On July 4, 1888, Juan Leivas showed off his mad cowboy skills to the people of Prescott, Arizona where the first organized rodeo took place. He performed well, despite the fact that, if the great historians of Prescott are to be believed, this was indeed his first rodeo. After the competition, Leivas rode off into the sunset with a silver shield for his efforts, to forever be known as the world’s first rodeo champion.
But as documented and well-promoted as Prescott’s claim to have hosted the first rodeo may be, the good people of Pecos, Texas cry foul. They claim that only a few years after their town’s founding, as early as 1883, cowboys gathered during 4th of July celebrations to pit their mad cowboy skills against each other for cash prizes.
Pecos is so serious about its claim that when in 1985 the game Trivial Pursuit listed Prescott as the home of the world’s first rodeo, the city of Pecos threatened to sue, proving that what is most certainly true is that you should not mess with Texas.
The game stuck with Prescott (so if you ever get that question, you’ll know), but to add even more confusion, other rodeo historians (and there are quite a few as it turns out) insist that sixteen years before Prescott’s rodeo and a year before the founding of the town of Pecos, a group of cowboys from Texas arrive in Cheyenne, Wyoming on July 4, 1872 and put together a friendly competition to unwind and show off some of their mad cowboy skills. And that, of course, was the first rodeo.
Which would be all well and good, except that according to Field & Farm Journal of Denver, in 1869, Deer Trail, Colorado hosted an event in which cowboys gathered in an impressive display of mad cowboy skills, competing for a new set of clothes. An Englishman by the name of Emilnie Gardenshire (which is a terrible cowboy name) was said to have taken home the prize at what was surely his very first rodeo.
Then there’s this letter, written in 1847 by Captain Mayne Reid from Santa Fe, New Mexico to a friend in Ireland, in which he describes the annual round-up of animals bound for market and calves bound for the branding iron, adding that the cowboys “contest with each other for the best roping and throwing, and there are horse races and whiskey and wine.” Sounds like a party to me, and, possibly, an account of the first rodeos.
I’ll leave the arguing to the brave men and women who work within the angry knot of controversy that is the field of rodeo history. I have the feeling those folks have been to the rodeo a time or two.
I have not. In fact, this past weekend, when a rodeo came to a town nearby and my husband bought tickets to take our boys (7 and 10) to their first rodeo, I went to a baby shower instead. I visited with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, ate delicious cake, and participated in the sentimental sharing of memories of pregnancies and babies. Not once did I have to smell cow poop, nor did I find myself worried that the shower guests might actually break their necks. I had a good time.
But so did the boys. They returned home that night full of tales of bucking broncos and heroic cowboys. My youngest (who rooted for the animals, even when the necessity of the skills were explained to him), told of feisty calves who made daring escapes from the cowboys attempting to bind their legs. Both boys described in detail the shenanigans of the rodeo clowns, whose silly bathroom humor seemed perfectly geared for the 7 to 10-year-old crowd.
They were so excited it was difficult to get them settled down for the night and I admit, I was a little sad that I didn’t get to experience it with them. No one may know for sure when the first rodeo took place, but this was theirs, and it was memorable. I suspect I will not get out of going the next time. I better brush up on my knowledge of mad cowboy skills.