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Texas History

A Cowboy’s Unusual Dental Work

Bulldogger Bill Pickett earned his living as a performer by taking down steers by chomping on their upper lips

The 101 Ranch, near Guthrie, Oklahoma, was a beehive of activity on June 11, 1905. Thousands of excited rodeo fans arrived on foot, in wagons or in smart buggies. Storm clouds threatening the afternoon’s performance didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. They came to see Bill Pickett—“the Dusky Demon from Texas”—the cowboy who could down a steer using only his hands and teeth.

Pickett got this idea when, as an 11-year-old, he saw a cattle dog hold a cow motionless by biting down on its upper lip—a maneuver called bulldogging. Strangely enough, Pickett wanted to try it, so he approached a calf, grabbed its ears, chomped on its upper lip, let go of its ears and fell backward. Subdued by the pain, the dogie flopped over.

Richard Zelade’s book Central Texas (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2011) recounts Pickett’s first public bulldogging exhibition in Austin. Pickett, watching some Littlefield Cattle Company cowboys struggling with feisty calves, offered his newfound bite-’em technique. The cowboys stopped laughing when Pickett bit down on a calf’s upper lip, immobilizing it while they applied the searing branding iron. The amazed cowboys spread the news across Austin.

It was a watershed moment for a son of former slaves. Willie M. “Bill” Pickett is believed to have been born on December 5, 1870, in Jenks-Branch Community in Williamson County—one of 13 children. He quit school at 15 and became a working cowboy on area ranches. In 1900, Pickett started entertaining at rodeos across the West.

Bulldogging was dangerous, but Pickett loved the applause. He hit the big time in 1903 when glib-tongued promoter Dave McClure billed him as “Bulldog Pickett: the Dusky Demon—the Most Daring Cowboy Alive!” The term “dusky” was intended to disguise Pickett’s ethnicity whenever white cowboys shied from appearing on the same program as an African-American man. The spectators, however, didn’t seem to mind.

This photo of Ben Pickett is often misidentified as his brother, Bill.

Private Collection | Peter Newark Western Americana | The Bridgeman Art Library

In 1905, Pickett took another step on his path to fame when he met Zack Miller, who, with his brothers, owned the 101 Ranch. Miller hired him to appear in his June show. The extravaganza, described in Cecil Johnson’s book Guts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett (Summit Publishing Group, 1994), also featured Geronimo shooting a buffalo from the back of a moving car and a frighteningly realistic attack on a wagon train. An estimated 60,000 spectators gave Pickett’s bulldogging a roaring ovation. He was such a sensation that he signed on with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show in 1907.

After performing in Brownsville in 1908, the Millers took the show to Mexico City. Joe Miller started a war of words in the newspapers with some Mexican bullfighters who bragged that they could do whatever Pickett could. Joe Miller challenged them and questioned their bravery—partly to get publicity for the show. This insult to the national sport outraged the locals. Either Miller or the bullfighters (sources differ) bet 5,000 pesos over whether Pickett could stay in contact with a bull for five minutes.

And so in December 1908, Pickett entered the El Toro arena mounted on his beloved horse, Spradley. The bull, Frijoli Chiquita, turned so quickly that the horse couldn’t get close enough unless Pickett could keep him from sidestepping. Spradley could not evade one of the bull’s charges and was gored. Pickett dismounted and grabbed the bull’s horns. He hung on more than five minutes, although the bull repeatedly slammed him against the wall and the crowd began pelting him with all sorts of objects—knives, fruit, rocks. An angry spectator threw a full beer bottle, hitting Pickett in the ribs and causing him to finally lose his grip.

After another cowboy lured Frijoli Chiquita away, Pickett hurried to his badly injured horse. An elderly Mexican offered a strange cure: two red bananas. He peeled them and thrust them into the horse’s gaping wounds. Surprisingly, Spradley healed quickly.

After World War I, the glory days of Wild West shows had passed. In 1931, the 101 show closed. Pickett died on April 2, 1932, after a horse kicked him in the head. The inventor of bulldogging was voted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame and, in 1989, was enshrined in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Rodeos today feature an event called steer wrestling. A cowboy chases down a steer, jumps off his horse then wrestles the steer to the ground by twisting its horns.

Some call that bulldogging. But it’s not the way the Dusky Demon used to do it. He would probably say that calling it bulldogging is just lip service.

A 1993 stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service. The original version of the stamp mistakenly featured an image of Ben Pickett instead of his brother, Bill.