Contests pitting humans against animals appear in cultures throughout recorded history. In the U.S., that tradition is the rodeo, which emerged from tasks cowboys did while working cattle in the 1800s American West. Washington residents were attending rodeos by 1890, although the term "rodeo" wouldn’t be commonly used for several more decades. Rodeos proved popular and became mainstays of county fairs and 4th of July and Labor Day celebrations. Some Washington rodeos, such as the Ellensburg Rodeo and the Bickleton Rodeo, have operated for a century or more, while other early rodeos, including the Sumas Roundup, fell victim to the Great Depression and World War II rationing. There have been rodeos for nearly every demographic, including children, college students, service members, gays, and cowgirls. Among Washington's outstanding rodeo participants are Yakima Canutt, who doubled for John Wayne in movies; Shane Proctor, a 2011 world champion bull rider; and George Prescott, the "Voice of the Ellensburg Rodeo." Along the way, Washington rodeos have confronted animal cruelty accusations, explored the role of women in the sport, and sought ways to stand out from the crowd, with mixed results.
Rodeos in the U.S. grew primarily out of the great Southwestern cattle drives of the early to mid-1800s. The men who gathered the cattle and herded them north became known as "cowboys," and the skills they needed – bronc riding and steer roping – became core rodeo events. The traditions of the Spanish "vaqueros," men who tended cattle on ranches in Mexico and the American Southwest, also influenced the equipment, language, and clothing of rodeos.
Before the early twentieth century, rodeos were generally called other names, such as stampedes, cowboy contests, roundups, or fiestas. The first recorded rodeo-like competition in the U.S. was in 1869 in Colorado, where an Englishman, Emilnie Gradenshire, won a new suit of clothes in a bronc-riding contest. In the 1880s, cowboy contests were held in front of paying spectators in many Western towns, including Alpine, Texas (1882); Pecos, Texas (1883); Montrose, Colorado (1887); and Prescott, Arizona (1888).
Saddle bronc and roping events were almost certainly mainstays of rodeo from the beginning. Other early rodeo events included wild horse races, wild cow milking, relay races, trick riding contests, and trick roping. According to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), the oldest and largest professional rodeo organization in the world, modern professional rodeo has eight standard events split into two categories: bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, and bull riding are in the roughstock category, while steer wrestling (originally called bulldogging), team roping, tie-down roping, barrel racing, and steer roping are in the timed events category.
Wild West shows, which were getting off the ground in the 1880s, also influenced rodeos. The Wild West shows featured bronc busting, trick riding, roping, and bulldogging, and the pageantry of the rodeo parades and grand entries migrated to rodeos. The Wild West shows weren’t contests, however, and participants were paid to perform. In rodeos, contestants usually paid an entry fee and received prizes or money for winning. The most famous show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders, began in 1883 and played across the nation, appearing in Spokane in 1902. Buck Taylor, a former performer in Buffalo Bill’s show, started his own Wild West show and appeared at the 1894 Interstate Fair in Tacoma. Other shows that appeared in Washington were the Dexter Indian Congress and Wild West Show at the state fair in Spokane in 1908 and the 101 Ranch Show in Spokane in 1912.
Rodeo in Washington (1890-1929)
In Washington, Native Americans, cowboys, and ranch hands undoubtedly competed amongst themselves long before those contests were documented or performed for the public. One of the earliest recorded competitions that included events associated with rodeo and outside spectators was on May 6, 1890, when Ritzville residents rode out to the O. S. Edwards ranch on Cow Creek to celebrate the annual stock roundup. Guy Jonas was declared the champion bronc buster.
Rodeo-like events have long been associated with Independence Day celebrations, holidays, and county fairs. In 1895, as part of its July 4 celebration, Cheney held a bronc-busting match with a $40 saddle as a prize. Four years later, Cheney included a bronc-busting event during its annual fall races, with a first-place prize of $15 and a second-place prize of $10. Bronc busting was still happening in Ritzville in 1902, when Okanogan Bill won first place, Ed Foley won second place, and Clay Lavender won third place during the town’s Labor Day celebration. In 1903, "three vicious horses" ("Big Time at Pomeroy ...") were ridden at a bronc-busting contest in Pomeroy during that town’s July 4 celebration.
The number of towns, cities, and county fairs hosting rodeos steadily increased. The 1912 Golden Potlatch festival in Seattle included bucking horses and fancy roping. In 1915, cowboys and cowgirls performed in the Cowboy Congress and Contest at the Seattle Stampede and Round-Up. Events included bulldogging, a bucking horse contest, steer roping, and races. Organizers declared that "... the Seattle Round-Up will surpass anything of the kind ever held at Pendleton or anywhere else" ("Ministers Will Quit ...").
Some of the longest-running, best-known Washington rodeos started during the first 30 years of the twentieth century. Although the Adams County Fair in Ritzville started in 1910, the first mention of a rodeo-like event was in 1911, when the fair offered a $125 saddle with $25 bridle and martingale as first prize in the bucking and roping contests. The official Adams County Fair moved to Othello in 1980, but a Ritzville rodeo continues as part of the Wheatland Communities Fair.
The 1910 Whitman County Fair (now called the Palouse Empire Fair) didn’t explicitly mention a rodeo, but 15-year-old Enos Edward "Yakima" Canutt (1895-1986), future rodeo champion and Hollywood stunt double, attempted to win $50 riding a bucking horse.
In 1911, residents of Cleveland in eastern Klickitat County gathered for the first Alder Creek Pioneer Association picnic. Entertainment most likely included bucking horse contests and horse races. Eventually, the local contests became an official rodeo, and it is possibly the state’s oldest, most continuous rodeo – after losing a year to COVID-19, the 2023 Bickleton Rodeo was the 112th annual event.
