Sunday, 14. June 2009 11:14
I thought that looking at women in rodeos during the 1800′s would be a fun research project. What I discovered was that rodeos as we know them didn’t really exist until around the early 1900′s. Rodeo type events started springing up around the 1880′s or so and became popular thanks to showman like CB Irwin and the Irwin Brothers Wild West Show and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show where women would perform along side of men. Women performed daring tricks, bull dogged and rode saddle broncs. Some showed off their fancy fire arm tricks and marks”man”ship as well. Prior to that small events would be held on ranches where the sponsoring ranch’s hands would pit their abilities against neighboring ranch hands for a day of de-stressing. Many women participated in these ranch rodeos riding bulls, roping, bull dogging, racing etc. It seems that up until the 1900′s women did pretty much everything that men did in the early ranch rodeo events.
Before we go too far into rodeos and women I like to share this bit of information about cowboys from Cowboy Way.
The Term “Cowboy”
Up until the late 1800′s, the term “cowboy” was a rotten thing to call someone. During the American Revolution a “cowboy” (or “cow boy” or “cow-boy”) was a Loyalist who stole Patriot cows, often luring the cows into the brush to shoot them. As the new country of America expanded to the west the word “cowboy,” with a growing list of negative connotations, went along with it.
According to authors Joseph G. Rosa and Robin May in their book “Buffalo Bill and His Wild West, A Pictorial Biography” it was Buffalo Bill Cody who rehabilitated the word in the minds of the American public. In Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West shows a “cowboy” was a man of bravery and honesty, often cast in roles during daring reenactments of wild west adventures as that of a hero. Flamboyantly dressed and displaying extraordinary riding and marksmanship skills, the cowboys of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West soon etched a new, much more positive meaning of the word “cowboy” into the minds of Americans.
The truth about women’s participation in rodeos was neatly tweaked to depict women as gentile rather than rugged tough rough abouts smoking a corn cob pipe while sporting a lariat or mending a fence. More women than you may expect were of the stronger, capable and competitive nature having emerged out of the 1800′s experience and this showed up in many ranch events across the west. From Cowgirl Smarts I found this.
Historians would have you believe that women didn’t rope steers or ride broncs until the 1900s, when in fact many women were competing informally against neighbors in local ranch rodeos in the 1800s. Records indicate that by 1887 Buffalo Bill was adding women to his Wild West shows as fast as he could scout the female talent. It seems the public had an appetite for feminine women performing daring western stunts.
From the Wild West shows, dozens of talented cowgirls went into professional rodeo and were frequently allowed to compete against men. Cowgirls excelled at all rodeo events until the late 1940s, when women’s events were cut in order to increase the purse for men.
Next I visited the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and to my disappointment I found nearly all the Honoraries had actually “rodeod” in the early 1900′s although many were born in the 1800′s. I’m supposing that since rodeo’s were not officially organized until around 1904-06 that historians begin their research there. I find this very sad as the many women that came before forming the foundation to the rodeo event have been forgotten in time. The Cowgirl Hall of Fame is still a fascinating place to visit. Discovered there are women who taught school, managed boarding houses, wrote books and other interesting life’s work while as a pastime and for some to win purses waged themselves against a steer, or a saddle bronc or death defying tricks aboard lightening fast horses upon thundering hooves. What was not documented it seems was the early pioneer women who ranched, broke out stock, and participated along side men in the ranch rodeo events and festivities.
One woman, Ollie Osborn was born into ranch life, performed in Wild West Shows and later rode broncs in the early rodeos. I found Ollie by going to a source that I met on Twitter. Shirley Morris of The Lone Cowgirl blog is writing a book called “Oh You Cowgirl!” We ended up speaking on the phone and to my delight she is a wealth of information on cowgirl life during the early years. Here Shirley speaks some about her projects…
“My project is a book, about halfway completed at this point, “Oh, You Cowgirl!” and an hour long documentary by the same name. At the present time, I’m working on a shorter version about the cowgirls who were important to the early Pendleton Round Up. Mabel Strickland, Ollie Osborn, Bonnie McCarroll, Fox Hastings, Prairie Rose Henderson, Lorena Trickey just to name a few. The shorter version will be premiered at the Pendleton Hall of Fame to honor the cowgirls of Pendleton.”
Shirley sent the following information about Ollie Osborn.
1896 – 1989
After she had long since retired from the fast-paced, wild life of a rodeo and wild west show cowgirl, Ollie Osborn was asked if she thought she could have beat the men in the saddle bronc contests, given the opportunity to ride by the same rules and for the same prizes. Ollie said,
“Well, I’m not a gonna say to that. I mighta some and some I mighta not but I think I’d hold my own with the best of ‘em.”
Ollie Osborn was born a ranchers daughter, in Union, Oregon in 1896. It was as a child on the ranch, she learned the skills of riding, bulldogging and roping she would later use to perform and compete as the first woman ever to attain the status of professional rodeo cowgirl and compete in rodeo’s across the country. Ollie performed or competed in wild west shows and rodeo from 1913 through 1932. Like many of the women who made the adjustment of rancher to rodeo performer, Ollie rode slick, without tying her stirrups (hobbled). Retiring from that life she returned to her ranch home in Union, Or. where she ranched several more years until poor health forced her retirement.
In 1982 she was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Herford, TX and will be honored this year as one of six cowgirls in a permanent cowgirl display in the Hall of Fame at Pendleton, OR.
Shirley tells us that this photo of Ollie Osborn “was taken in 1913 when she was perfoming with Irwin Bros. Wild West and Frontier Days Show. Ollie was one of the star performers with the show along with Prairie Rose, Florence La Due, Lone Star May, Fox Hastings and the Irwin girls, Pauline, Joella and Francis.”
Look at her (Ollie)!!! She’s a whisp of a thing!!
Thank you Shirley Morris for your contribution to today’s Sunday Historathon – 1800′s post.
And that folks concludes today’s Sunday Historathon – 1800′s “Rodeo Gals”. Amazing Cowgirls! YEEE HAW!
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