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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The First Rodeo

by Clay Coppedge
We're going to say right from the get-go that we don't know where the first rodeo was staged, but that's not going to stop us from going with the West of the Pecos Rodeo in the town made famous by Judge Roy Bean and his brand of law west of there. This particular rodeo happened on July 4, 1883, and was apparently the first rodeo that actually offered prizes.

The story goes that a bunch of cowboys were hanging out at Red Newell's saloon in Pecos in 1883 and decided to have a steer roping and bronc busting event on July 4. Local ranchers pitched in with $40 in prize money, which is a big distinction when trying to pin a date on the first rodeo as we know it today.
"An exact date of the first exhibition of the daily work and, later, of the sport of the cowboy cannot be given," Clifford P. Westermeier wrote in his 1947 history of rodeo, Man, Beast, Dust: The Story of Rodeo. "If such an attempt were made it would bring forth vehement and justified protests from the various parts of the west."
Yes, and it happened just that way. In Texas, Canadian also claims to have staged the first rodeo on July 4, 1888. Beyond the state's borders, places like Prescott and Payton, Arizona make some respectable claims, and so do Santa Fe and Deer Trail, Colorado. The problem is that the sport of rodeo didn't have to be invented. It already existed as a part of the cowboys' work day, going all the way back to the charredas performed by the first cowboys - the vaqueros of Mexico and South Texas.

The Pecos rodeo celebrated its 100th birthday in 1983, on July 4, which is a little odd when you find out that the same rodeo celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1979. That's because the Pecos rodeo was a hit-or-miss affair for many years and didn't get going as a truly annual event until 1929. People in Pecos still fiercely claim their rodeo as the first, but no one ever said it was the most consistent.

After his book was published Westermeier found an old farm journal a report about an organized competition for money on July 4, 1869 in Deer Trail, Colorado. If you go with that version, the first American cowboy champion was an Englishman named Emiline Gardenshire, who won the bronc busting event and was named Champion Bronc Buster of the Plains.


Rodeo as we know it today really began to take shape in the 1880s, but it suffered in the early days from a perception that this was just entertainment, not sport. The fact that roping and riding events were a part of many traveling Wild West shows reinforced the notion. Stingy promoters and corrupt judges often took advantage of the cowboys, who eventually organized. A group of them formed the Cowboys Turtle Association in 1939 after the cowboys went on strike to protest promoter W.T. Johnson's treatment of them during the Boston Garden Rodeo. Johnson gave in and vowed to offer "a fair share of the money" without much of a fuss. The association's unlikely name is said to have come from the fact that the cowboys were so slow to organize. The name was changed to the Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1945 and to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) in 1975.

Rodeo's popularity grew in the boom years following World War II. Some colleges and high schools began to offer the sport. The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association was chartered in Texas as was the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. Texans like Toots Mansfield, Harry Tompkins. Don Gay, Ty Murray, Phil Lyne and dozens of other Texans have dominated the sport from the beginning.

So, if anybody asks you when and where the first rodeo took place you can tell them it took place in Pecos, Texas on July 4, 1883. You might even be right, but expect an argument if you're saying this to people from Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico or even Canadian, Texas.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" September 2, 2018 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Randolph Marcy Got Around 8-17-18
  • Three-Legged Willie Stood Tall 8-4-18
  • The Horse George Childress Rode In On 7-16-16
  • What we know about the state dinosaur 7-1-18
  • Philip Nolan and All the Pretty Horses 6-8-18

    See more »

  • Related Topics:
    Texas Ranches & Ranching
    Columns
    Texas Towns
    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Randolph Marcy Got Around 8-17-18
  • Three-Legged Willie Stood Tall 8-4-18
  • The Horse George Childress Rode In On 7-16-16
  • What we know about the state dinosaur 7-1-18
  • Philip Nolan and All the Pretty Horses 6-8-18

    See more »


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