Tukufu Zuberi: Our first story examines
a worn saddle that may have crossed the color barrier in the
American West. The Cherokee Strip in the Oklahoma Territory,
June 11, 1905. Thirty trains bring 65,000 visitors to the
famous 101 Ranch for a wild west show to outclass all wild
west shows. Cowboys roping and bronc-busting, Cossacks
riding and Geronimo shooting his last buffalo from a moving
But the star of the show is the African American cowboy,
Bill Pickett. In an astonishing display he jumps from the
horse at full gallop onto the back of a 1000 pound steer.
Then, in an audience stunning act, he literally bites the
steer on the lip and hauls it to the ground. It's a stunt he
is soon performing around the world. At a time when a color
divide segregated the nation, Bill Pickett became an
audience favorite and trampled the boundaries between black
and white. A woman in Staten Island, New York, who collects
African American historical artifacts believes she has a
saddle Bill Pickett rode as he performed around the world,
and helped transform how we thought about race.
I'm Tukufu Zuberi and I'm
meeting Elizabeth Meaders to see what she's found.
Elizabeth Meaders: Well, what we have
here, I hope, is an actual Bill Pickett owned and used
saddle. I bought it from an auction house in
Tukufu: According to them, this is a
Bill Pickett saddle?
Elizabeth: In the catalog it was
described as being slightly worn on the right hand side
of the saddle, where Bill Pickett slid off to do his
Tukufu: Someone appears to have
etched Pickett's name into a ridge on the back of the
Elizabeth: And then the most
important piece of evidence was a letter from an
authority on Bill Pickett and the 101 Ranch….
Elizabeth Meaders with saddle. Is it Bill
Tukufu: A couple of seasons ago, my
colleague, Gwen Wright, did a story on Geronimo, which also
featured the 101 Ranch. It was famous for its Wild West
shows, I remember. Do you own the letter?
Elizabeth: Yeah, I do have the letter.
You want to see that?
Tukufu: The letter is from Jerry Murphey,
the single-most respected collector of 101 Ranch objects.
When it comes to the ranch, which is where Pickett did much
of his riding, Murphey's word is usually final. He described
seeing the same etched saddle in an antique shop and museum
in Oklahoma City. The mother of the museum curator had
worked on the 101 Ranch and the saddle had been acquired
from a local African American family.
This is what it says, "At this time I looked at the Bill
Pickett saddle and a pair of spurs marked Bill Pickett
also…. He would not sell anything in his little museum. I
never went back." Murphey believed the saddle was Pickett's
– but there's no provenance, or proof, and that's what
Elizabeth: What I'd like you to do is to
verify that it is actually Bill Pickett's saddle.
Tukufu: Now, I'm no expert in saddles,
nor am I an expert in Bill Pickett. But I can tell that this
is a very worn saddle. It's an old saddle. Over here, it's
so worn that the leather appears to be gone. And back here,
we have Bill Pickett's name etched into the leather of this
saddle. Did Bill Pickett put it there? Is this even the kind
of saddle that Bill Pickett rode on? I have absolutely no
idea. First thing I did was to call Jerry Murphey. He wasn't
able to meet, but stood by his judgment of the saddle's
"The First Bulldogger, Bill
10' bronze by Lisa Perry (Ft Worth, TX)
Maybe I can find a
reference to the kind of saddle Pickett used. Born five
years after the Civil War, Pickett was of mixed Native
American and African American heritage. The cowboy life
gave former slaves a living wage and the opportunity to
work as skilled ranch hands. While Hollywood mostly
portrayed cowboys as white skinned, by some estimates as
many one in four were African American. Bill Pickett
grew up in awe of his cousins who worked as cowboys.
He quit school after fifth grade and hired on as a ranch
hand. He was barely a teenager when he came up with the
idea of bulldogging; a technique trained dogs used for
pulling steers to the ground. "I sees a dog throw a cow,
and that's where I gets my idea. I throws them with my
teeth." So Bill Pickett developed the art of bulldogging
by observing how bulldogs pulled down a cow. And this is
a picture of Bill Pickett grabbing the steer with his
Pickett's break came when Joe Miller, one of three
brothers who owned the 101 Ranch asked if he'd perform
with their Wild West show. The 101 was the biggest ranch
in Indian Territory. More than one 100,000 acres in
Northern Oklahoma. It was virtually its own country.
Pickett agreed to join them. And, despite the
reality of segregation and the racial tensions of the day,
he soon became a star an audience favorite. Zach Miller, the
owner of the 101 Ranch, described Pickett as the greatest
sweat and dirt cowhand that ever lived, bar none. He added,
"When they turned Bill Pickett out, they broke the mold."
