Pawnee Bill Ranch
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Anna: Welcome to the Pawnee Bill Ranch podcast! I’m Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch historical interpreter,
Erin: and I’m Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch curator.
Anna: Well, Erin, today we are going to focus on the life of one of the most wild and crazy Wild West Show performers that ever lived. He was one of the most important personalities associated with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show and with the Pawnee Bill Ranch itself...Mr. Jose Barrera or as he’s more widely known – Mexican Joe.
Erin: I’m so excited about today’s podcast because Mexican Joe is really a fascinating person and his story, you know, is sometimes an afterthought in discussions about Wild West Shows and the often larger-than-life characters associated with them. But he is important for several reasons and today we are going to discuss his biography in detail.
Anna: Now, before we talk specifically about Mexican Joe, We want to provide some context for Mexican Joe’s story, so we are going to talk a little bit about how the Wild West Show was one of the biggest cultural threads binding Oklahoma to Mexico from the 1890s-1920s.
Erin: That’s right, Jose Barrera “Mexican Joe’s” story is one really great example of a vaquero who facilitated the transnational process of cultural exchange between central Mexico, the border, Oklahoma, and the rest of the country. Along with cotton pickers, railway workers, coal miners, and vaqueros, Wild West Show performers comprise an important part of Mexican migration to Oklahoma.
Anna: Yes, and it can be safely said that Mexican migrants to Oklahoma made a significant cultural impact through their employment in the tent-show business. Pawnee Bill’s show featured a Mexican Hippodrome and had acts such as Riding Senoritas, Fancy Roping, the Mexican Contra Dance on Horseback, and a Mexican Band among others.
Erin: For example, the 1905 program state, “Our sister republic of Mexico is well represented in our world-including exposition. An excerpt from the 1895 program reads, “In Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West, one of the most interesting , not to say picturesque, features will be that devoted to Mexico and the Mexicans. It is safe to say that no more attractive colony has ever travelled or been seen by the American public before. The Mexicans dexterity with the lasso is truly wonderful. Their tricks with a lasso are so marvelous as to seem the work of a conjurer. “ That’s some pretty high praise in Pawnee Bill’s program.
Anna: Now, Mexicans were employed initially by Buffalo Bill when he started his Wild West Show. They mesmerized the audience with the warm-up acts of Mexican bullfighting – which were roping, riding, and catching with bolas. The most famous performer was Vincente Oropeza and he introduced the trick and fancy roping techniques from his native Mexico. Everyone who came after Oropeza is said to essentially re-fashion the acts he introduced. Will Rogers even credited Oropeza with inspiring his own routine. In 1900, Oropeza was billed as the Greatest Roper in the World.
Erin: So Jose Barrera followed in Oropeza’s footsteps and eventually became the most famous Mexican Wild West Show performer in the world. Unfortunately, we do not have any of Mexican Joe’s story in his own words. Sadly, there are very few interviews with him and so the information that we have to draw from is from second-hand information. Even the details of his birth are a little fuzzy. We have several different birthdays reported for him, but his headstone says that he was born in 1876, so we are going to go with that date. There are also different reports as to where he was born. Mexican Joe, when he was older, claimed to have been born on the U.S. side of the border, sometimes listing San Antonio as his hometown. However, during the off-season with the show, he spent considerable time in Monterrey. This, coupled with the fact that he spoke very little English suggests that he in fact, might have been born and reared on the Mexican side of the border. Some sources also suggest that he grew up on a ranch in Mexico.
Anna: There’s not a whole lot known from his early life. One of the things that makes Mexican Joe so hard to research are the numerous spellings and pronunciations of his name. Either Barrera or Barrero, and everything from Jose, Joe or Joseph...even John a few times. It’s very hard to find actual records on his life. As well as questions regarding where he was born, we’re not entirely sure who his parents were. On his 1905 marriage certificate, Jose called himself Joseph and listed his parents as Peter and Lucy Barrera. We do know that Lucy’s maiden name was Leoso and there is evidence that a branch of the Leoso family emigrated from Mexico to Bexar County, Texas (the area of San Antonio)and that was sometime in the late 1800s. Regardless of his citizenship, Pawnee Bill hired an 18 year old Joe in 1894. Legend is that Jose was delivering some show stock to Pawnee Bill in San Antonio and Pawnee Bill was struck by his skill in handling the livestock and his accuracy with a lariat. He also impressed just by his appearance as well.
Erin: Yes, apparently, Joe Barrera wore an elaborate leather outfit trimmed in brass. He was charismatic and striking looking – very tall, dark and handsome. Pawnee Bill saw something special in him. So before Pawnee Bill left San Antonio, he signed him on as a member of his Mexican Troupe. And just like that Jose Barrera became Mexican Joe.
Anna: Mexican Joe wasn’t as intricate a ropeworker as Oropeza had been, but what he excelled at as was unparalleled by anyone. He had a special skill at catching all kinds of animals and riding wild broncs. His acts included roping six (and some articles say maybe more) horses running abreast with one throw. He was also known for his ability to catch bison, and at one time, he even caught a runaway elephant. He seemed to have been the performer that would do absolutely anything that was asked of him as long as it was entertaining.
Erin: Right. We have so many records of him saving the day many times by catching and stopping out of control horses, run –away buggies and lassoing the many animals that escaped from the show menagerie. Now, he also participated in acts like the stagecoach robbery, and wagon train. As leader of the Mexicans, he probably acted as an intermediary between show administration and the other Mexicans in the show. He was an all-around performer, and soon became indispensable to Pawnee Bill. Their business relationship evolved into a very meaningful, life-long friendship between the two men.
