As my family and I were making the long journey home from Anaheim, CA back to Abilene, TX last week following the RWA conference, we passed a billboard in Pecos, TX claiming to be the home of the world’s first rodeo. I smiled to myself as we passed, and didn’t think much more about it until it came time for me to put together a blog post. With all the wonderful Olympic events over the last fortnight, I wanted to keep with the spirit of competition, and what more classic western competition is there than the rodeo?
However, when I started digging into the history of rodeos, I quickly realized I had stumbled into dangerous territory. Pecos, TX isn’t the only town claiming to have hosted the first rodeo.
Now, I’m sure most of you know that rodeos evolved from friendly competitions cowboys would engage in at the end of long trail drives. They were a way to have fun, blow off steam, and blow up egos. Who was the best steer roper, bronco buster, or all-around drover? Well, let’s just have us a little friendly competition (along with some wagering, of course) to see who that might be. Each outfit would send their best men to represent the brand for bragging rights.
But who hosted the first organized rodeo?
Author Clifford P. Westermeier in his book Man, Beast, Dust: The Story of Rodeo cites a report in the Field and Farm Journal of Denver that claimed an Englishman named Emilnie Gardenshire and his horse, Montana Blizzard, competed in the first rodeo on July 4, 1869 at Deer Trail, CO and was named Champion Bronc Buster of the Plains and was awarded a new set of clothes in honor of his achievement. However, the most heated argument seems to be between the folks of Pecos, TX and those of Prescott, AZ.
So we’re gonna have us a little showdown.
July 4, 1883 – Recorded interviews (in 1928) from eyewitnesses who remembered attending the event. Men hanging out at Red Newell’s saloon decided to have a steer roping and bronco busting competition. Ranchers put up $40 in prize money making it the first organized rodeo with prize money. The rodeo did not recur on an annual basis, however, until 1929. Willard Porter, former rodeo director at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City agrees Pecos was chronologically first.
July 4, 1888 – The first rodeo competition to charge admission and therefore make rodeo a spectator sport. It was organized by local merchants, area ranches were invited to compete, contests were documented, and prizes were given to the winners. It continued on an annual basis, though the location moved around slightly year to year. In 1985, the US Patent Office approved Prescott’s application to use the term “World’s Oldest Rodeo.”
The bullets really started to fly in 1985, when Pecos and Prescott shot it out with the makers of the game Trivial Pursuit. When the game listed Prescott as the place where rodeo was formalized, Pecos threatened to sue. Prescott threatened to sue if it was changed. When the dust settled, Prescott still had Trivial Pursuit’s vote as the oldest rodeo, although the people of Pecos hold fast to their claim.
Wherever rodeo originated, I’m just glad we have it, aren’t you? The world needs a place for hunky cowboys to strut their stuff.
So what is your favorite rodeo event? Would you vote for Pecos, TX or Prescott, AZ as being the first? Do you think rodeo events should be in the Olympics?