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Oklahoma Memories

Pawnee Bill, Calamity Jane, Mexican Joe and Effie Cole

2010-06-21

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"'Would she be any attraction to our show?' and he says 'No, not a bit, nowhere, she's ugly as a mud fence.' That's exactly his words!"

That's Gordon Lillie or, as we knew him, Pawnee Bill explaining what Buffalo Bill thought about Calamity Jane.

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

Diversity may not be a word you would associate with the old west. The word hadn't been coined when Buffalo Bill and later Pawnee Bill ran their Wild West shows, but diversity was a key element in both shows' success. The most popular performer with the Pawnee Bill Show was "Mexican Joe." He once said "I don't believe I need an introduction to the public for I am known to everyone as "Mexican Joe," although my real name is Joe Berrera, and my work and roping will never be forgotten."

The lifelong partnership and friendship began when Pawnee Bill hired Joe at the age of 15 to tour with his Pawnee Bill Wild West Show. He was already one of the greatest ropers of all time and soon became the highlight of the show.In 1905 Joe married Effie Cole, and Effie became a popular performer specializing in skills on horseback. Her act included hurdle jumping, piloting four horses in a chariot race, and western ballet. After the show closed, the Berreras continued to live and work on the ranch with Joe serving as ranch foreman. He was associated with Pawnee Bill for 45 of his 81 years, and he once said "Pawnee Bill is the only father I have ever known, and I dearly love him."

Buffalo Bill employed Annie Oakley, a superb show-woman and excellent trick shot. So accurate was Annie that Sitting Bull named her "Little Sure Shot." Pawnee Bill featured his wife May, who cultivated her skills at shooting and trick riding. There was one woman in the old west who never appeared in either the Buffalo Bill or Pawnee Bill Wild West shows, and she was Calamity Jane. In this 1938 interview Pawnee Bill described a conversation he had with Colonel Cody, as he called him, or Buffalo Bill about Calamity Jane.

"Here's what Cody said to me. I got a postcard from her once, wanting a job with the show. Well, I didn't know her. She didn't live anywhere around where I did, so I took the postcard in to Colonel, and I says 'Colonel, did you know a Calamity Jane?' He says 'I'll say I did.' and I says 'Here's a postcard from her' and I said 'Would she be any attraction to our show?' and he says 'No, not a bit, nowhere, she's ugly as a mud fence.' That's exactly his words! Then he told me later on, we were talking about her one day, he said 'Well, you know, she was old Wild Bill's sweetheart for a long while.'She's buried right along side of him up there right now at Deadwood, I think, is where he's buried."

The Wild West shows were among the most popular form of mass entertainment before motion pictures came along.The Pawnee Bill Wild West Show featured a variety of entertainers: cowboys, cowgirls, American Indians, performers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Mexican Joe represented the Latino cowboys of the southwest. Effie Berrera, Annie Oakley, May Lillie, and Lucille Mulhall all helped pave the way for their gender in the rodeos we see today.

Though Pawnee Bill is gone, his ranch near Pawnee, Oklahoma, lives on as a wonderful museum dedicated to his memory maintained by the Oklahoma Historical Society. And every summer, in June, Pawnee Bill Ranch Staff and volunteers from the town of Pawnee stage a reenactment of the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show using actual scripts from 1907 and 1908. For times and information go to the Oklahoma Historical Society website, okhistory.org, and then click on the Pawnee Bill Wild West show link. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma Historical Society, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our states past. From the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City, I'm Michael Dean.