying the Wild West was real. As most people recall, the Wild West performers for the most part were the genuine articles. The Indians were genuine Native Americans, some not many years away from the warpath. Sitting Bull himself joined Cody’s Wild West for about four months. Nevertheless, Pawnee Bill’s association with William Cody would lead to opportunities in the future.

Pawnee Bill met May Manning, another western performer, who was known to many as the “Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” May Lillie“, her soon to be new name, was quite a skilled female sharpshooter. The couple (pictured above) were married in 1886 at May’s parents home in Philadelphia. Gordon Lillie’s wedding gift to his bride was a pony and a Marlin 22 target rifle.

After the marriage in 1886 they started their own western show called, “Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West“.  Unfortunately, the first year didn’t go too well financially and they then created a smaller show called “Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West Indian Museum and Encampment Show.” This new smaller operation fared much better and Lillie recruited Jose Barrera (pictured below), known to audiences as “Mexican Joe“. Barrera was only 15 years old when he joined Pawnee Bill. Even at that young age he was an expert equestrian and roper. He was called the greatest trick roper in the world. Mexican Joe along with other performers were also noted for their unique “Bailable a Caballo” in which both riders and horses danced in pairs to the music of a twelve piece band. During his lifetime, Mexican Joe toured throughout the United States and Europe. He performed with Pawnee Bill, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West and with the successful Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Show. Mexican Joe was a star in many old west shows.

mexican joeIn regards to the talented May Manning, she became very involved in Women’s Relief efforts, buffalo herd preservation as well as Indian culture. May also became involved in films starring in  “May Lillie, Queen of the Buffalo Ranch,” a film produced at the ranch. In 1936.

The image right is of Mexican Joe

In 2011, May Manning Lillie was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth Texas for her work during her Wild West Show career as well as her role in the preservation of the American bison. The Pawnee Bill Ranch was a refuge site for the buffalo.

The Wild West Shows

To give you a feel for Pawnee Bill’s show, the group included Mexican cowboys, Pawnee Indians, Japanese performers, and Arab jugglers. The show appeared to be part western show and part circus. Pawnee Bill featured boomerang throwers, Turkish musicians and freaks of all sort in his museum annex.

Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill Cody joined forces in 1908. This new show was called “The Two Bill’s Show“. Unfortunately, while traveling with their show in Denver Colorado, the Two Bill’s Show was foreclosed on and dissolved. “The Two Bills Show” didn’t enjoy the same fame as the Cody’s Wild West show. The photo below is of a cowboy around 1902.

Visit the Pawnee Bill Ranch Museum

1902 cowboyToday, you can still see an edition of Pawnee Bill’s show during the last three Saturdays of June. Tickets for these events can be bought at the Pawnee Bill Ranch Museum in Pawnee Oklahoma.

The ranch area containing the buildings is located on Blue Hawk Peak. The Ranch refers to it as “the hill” to differentiate it from the lower pavilion/picnic/arena area and the large pastures that comprise the bulk of the ranch.

These performances in Pawnee Oklahoma are not part of the Pawnee Bill shows that take place in Fort Worth Texas. The tickets for the Pawnee Oklahoma events cannot be purchased online, only at the Ranch Museum itself.

Visitors to the Pawnee Oklahoma ranch can now tour Pawnee Bill and his wife, May’s, 14 room mansion which is fully furnished with their original belongings. Today, Pawnee Bill Ranch consists of 500 of the original 2,000 acres. It also includes original outbuildings.

The ranch is now operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. The Pawnees Bill Ranch is open as a historic site dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of history as it relates to Pawnee Bill and May Manning Lillie. Many people who visit the Pawnee Bill Ranch combine it with a visit to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Both the ranch and the museum in Oklahoma City make good additions to your Oklahoma vacation planner. They fit in well for a low cast family trip.

The city of Pawnee Oklahoma is a very historic and an excellent place to visit when you’re in the area. Also a good place to add to your summer vacation road trip planner.

