Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West and Great Far East

 

The stories we tell ourselves about our past become as much a part of our identity as the truth of our history.  The mythological American West–the Wild West–with its stories of rugged individualism, resourcefulness, and courage, began to take hold in the public imagination decades before the Civil War. Prior to the turn of the century, some people began to think that the settling of the frontier had formed our national character; that what is essentially American about the United States can be found in western frontier, not eastern culture.

The idea that “All Americans are Cowboys at heart” has great worldwide appeal.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, romanticized tales of cowboys and Indians, outlaws and lawmen could be found in dime novels and popular music, but it was the Wild West  Show that brought the drama of the Old West right to your home town. Popular before the advent of radio or movies with sound, the Wild West Show was part circus, part vaudeville, part rodeo, and all spectacle–under the guise of historical accuracy. Wild West Shows celebrated a vanishing culture while allowing easterners and Europeans to experience the excitement of the legendary frontier.

The most famous of the Wild West shows was, of course, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West which ran from 1883 to 1913. However, an enterprising Oklahoman, Gordon W. Lillie, “Pawnee Bill,” was also quite famous in his day. Pawnee Bill was an astute businessman whose traveling shows (Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West and Great Far East) thrilled audiences with demonstrations of horsemanship and marksmanship, including that of his wife, May Manning Lillie, “Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.”  His exhibitions featured reenactments of historical events, showing stagecoach attacks, daring rescues, and battles with Indians. The Great Far East show included the “spectacle of the war between the Russians and the Japanese” which enlisted “the services of over five hundred people and horses.” Among his ever-changing troupe were Arab jugglers, Mexican cowboys, Cossacks, Japanese, and Pawnee.   And, while celebrating the astonishing equestrian accomplishments of the world’s peoples, Pawnee Bill always championed the American Cowboy–“the perfect embodiment of natural chivalry.”  A program from the show describes cowboys as

the most daring, most skillful, most graceful, and most useful horsemen in the world. They fulfill the metaphor of the fabled centaur, believed to have been a demi-god, half horse, half man, only that the cowboy excels the centaur in being an independent man who controlled the best points of the quadruped and made “man’s best friend” subservient to his needs, his pleasures and his pastimes. Without the cowboy, civilization would have been hemmed in, and the fair States and Territories of the glorious West would have remained a howling wilderness to date.

Show business has always been an up-and-down experience financially. In 1908, Gordon Lillie invested in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, which was deeply in debt. The “Two Bills” show was successful for a time, especially during its run as Buffalo Bill’s farewell tour, but eventually the enterprise failed when Cody’s creditors foreclosed in 1913.

After that, Pawnee Bill and May Lillie settled down on their buffalo ranch on Blue Hawk Peak, near Pawnee, OK.  Lillie continued as a businessman and invested in banking, oil, and real estate. Still interested in the entertainment industry, but looking to the future, he started a movie production company on his ranch.  In 1935, May died as a result of injuries suffered in a car accident.  Pawnee Bill died in his sleep in 1942.

If you ever find yourself looking for excitement, you can learn more about Pawnee Bill and the American West right here at The Texas Collection.  The Adams-Blakley Collection contains several souvenir items from The Historic Wild West and Great Far East Shows, and The Texas Collection has a significant number of Dime Novels. Don’t expect it all to be true, but it is great fun.

(Click on the center of any image in the slideshow to see it full-sized.)

Many thanks to Michael Toon for assistance with Dime novels at The Texas Collection.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: a collection of characters from the Adams-Blakley Collection

If you love real-life stories of the cowboys and outlaws, lawmen and showmen of the American West, now is the time for you to visit The Texas Collection. Currently on display are some choice titles from the Adams-Blakley Collection–an amazing group of books assembled by Ramon F. Adams, the Western bibliographer, lexicographer, and author, for William A. Blakley, a U.S. Senator from Texas.  The collection, which was given to Baylor University in 1971 by William Blakley, contains books capturing the excitement and the struggle of Westward Expansion and telling the story of the larger-than-life characters who made it happen. The collection includes close to 3000 works of history, biography, fiction, ranching and branding, promotional literature, poetry, art and folksong, and works on hunting, trapping, and roping. Many of these are rare titles and first editions, often beautifully bound, and signed by their authors. Stop by the Texas Collection to enjoy this exhibit which runs through June 30, 2011.

Click here to listen to a field recording of cowboy songs and poetry from the Adams-Blakley Collection.

Special thanks to Chuck “Drag” Treadwell for sharing his musical and interpretive talents and to Ian Campbell for production assistance. As always, thanks to Lance Grigsby for his support and enthusiasm for new ventures.

Catch ‘Em Alive Jack

One of my fellow librarians at The Texas Collection tells me that if I get through a day without learning something new, I’m not doing my job. Well, yesterday I learned about a larger-than-life Texas cowboy: John “Catch-Em Alive Jack” Abernathy.

I was cataloging some items from the Adams-Blakley Collection–a fabulous group of books assembled by Ramon F. Adams, the Western bibliographer, lexicographer, and author, for William A. Blakley, a U.S. Senator from Texas.   In that collection I came upon A Son of the Frontier by John Abernathy, and I saw a picture of Abernathy, a wolf, and Theodore Roosevelt. I had to find out more, and here’s the story.

Jack Abernathy was born in 1876, in Bosque County, Texas not too far from Waco. He worked as a cowboy, a farmer, and a piano and organ salesman, but became famous for catching over a thousand wolves alive with his bare hands.  It seems that Abernathy once accidentally discovered that by thrusting his hand into an attacking wolf’s mouth and holding the lower jaw to keep it from closing, he could capture the animal without losing the hand. Teddy Roosevelt heard about his unique skill, and arranged to join Abernathy in Oklahoma for six days of wolf-coursing. They say that the president wanted to try Abernathy’s technique himself, but the Secret Service talked him out of it.  A wise decision, for in his book Abernathy notes,

“Men whom I have tried to teach the art of wolf catching have failed to accomplish the feat. I have tried to teach a large number, but when the savage animal would clamp down on the hand, the student would become frightened and quit. Consequently, the wolf would ruin the hand.” (p.20)

Roosevelt was quite taken with “Catch “˜Em Alive Jack” and appointed him the youngest U.S. Marshal in history. As U.S. Marshal for Oklahoma, Abernathy “captured hundreds of outlaws single-handed and alone, and placed seven hundred and eighty-two men in the penitentiary.” (p.1)

One final note: Abernathy’s sons Louie (Bud) and Temple became famous in their own right. In 1910, at the age of 10 and 6, they rode alone on horseback from their home in Frederick, Oklahoma to New York City to greet President Roosevelt upon his return from a trip to Europe and Africa. Several years later they set out for further adventures on an Indian motorcycle. Temple tells about their journeys in Bud and Me: the True Adventures of the Abernathy Boys.

Jack Abernathy’s story is only one of the many great titles that make up the Adams-Blakley Collection.  There are outlaws and lawmen, pioneers and entrepreneurs. Someday, we’ll have to sit a spell and I’ll tell you more.

Abernathy kids  (LOC)

Blogging about Texas

Welcome to the newly created Texas Collection Blog! The Texas Collection is steeped in tradition and history. There’s so much to share and show that we thought it was time to communicate more directly and informally with you–sharing highlights from our collections and projects, and providing a venue for your comments. We also want to learn from you because The Texas Collection houses a few mysteries that we’re hoping you can help us solve.

We’ll be updating this site regularly, so check back often to hear about our latest discoveries or read about what’s new. There’s always something exciting happening in Texas.

Sincerely,

John S. Wilson

Interim Director. The Texas Collection