His story is extraordinary. But I wasn't able to find out
much about the kind of saddle Pickett might have used. John
Cooper is a 101 Ranch historian in Stroud, Oklahoma.
John Cooper: Well, glad to meet you.
Tukufu: My pleasure.
Tukufu: He says he might be able to
John: Let's go over and look at the
Tukufu: Alright, that sounds good. How
big were those steers that Bill Picket was bulldogging?
John: Well…around 750, 800 pounds.
Tukufu: 800 pounds.
John: And wild.
Tukufu: So what was life like on the 101
John: Depended on how up the ladder you
Tukufu: How about for Bill Pickett?
John: If you liked low pay and lots of
work, why that was the place to be. Bill said he could make
more money picking cotton than he could with that eight
dollar salary on the show. We will look the saddle over and
see what it's like.
Tukufu: Absolutely. John's got some
pictures he wants to show me. They show Pickett on the 101
Ranch. And his saddle is clearly visible.
John: But you
don't see too much of his saddle there. You see his
hammer. He's got his hammer there to work on fence with.
Tukufu: How about in that one? Does it
show in that one?
John: I would say that this saddle
and this saddle are not the same saddle.
Tukufu: Not the same saddle. Why do
you say that?
John: That trim around the front.
Tukufu: So you believe this trim,
which is here, but you can't see it here is an
indication to you that these are not the same saddles.
John: It's not the same saddle.
Tukufu: Although John says a working
cowboy would normally own one saddle, perhaps our worn
saddle was replaced by Pickett. But John certainly
doubts that the saddle Elizabeth bought was ever used
for a rodeo or Wild West show.
John: I would think if he was going to
the big rodeos in Fort Worth and such places as that and
performing, he would have had a nicer saddle.
Tukufu: Right. John's got me thinking.
If Pickett was such a big star, why would the carving on the
back of his saddle look so crude? I'm headed to the National
Saddlery Company in Oklahoma City to talk to saddle maker
and leather expert John Rule.
John Rule: Nice meeting you. How are
Tukufu: He confirms it's from the right
John: Well, it's an Askew saddle. Their
saddle shop was in Kansas right before the turn of the
century into the 20s. Just by looking at the patina on it
and look at the wear and the styling, I would say 1900, 1910
is pretty much about when that saddle was made.
Tukufu: John thinks he knows how the
name was etched into the saddle.
John: The name was drawn on with a hot
iron of some type. I think we can kind of duplicate that. It
would be with an electric soldering iron, but we can get
pretty close. I'm going to take this burner and we're just
going to kind of draw on this old piece of leather. It's
probably real close to the timeframe of the saddle you've
got up there. If Bill Pickett did it, of course, he would
not have had an electric soldering iron back then. But he
could have done it by forming a piece of metal and heating
it up over a fireplace and doing just exactly what we're
doing here. It looks new there, but I'm going to rough it up
a little bit and some of that new black is going to go away.
And then I'll let you be the judge on if it's possible…
Tukufu: Alright, so let's compare them.
John: It's not exact, but you can see
how it would have been done. But it could have been done
back then just like we just did it now.
Tukufu: John says some of the 101
cowboys might have been famous. But at the end of the day,
as John Cooper told me, they were just working cowboys.
Branding his saddle would be a simple way to keep tabs on a
crucial tool of his trade.
John: He would have wanted to identify
if to keep somebody else from getting off with it.
Tukufu: The wear on our saddle confirms
it has seen long days on the range.
tear right here would be real consistent with roping a
steer or a cow or a bull and getting a rope underneath
one of these buttons and kind of ripping it. So, they
rode this saddle pretty hard.
In your opinion, could this have been Bill Pickett's
John: Well, it's hard to say. I
mean, yes, it absolutely could have been.
Tukufu: I want the opinion of a
professional rodeo cowboy, so I'm meeting Ronnie Fields
at a ranch near Henryetta, Oklahoma. He's ranked third
on the national rodeo circuit. Oh, man! After making
some practice throws, Ronnie tells me a little bit about
the finer points of steer wrestling. Pickett's technique
of biting a steer on the lips is a thing of the past.
Ronnie: You want to ride the horse up to
the point of the hip is where you start getting off. You
have to reach to where you can get a horn, but you want to
be able to sit on your heel in the stirrup of your horse,
like when you're getting off. And you hold onto the saddle
Ronnie: And you wait till you get to the
point where you can get over the steer's back. You have to
slide him. And what I mean slide, like you'll be in position
and they will push you three, four, five feet before you can
actually get them slowed down enough to get their position
turned. For us to get a qualified time, you have to change
the direction of the animal. Meaning, if he's going
this-a-way, head first, he has to be coming this-away when
Tukufu: Ronnie shows me how a rodeo
steer wrestling saddle is different from a working saddle.