Anna: Okay, so we know how Mexican Joe met Pawnee Bill but what about when Mexican Joe met the one great love of his life? Beverly, Ohio was a favorite place to winter the show between 1900 and 1911. It was there that Mexican Joe met Effie May Cole, an Ohio girl born and raised, and they were married in February of 1905. Supposedly, Joe told Effie’s parents that he would quit show business when he married their daughter, but the call of the road proved to be too much to resist. When spring came around and the horses and buffalo were loaded on the railroad cars, Effie and Joe went with them. Mexican Joe taught his new wife how to ride and she became a performer specializing in skills on horseback. Some of the acts she participated in were hurdle jumping, piloting four horses in the chariot race, the high-school horse act, and the “western ballet.”
Erin: Effie and Joe had one daughter, Mary Louise, about ten years after they were married. She was born in her mother’s hometown of Beverly, Ohio in 1915. Mary became really close to Pawnee and May and even lived with Pawnee Bill helping him in a secretarial type roll after May’s died. But, from all accounts and especially from route book entries that focus on Mexican Joe and Effie, it seems like they were this fearless couple. Mexican Joe is all the time getting hurt and then getting right back in the saddle. He was like a Wild West Show superhero- almost indestructible.
Anna: Wild West Shows were very dangerous and Mexican Joe experienced his fair share of calamites. Some of the entries describe him being bucked off horses, being thrown into the audience, being atop a run-away horse, having horses fall on top of him, and breaking bones. In September of 1898 alone, there are four mentions of him being dragged, bucked, and run over. Broken bones, bumps, bruises...he suffered through them all for the sake of the show that he absolutely loved.
Erin: Now, we always talk about how much we love the route books and they truly never disappoint and that is the case with the Mexican Joe stories. And one of my favorite little antidotes was in August 28, of 1900 the route book authors thought it was important to mention that a little baby donkey ate four of Mexican Joe’s shirts that were hanging outside on a line.
Anna: But he loved the show, he loved performing. Route books also once call him, “the most important man with the company.” He was a star and certainly someone that other cast members looked up to and tried to emulate.
Erin: Yes, he most certainly was a star and he also taught Will Rogers, the famous Oklahoma humorist, some tricks with the rope. The story is that when Rogers was with Ziegfeld Follies, Pawnee Bill’s show was in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Mexican Joe said that Rogers would come over to the Wild West Show to sort of pal with the cowboys between performances. Mexican Joe said that he taught Rogers to throw a large loop used in roping running horses.
Anna: When Pawnee Bill’s Show ended, Mexican Joe decided to keep traveling on the show circuit, joining the Miller Brothers in 1913 touring till about 1920. But then in 1921, Pawnee Bill made his friend an offer he couldn’t refuse: to settle on his buffalo ranch and work beside him as his foreman. He also offered Pawnee Bill companionship after his wife May died, he was Pawnee Bill’s assistance, and a genuine friendship. They regularly set together on the porch of the mansion smoking cigars, no doubt talking about the “good old days” with the show.
Erin: When Pawnee Bill died, Mexican Joe was the second designee on his will. He lived in a house on the eastern edge of the ranch, gifted to him by Pawnee Bill before he died. Mexican Joe continued to tend the Ranch until his health prevented it. His last performance was when he was 73 at the annual Pawnee Bill Memorial Rodeo on July 4, 1949. He hadn’t been on a horse in two years but he still managed to put on his charro costume and rope four horses running abreast while he was on foot. He was experiencing declining health and later that same year, he developed a really nasty case of pneumonia. The story is he really wanted to watch a western on television and so he got the doctor to delay treatment that day and he died later on November 16, 1949.
Anna: Pawnee Bill and Mexican Joe had a legendary friendship, one that really exemplifies the power of cooperation between Mexicans and Anglo-Americans in Oklahoma.
Erin: Mexican Joe’s story is just one of many that prove that Mexican migrants have enriched Oklahoma’s culture. Overcoming the anti-Mexican sentiment of his day, Mexican Joe created a home here for his family and he created a happy, successful life really on his own terms. He attained a worldwide reputation in his profession. He was a true master of his craft and he really can be credited with helping to elevate roping to an art form.
Anna: Now even today when we get visitors that remember the Ranch back in the 1930s and 40s, and when they talk to us it’s usually Mexican Joe that they remember the most. Most stories involve how he taught them how to ride their first horse here on the Ranch or how he would perform his rope tricks for the Pawnee School buses as they took students home after school. There are also stories about how he would abduct Pawnee Bill’s important visitors off the train in Pawnee and give them a true Wild West experience by being the bandito that held them hostage.
Erin: I love that!
Anna: There’s even the story of Joe selling, this is really bizarre, but selling tamale’s out of a cart in downtown Pawnee and at Old Town for a nickel a piece.
Erin: Yeah, I hear that all of the time from some of the people that remember Mexican Joe. What they remember was basically his horses and his tamales. He was truly one of the most unique characters that ever appeared in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show.
Anna: Well, that’s about it for this time. Next month we will be doing a spooky Halloween episode that involves one of our more famous artifacts: Pawnee Bill’s ghost painting. We will also have another extra special treat next month in honor of Halloween, but you’ll have to tune in next time for that. As always, I’m Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch Historical Interpreter
Erin: And I’m Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch Curator. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you next time!