THROWBACK THURSDAY: Liberty Hill is birthplace of legendary rodeo cowboy

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William Pickett, born the son of former slaves, would go on to become one of America’s most celebrated rodeo stars. (Courtesy Photo)

William Pickett, born the son of former slaves, would go on to become one of America’s most celebrated rodeo stars. (Courtesy Photo)

By JAMES WEAR

Liberty Hill has had its share of talented cowboys during its history, but perhaps none gained more lasting acclaim than William Pickett, believed to have been born on Dec. 5, 1870 near the Jenks Branch community.

Pickett, often called either “Bill” or “Will” depending on which historian’s story one is reading, was of African American and Native American descent and was the second of 13 children. His parents, Thomas Jefferson and Mary Pickett, were both former slaves.

Pickett is said to have become a cowboy by the time he was a fifth grader, and by 1888, when the family had moved to Taylor, he competed in the town’s first fair. Historians say he and his brothers opened a horse-breaking business in Taylor, where he also served as a member of the National Guard and a deacon at a local Baptist church.

Pickett’s prowess as a cowboy earned him different nicknames, including “The Bulldogger” with author Kate Kelly, in an article she wrote about Pickett, describing how he earned that particular nickname: “Cattlemen knew that, with the help of a trained bulldog, a stray steer could be caught. The bulldog would halt the steer by using its teeth to clamp down on the steer’s sensitive nerve in the upper nose and lip. The steer wouldn’t move after that.

“Pickett decided that if a bulldog could bring down a steer, so could he. He practiced by riding after a steer, springing from his horse, and wrestling the steer to the ground. He then bit and held the steer’s lip until the steer held still.”

Pickett was also known as “The Dusky Demon.”

While in Taylor, he married Maggie Turner. The couple would eventually have nine children.

Pickett’s skills gained him wide acclaim not only in Texas, but throughout the West. Historians say his performance in 1904 while at the Cheyenne Frontier Days led to him signing up to perform with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, which was based in Oklahoma. He ended up moving his family to Oklahoma and became a full-time employee of the ranch.

While with the 101 Wild West Show, it is said Pickett performed not only across the United States but in Europe as well, and he eventually starred in motion pictures, becoming the first black cowboy movie star. His films included “Crimson Skull” (1921) and “The Bull-Dogger” (1922), both of which were made in Oklahoma.

Like many other athletes at the time, Pickett encountered racism, and it is said that often he would be identified as a Native American to be able to compete in some rodeos.

Pickett died on April 2, 1932, after having been kicked in the head by a horse. Famed American humorist Will Rogers, who Pickett had befriended, was quoted as saying “Bill Pickett never had an enemy, even the steers wouldn’t hurt old Bill.”

By 1972, Pickett became the first African American to be inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, and 17 years later, joined others honored at Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy at Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is also featured on a postal stamp issued in 1994, although experts say the image on the stamp is actually one of Pickett’s brothers.

james@LHIndependent.com

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