Ronnie: They're slick on the seat, which
helps you to slide out. The horns on them are made to where
you can actually get a hold when you roll. You have to be
able to go from this point over here and let it roll around.
Ronnie: So you want a low backed saddle
because it doesn't grab you, like when you go to slide out.
This actual particular saddle, I won it myself in '03.
Tukufu: Oh, you won this.
Tukufu: So this is a championship
Ronnie: Uh huh. Yeah.
Tukufu: And you use it? You don't just
have it framed somewhere?
Tukufu: So, you mind if we take a look
at my saddle?
Ronnie: Absolutely not. We can actually
put it on this horse, if you want.
Tukufu: Alright, let me go get it.
Ronnie: This one's kind of been hanging
around for a little while, hasn't it? Yeah, that's quite
different of the…today's saddle.
Tukufu: I asked him how the two saddles
one would be a little hard to get out of, as far as
catching a steer. You don't want any hang-ups. And this
right here would hang up. And there's guys if they wore
spurs, or something, it would catch, so you don't want
the high back in our event. This is more of a ranch
saddle. They like the high backs, you know, because they
were in the saddle for a lot of hours of the day. And so
they used it more of a backrest.
So would Bill Pickett have performed his bulldogging
stunt from a saddle like this?
Ronnie: It just looks like a death
trap. If Bill Pickett actually rode this and done his
event, as well as the same event that I do now today,
he's a pretty good hand….
Tukufu: Ronnie doesn't know how it
was ever used in a rodeo show. But even if it were just
Pickett's working cowboy saddle, he's impressed.
Ronnie: It definitely deserves to be put
somewhere in a museum or someplace very, very safe.
Tukufu: It seems pretty clear that our
saddle was not used for bulldogging. And truthfully, I've
got no proof our saddle was even owned by Bill Pickett.
Oklahoma City is home to the National Cowboy and Western
Heritage Museum, the biggest Western museum in the country.
I'm headed there to see rodeo curator, Richard Rattenbury,
and curator Don Reeves. They quickly throw my investigation
to the ground.
Don: This is the kind of saddle that he
would have used.
Tukufu: Don explains that in Pickett's
day, rodeo was a kind of social event; a bunch of cowboys
getting together to show off their skills.
Don: The fellows that were working in
the Wild West shows, as well competing in the rodeos, were
using typical stock saddles of the time.
Richard: Wild West show saddles would
really be much the same, except for the impresario or the
owner of the outfit, which in that case would have a very
embellished saddle. The Miller brothers had two or three of
them. A lot of silver work and fancy carving, and so forth.
Tukufu: Okay. Now on the back of here,
we have Bill Pickett's name. What does that tell you?
Don: I've got something else to show
you. Right over here.
Tukufu: And what they take me to see
gives me my answer for Elizabeth. I tell her the saddle is
from the right period. It's also the style of saddle Pickett
would have used working on the 101 Ranch. And, bulldogging
in the Wild West shows.
Elizabeth: I'm glad to hear that.
Tukufu: What I hadn't been able to do
was prove a connection between Bill Pickett and the saddle.
Don: This is what I wanted to show you.
This is the saddle that is generally accepted as one that
was owned by Bill Pickett.
Tukufu: Don tells me that this saddle
came to the museum in 1971 from the son of Guy Schultz, a
rodeo champion and bulldogger who performed with Pickett in
the 101 Ranch show. Is this the kind of saddle that Bill
Pickett would have used in the rodeo in the Wild West shows?
Richard: Very definitely. It's of the
right era, much like your specimen. By a different maker,
Miles City Saddlery, but both were makes of quality stock
Tukufu: This could have been Bill
Pickett's saddle. It's the kind of saddle that he would have
used when he was working on the ranch and it's the kind of
saddle that he would have used when he was bulldogging.
Elizabeth: I can't ask for more than
that, because a provenance for a personally owned item is, I
think, the hardest kind of provenance to prove.
Tukufu: As the popularity of Wild West
shows began to fade and Bill Pickett got older, he finally
stopped performing and mostly retired from ranch work. When
the 101 Ranch went bankrupt in 1932, he went back to help
separate out some horses that Zach Miller was saving from
auction. Bill fell and was kicked in the head by one of the
horses, and died 11 days later. He was buried on a hill on
the 101 Ranch. In 1971, he became the first African American
cowboy to be inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame.