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Oklahoma Memories

Gordon Lillie 150 Years Old

2010-02-08

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"I came down here first in 1878, then I went back to Bloomington, Illinois, where I was born and reared till I was around twenty and put in one year back there, one year at school."

That is the voice of Gordon Lillie, better known as Pawnee Bill, who if he were still alive, on February 14th would be 150 years old.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Gordon Lillie grew up in Illinois. After his father's flour mill burned to the ground, the family moved to Wellington, Kansas. At about the same Lillie moved to Wellington, Pawnee Indians came through the town as they were being moved to the Indian Territory. Lillie met a number of Pawnee Indians, learned their language, and became a trusted friend of the tribe, thus earning the nickname Pawnee Bill. When the tribe settled in their new lands, Lillie followed them to the present-day location of the town of Pawnee, Oklahoma.

"...and there's nothing there but the employees of the government. There was no town, no one allowed to light around there or live or anything of that kind because it was Indian land, land that was being held on which to locate friendly Indian tribes, and the Pawnees were the only ones that was in that section at that time, and I was employed then as a teacher and came down there in the schools, the Pawnee Indian schools."

Meanwhile, from his home near Wellington, David Payne had been leading the boomers into the unassigned lands trying to open the area for settlement. The group had made a number of attempts to settle in the unassigned lands of central Oklahoma. But they were always rounded up by the cavalry from Fort Reno and escorted back to Kansas. Payne never gave up his quest to open the lands for settlement. But in November 1884 Payne died from a heart attack. William Couch took the leadership of the Boomers. Meanwhile from 1886 to 1887 the Santa Fe Railroad built a line thru the territory connecting Arkansas City, Kansas, to Gainesville, Texas. Couch left the Boomer movement to work for the railroad. At the same time Pawnee Bill was back east traveling with wild west show.

"So, later on, of course, I got into show business and got into it enough that I was making money and finally the Board of Trade at Wichita, Kansas, sent word to me, I was with the Chieftain Maryland was my show, asking me to come out and take hold of the Boomer movement, that Captain Payne had died about two years before that, and that it had laid dead from that time on until now, and they wanted me to take a hold and try to build it up and do something to open the country. So I finally did come down here."

Lillie returned to southern Kansas and assumed leadership of the Boomers. He moved the 3,000 or so Boomers from the border town of Ark. City, Kansas, to Wichita. Then, on the day of the land run - April 22, 1889 - he led the group into the central part of the territory, many of them settled in the area of Kingfisher. Lillie returned to show business going back to work for his friend and mentor Buffalo Bill. He later left that show and organized his own show. Then when Buffalo Bill ran into financial trouble, he bought out that show, and combined them into the Two Bills Wild West shows - Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill. He ran the two shows until 1913.

He returned to his ranch, was successful in banking and oil, and lived out his life with his friends the Pawnee Indians. He died in 1942. The interview with him was recorded in 1939. The Oklahoma Historical Society owns the Pawnee Bill Ranch, and this summer will present performances of the original Pawnee Bill Wild West show on three Saturday nights in June: June 12th, 19th and 26th. The ranch is open to the public Wednesdays thru Sundays.

Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.