By Caroline Clemmons
This is still Black History month, and a western figure who comes to mind is the famed inventor of the sport of bull-dogging—Bill Pickett.
Willie M. Pickett was born December 5, 1870
in the Jenks Branch community of Wiliamson County in Central Texas. He
was the second of 13 children born to Thomas Jefferson Pickett, a former slave,
and Mary "Janie" Gilbert. Bill Pickett had four brothers and eight
sisters. The family's ancestry was African American and Cherokee. By 1888, the
family had moved to Taylor, Texas. Like many boys of his era, Bill Pickett left
school in the 5th grade to become a ranch hand. He soon began to ride horses
and watch the longhorn steers of his native Texas.
In 1890, Pickett married Maggie Turner, a former slave and daughter of a white southern plantation owner. The couple had nine children.
He invented the technique of bull-dogging, the skill of grabbing cattle by the horns and wrestling them to the ground. It was known among cattlemen that, with the help of a trained bulldog, a stray steer could be caught. Bill Pickett had seen this happen on many occasions. He also thought that if a bulldog could do this feat, so could he. Bill Pickett practiced his stunt by riding hard, springing from his horse, and wrestling the steer to the ground. Pickett's famous method for bull-dogging was biting a cow on the lip and then falling backward. He also helped other cowboys with bull-dogging. As you can imagine, his method eventually lost popularity as the sport grew into the steer wrestling that is practiced in rodeos today.
Bill Pickett biting steer on the lipBill Pickett soon became known for his tricks and stunts at local country fairs. With his four brothers, he established The Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. The name Bill Pickett soon became synonymous with successful rodeos. He did his bulldogging act, traveling about in Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, and Oklahoma.
In 1905, Pickett joined the 101 Ranch Wild West Show that featured others like Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, and Tom Mix. He performed under the name "The Dusky Demon." Unfortunately, he was a victim of the times. Bill Pickett's ethnicity resulted in his not being able to appear at many rodeos, so he often was forced to claim that he was of Comanche heritage in order to perform.
Bill Pickett was soon a popular performer who toured around the world and appeared in early motion pictures. In 1921, he appeared in the films The Bull-Dogger and The Crimson Skull.
In 1932, after having retired from Wild West shows, Bill Pickett was kicked in the head by a bronco. After a multi-day coma, he died on April 2, 1932.He was buried on the 101 Ranch on Monument Hill, less than a quarter of a mile to the northeast of Marland, Oklahoma.
His fame has lasted long after his death:
In 1971, Pickett was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
In 1989, Pickett was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.
In 1987, a statue of Pickett performing his signature bull dogging maneuver, made by artist Lisa Perry, was presented to the city of Fort Worth, Texas. The statue is installed in the Fort Worth Stockyards Historic District.
In 2003, Bill Pickett was inducted into the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame’
The United States Postal Service chose to include Bill Pickett in the Legends of the West commemorative sheet unveiled in December 1993. One month later, the Pickett family informed the Postal Service that the likeness was incorrect. Its source material was a misidentified photograph of Bill Pickett's brother and fellow cowboy star, Ben Pickett. In October 1994, the USPS released corrected stamps based on the poster for The Bull-Dogger.
In March 2015, the Taylor City Council announced that a street that leads to the rodeo arena will be renamed to honor Bill Pickett.
On June 2, 2017 a new statue of Bill Pickett was unveiled in his hometown of Taylor, Texas. It is prominently displayed at the intersection of 2nd and Main Streets in the downtown.]
On August 6, 2018, Bill Pickett was inducted into the Jim Thorpe Association's Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.
In They Die by Dawn (2013), Bill Pickett is portrayed by Bokeem Woodbine. In the 2021 film The Harder They Fall, his role was played by actor Edi Gathegi.
Pickett is referenced in season 4 episode 5 of Baywatch.
A You Tube video tribute to Bill Pickett is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1gvSEEXXk8