The splendor of the old west cowboys and Indians are still very much alive and well in Pawnee. The magnificent old buildings stand today as monuments of a time gone by. Pawnee is.located in the northern part of the state, about 50 miles northwest of Tulsa and about 75 miles northeast of Oklahoma City.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Goes to Paris

One of the highlights of Buffalo Bills Wild West was when the troupe performed in Paris France. After their fascinating success touring the United States, the group sailed to Europe and played a number of cities on the continent.Their original performances in England during 1887 paved the way for a much larger tour which included a six month engagement in France. The world was ready and eager to see these old west shows.

wild west show indiansThe tour in England had coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration and the Buffalo Bill Cody planned his French tour to take place during the Exposition Universelle in Paris during 1889. The Paris Exposition commemorated the one hundred year anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, a somewhat similar event to the one hundred year anniversary of the United States. William Cody Buffalo Bill gained the reputation of being an excellent showman. This was not only for his performances in the arena but equally so for his skill in building publicity. Cody’s worldwide reputation along with an advertising blitz created an overwhelming response from the French. The opening performance alone drew some 10,000 spectators including Sadi Carnot, the French President. The French newspapers were filled every day with accounts of the Wild West and its performers. The Indians, just as in England, had attracted huge attention. As if their presence in France wasn’t enough, the French press put out large stories of Cody’s Indians climbing the famed Eiffel Tower.The public domain photo below shows the Eiffel Tower under construction in July 1888.

eiffel tower constructionThe French engineer Gustave Eiffel won a contest to build a gigantic tower as the spectacular centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle and Cody’s Indians surely would have been the first Native Americans to ascend this symbolic tower. The very act of touching the Indians became a popular pastime for young French couple in particular who thought such contact would assure fertility. French children were so thrilled by the Wild West and it’s authentic American Indians that they set up their own wild west encampment in the Bois de Boulogne. Everything in the Wild West show was intriguing to the Parisians of the time including the wild west buffalo itself.

All throughout the summer of 1889, as Buffalo Bill performed during the Exposition Universelle, it almost appeared that the Wild West was the main event in Paris rather than the Exposition itself. One side note to the Wild West’s tour of France involved Buffalo Cody trying to present a special gift to the French president. The gift was a nine foot tall lamp with a preserved bison head at the top. The lamp shade was scarlet red. While the gesture was surely meant as a compliment, the French president declined the offer. It’s not clear what happened to the intended gift after that.

annie oakley posterBuffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, featuring among others, the famous sharpshooter Annie Oakley and a full contingent of Native Americans, thrilled Parisians at the same time that Thomas Edison, come to promote his new talking phonograph in Europe. Clearly the excitement of the American frontier coupled with advances in science and engineering, such as Eiffels Tower and Edison’s inventions made the Exposition Universelle a showcase of the old and new.

Another historical side note regarding the Wild West’s performances in Paris involved that of Annie Oakley.Two years prior in 1887, Oakley had quit the show amid poor relations with the show’s other female sharpshooter, Lillian Smith, almost ten years younger than Oakley. By 1889 Smith had also quit the Wild West and Buffalo Bill was successful in persuading Annie Oakley to rejoin his group for their upcoming tour of Europe.

After the Wild West performed in Paris they moved through southern France and then onto Spain for sold out performances there. The Buffalo Bill show and all it’s advance publicity headed south.

buffalo bill wild west posterThe story of American old west frontier history has proved to be a lasting attraction. Today, in the 21st century, visitors to the Disneyland Paris show can see a sort of reenactment of what Buffalo Bill Cody brought to France over one hundred years ago. Now, twice daily, a man by the name of Trent Vance (Vance plays Buffalo Bill Cody) heads up a cast of up to 70 cowboys, Indians, bison, longhorn cattle, horses and a donkey in a 90-minute dinner performance portrayed just like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. The show includes chuckwagon scenes, a buffalo chase, rodeo games and a stagecoach attack along with other frontier acts. Named appropriately, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, there are two performances nightly and includes dinner. Disney’s knowledge of Buffalo Bill Cody goes all the way back to Walt Disney himself, who saw Buffalo Bill in a parade that came through Disney’s boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri.

Aside from attending the new Wild West at Disneyland in Paris, many artifacts and records can be seen at two Buffalo Bill Cody museums in the United States. One is the Buffal Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming just east of Yellowstone National Park. The other is at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Golden Colorado. The Buffalo Bill Museum’s Golden Colorado exhibits include memorabilia from Buffalo Bill’s life and Wild West shows, Native American artifacts, a large collection of antique firearms and other Old West artifacts. Golden Colorado is also the grave site of William Cody.