The Late, Late Frontier

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The rodeo generates purse money in the range of three to four million dollars annually for the dues-paying members of the Rodeo Cowboys Association, which participates in about five hundred rodeos each year, or about one sixth of those held in the nation. The RCA is a trade organization interested in fees and percentages and fair judges; in ethics (pay your bills before leaving town; always have a permanent address); in the elimination of conflicting dates; and in the bonding of officials who handle the money. The association also keeps an eye on antirodeo legislation. In addition, the RCA sponsors a national Intercollegiate Rodeo and a women’s auxiliary called the Girls’ Rodeo Association. The game even has its “little league.” The members of the American Junior Rodeo are already in training to preserve the best of the Old West, get a cut of the prize money of the future, and, hopefully, some day to be immortalized in the rodeo’s national shrine, which stands on Persimmon Hill in Oklahoma City and is known as The National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center.

The cowpoke was long ago elevated to a unique position in American popular culture by Owen Wister’s The Virginian and its imitators, by the Western pulp magazines, by the movies, juke boxes, shoot-em-out television dramas, and by the manufacturers of cap pistols. Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain praised the manly qualities of the cowboy, who continues to appear on the backs of cereal boxes. “Since the cowboy is the hero of the pre-adolescent,” Professor David Brion Davis of Yale University has noted, “he must prove himself by their standards.”

The sum of this idealization, despite its incongruities, has been skillfully appropriated by the propaganda of the rodeo. Athletes who rodeo (in familiar usage the noun becomes a verb) are accepted as modern reincarnations of Wyatt Earp and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. These latter-day buckaroos have been received by the highest local, state, and federal officials—by President Eisenhower at the White House, to cite one example. Such exposure provides highly visible endorsement of the “heritage angle.”

The rodeo has a tenuous relationship with the era of the trail herds, but it could easily be exaggerated, and usually is, in rodeo rhetoric. The voyageur is gone. The mountain men are gone. So are the Virginia City miners. The buffalo hunters, too, have ridden, as one rodeo belletrist has written, “across the Great Sunset.” But we are left with the “action-crammed” arena performances and rodeo prose. This literary genre owes much to the style of sports reporting passed on to us by the 1920’s. It is elaborate, redundant, ridden with clichés, circumlocutions, and euphuisms. Oklahoma becomes “the Sooner State.” Clowning is “the baggy profession.” Bulldogging is “toro twisting.” The man who performs that act is “the leather-tough twister whose guts and wits are matched in the arena with the worst action outlaw stock has to offer.” Sympathy is carefully directed away from the rodeo bronco. He is vicious and ornery, a “widow maker,” or sometimes “a scary explosion of animal energy” with “thrashing hooves splintering the chute boards”; while the bulldogger, as he makes his leap for the steer’s head, “slams into sudden brute power.” There is also a more poetic but equally inflated style that associates the performance with an appreciation of the natural world the coyote’s howl, the starry heavens, clean air, clean living, the call of the wild, and “the immensity of God’s sublime creation.”

The origins of the rodeo (from the Spanish rodear , “to surround” or “round up”) may be discerned in the spring roundup of range cattle before the long drive began to the northern cow towns. Trail-driving the longhorns actually lasted for a brief span —one generation with the big years falling between 1870 and 1885. But some time shortly after the Civil War the men who earned their living trailing cattle found amusement and relaxation in doing rope tricks and in competing in breaking wild horses, testing for themselves the legend of “the man who couldn’t be throwed.” It was homemade recreation, a work-play situation. No fanfare. No audience. No gate receipts.

According to one account, an intercamp broncobusting contest was held at Deer Trail, Colorado, on July 4, 1869, where ponies pitched, kicked, and seesawed to escape the spurs and rawhide whip. Another source places the first rodeo at Point of Rocks, Arkansas, in 1872. Still another agrees as to the year but not the location: there was an exhibition of steer riding on the Fourth of July at Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1872. Better documentation comes in a letter dated June 10, 1874, which mentions a gathering of cowboys at Santa Fe, where they had a “Donneybrook Fair” accompanied by generous infusions of whiskey and dancing in the streets.

The free grass and the free rodeo came to an end at about the same time, because at Prescott, Arizona, in 1888, an admission was charged for the first time to see the “passion play of the West.” Rodeo had become a spectator sport. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody employed cowboy acts in his Wild West show in the early eighties, but the roping and the riding were incidental to the re-enactment of such dramas as an attack on a wagon train or “Custer’s Last Stand.” Rodeo, by contrast, developed as a competitive “sport,” with the contestants timed or judged against one another’s records.