The Wild Life of Taylor’s Famous Cowboy
While some folks may or may not know his name, Bill Pickett is certainly one of the best-known members of the Williamson County African American community.
Born to former slaves in 1870, Willie M. “Bill” Pickett was the second of 13 children. He grew up in Taylor after the Pickett family moved there from the Jenks-Branch community on the Travis County line. Following completion of the fifth grade, Pickett became a cowboy, often showing off his roping and riding skills while passing a hat for donations. Over the years, he developed a technique called “bulldogging” based on what he’d seen cattle dogs do to subdue a bull—bite its upper lip—and began performing at fairs and rodeos, including the first Taylor community fair in 1888.
In 1890, Pickett married Maggie Turner, with whom he had nine children. Active in the Taylor community, Pickett was a member of the National Guard and a deacon in the Baptist church. He and his brothers also had a horse-breaking business and organized the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. However, he is best known for creating the “bulldogging” event in which he rode his horse, Spradley, alongside a steer, dropped down to grab its horns, twisted its head skyward, and bit its upper lip. Although this last move was dropped over the years, the event—now known as “steer wrestling”—continues to be popular among cowboys and rodeo fans alike.
Pickett performed under the stage name “The Dusky Demon” at many exhibitions in rodeos across the country. However, as a black man, he was not allowed to compete against whites in rodeo competitions. In order to participate, he would often be billed as Indian (Native American) or “unidentified.” In 1905, he began traveling the country and around the world, performing with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show developed by ranch owners Zack, Joe, and George Miller. In 1907 Pickett became a full-time 101 Ranch employee and moved his family to Oklahoma.
From 1905 to 1931, the Wild West Show was one of the best-known shows in the U.S., and Bill Pickett was one of its most famous stars. During the same time, Pickett became one of the first black cowboy movie stars as well, appearing in such films as The Bull Dogger and The Crimson Skull.
Following the death of his wife in 1929, Pickett quit traveling and bought his own land near Chandler, Oklahoma. Although the Great Depression closed the Wild West Show in 1931, Pickett stayed on as a 101 Ranch employee. In 1932, he was kicked in the head while separating horses from a herd and died two weeks later. He was buried on the 101 Ranch. More than a thousand people attended his funeral, which was announced by his friend Will Rogers on his weekly radio broadcast.
At the 1971 National Finals Rodeo, Bill Pickett was inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. His great-grandson, Willie Wilson, accepted the certificate. In 1989, Pickett was inducted into the Pro-Rodeo Hall of Fame and Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is also remembered through a bronze statue on the grounds of the Fort Worth Coliseum.
Pickett’s name—and fame—will live on in Williamson County as well. This year, the county will honor Pickett once again by naming its new expo center in Taylor after him.