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Oklahoma Journeys

The Birth of Pawnee Bill, February 14, 1860


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This week saying hello and welcome to an Oklahoma legend. Oklahoma, both as a territory and a state, has always had a reputation as a "wild west" type of place. What better place then to serve as headquarters for one of the great wild west shows of all-time? It's Pawnee Bill's birthday this week, and that's the topic of this week's Oklahoma Journeys.

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

As the United States began in the mid to late 19th century to develop more of an urban metropolitan feel on both the east and west coasts, the middle portion of the country was increasingly seen, whether correctly or not, as the wild west, the last of the rugged cowboy's terrain. To capitalize on what was fast becoming a fond memory, various performers assembled rodeo and wild-west shows that highlighted and showcased what exemplified in the minds of many people what life must have been like on the wilds of the western frontier.

One of the greatest of these wild-west show persons was Gordon Lillie; it was in this week of 1860 that Lillie was born in Illinois. According to his own account, Lillie spent a lot of time reading about and dreaming of western heroes like Buffalo Bill. Lillie was born in Illinois, but the family moved to Wellington, Kansas, in the 1870s. At about the same time, the Pawnee Indians were being moved from Nebraska through Kansas into their new homelands in the northern part of the Indian Territory. Lillie met some of the Pawnees and learned their language. Ultimately he became a trusted friend of the Pawnees, so much so that they gave him the nickname Pawnee Bill. He moved with them to the territory and taught school for a time, but show business came calling. In 1883, Buffalo Bill wrote to the Pawnee Indian agent asking for six Pawnee Indians to join his Wild West show. Pawnee Bill was one of the applicants who Buffalo Bill hired. For the next five years he traveled the country learning the business of running a Wild West show. In 1888, he organized his own show.

But that same year he became leader of the Boomers who were trying to open the unassigned lands of central Oklahoma. David Payne, their original leader, died from a heart attack in 1884, and William Couch, who took over the movement, left to work for the Santa Fe Railroad. Pawnee Bill led the 3,000 or so Boomers into the territory on April 22, 1889, then returned to his Wild West show. His show expanded and enjoyed success through 1908. That year his mentor Buffalo Bill was in deep financial trouble. Pawnee Bill bought an interest in Buffalo Bill's show and combined the show with his own. The Two Bills Show traveled through 1913 when again there were financial problems. Pawnee Bill returned to his ranch, was involved in banking and oil. In 1936 he and his wife May celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. A year later she was killed in a traffic accident, and her husband was seriously injured. In 1942 Gordon Lillie, Pawnee Bill, died in his sleep.

However, we celebrate Gordon Lillie's 150th birthday on Valentine's Day. Today the Oklahoma Historical Society owns the Pawnee Bill Ranch and holds many functions there. You can visit the ranch or visit the Oklahoma History Center to learn more about Pawnee Bill and the Wild West shows. The Oklahoma History Center is located on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.