In 1912, a Native American fair and roundup opened in Toppenish that included branding calves, roping, bronc busting, bulldogging, wild horse races, and steer riding. Sam Hutchinson of Sunnyside reportedly performed a new stunt when he "rode up to a steer, caught it by the tail, tossed it head over heels, and then helped the steer to get to its feet because the animal’s horns had been rammed into the ground" ("Cowboy Bulldogs ..."). Toppenish hosts a rodeo today, but it is unclear if it is directly related to the original roundup.
In 1913, the Walla Walla County Fair debuted Frontier Days, which featured bucking contests, roping, bulldogging, and other Wild West stunts. It was heavily promoted, and the advertisements left little doubt of the excitement to come: "Frontier Days at Walla Walla will, undoubtedly, be the biggest and best attraction of the kind ever promoted by any city of the United States. Every feature of western life will be re-enacted in a truly amazing manner by the most skillful and daring performers living" ("Frontier Days ..."). Frontier Days is now a sanctioned PRCA rodeo.
Garfield was home to the Washington-Idaho Roundup beginning in 1914. Contests included men’s and women’s bucking, bulldogging, trick riding, and relay races. The 1916 event featured two of Washington rodeo’s biggest up-and-coming stars. Canutt won the bucking contest, and Mabel Delong (1897-1976) won the cowgirls’ relay race. The roundup was gone by 1939, when fire destroyed the remaining structures of the Whitman-Latah County Fairgrounds, including the bandstand and grandstand.
Two of the state’s biggest rodeos launched in 1923, but only one has survived. On September 13, Ellensburg held its first rodeo. The event celebrated 100 years in 2023 and is considered to be one of the top 25 rodeos in the U.S.
Eight days after the Ellensburg rodeo, the small town of Sumas in Whatcom County held its first rodeo as part of a fair and drew at least 5,000 spectators. The next year, the event was renamed the Sumas Round-up and drew more than 20,000 people; 35,000 attended the 1925 roundup. By 1929, the Round-up was one of the top rodeos in the West, with a prize pool of $10,000, the same amount as offered at the Pendleton rodeo, $2,000 under the amount at the Calgary rodeo, and only $5,000 less than what Cheyenne promised. The Sumas Round-up was cancelled in 1930 due to the Great Depression. Round-ups were staged from 1937-1940, but World War II derailed the event permanently. In 1944, the 400-foot-long grandstand, which seated 7,000, was sold for $1,205 and salvaged for lumber.
Even the military saw some rodeo action during the first part of the twentieth century. On November 11, 1917, the U.S. Army’s 91st Division, stationed at Camp Lewis in Pierce County, held a Wild West rodeo before a crowd of 18,000. The rodeo would be held several more times, at various locations, with the last one July 27, 1919, featuring the 13th Division since the 91st had been deployed in France and Belgium. Vancouver Barracks (formerly Fort Vancouver) held a Wild West show on Labor Day in 1918. Events included roping contests, trick riding, a bucking horse contest, relay races, and bull riding. In 1919, a Wild West parade and rodeo was performed for men serving in the U.S. Navy when they docked at Tacoma for President Woodrow Wilson’s Pacific Fleet Review.
Injuries to Man and Beast
Rodeos are inherently dangerous, and serious injuries – even deaths – are not uncommon. The first Walla Walla Frontier Days almost ended in tragedy when cowgirl Nettie Hawn was unseated by Blue Dick in the bucking contest and got tangled up beneath the horse as it kicked. She was taken to the hospital and treated for wounds on her head, arms, and foot. Roy Hunter, a cowboy in the bulldogging contest, was gored after being thrown from his bull, but he apparently survived.
Tragedy did hit the Toppenish Roundup in 1914, when bulldogger Jim Crouch died of injuries sustained when a piece of lumber thrown by a bull hitting a fence struck him in the stomach. In 1927, a Miss Hallett was thrown from her horse while racing during the Ferry County fair. Newspaper reports said she was unconscious with little hope for recovery. It is unknown if she survived.
Some members of the public considered rodeos abusive to animals. In 1915, a group of Walla Walla women’s organizations debated which events at Frontier Days were cruel to animals, with bulldogging and bronc riding specifically mentioned. In a 1919 Seattle Star letter to the editor regarding the rodeo performed for the Pacific Fleet, Mrs. Sanford Bertrand Ricaby called rodeos, "nothing more nor less than a vision of blood and slaughter" ("Objects to ..."). L. V. McWhorter of Yakima filed a complaint against Charles D. Davis, the chairman of the fleet rodeo’s entertainment committee, for cruelty to animals in the mistreatment of a steer that lost a horn. After a four-hour trial, charges against Davis were dropped.
The question of whether certain rodeo events constituted cruelty to animals came to a head at the 1920 Walla Walla Frontier Days. With public pressure mounting, the state humane board considered arresting steer roping, bulldogging, and wild horse race performers "for the purpose of having the supreme court pass upon the law and declare what is and is not abuse to the animals" ("Rodeo Riders ..."). In the end, no arrests were made, and the board objected only to steer roping and hog tieing. The show issued a statement that those events would be eliminated the following year.
In response to a news article about tentative arrangements for a Wild West show in Spokane in 1921, Washington Governor Louis F. Hart (1862-1929) promised the immediate arrest of those engaged in and responsible for any exhibitions that include bulldogging, roping, throwing of steers, and wild horse racing, as those actions would be a violation of the state’s statute for the prevention of cruelty to animals. The show went on, but instead of the usual bulldogging practice of wrestling the steer to the ground, contestants just brought the steer to a stop.
To avoid controversy, some rodeos, such as the Cheney Moose Lodge’s 1926 rodeo, simply didn’t include bulldogging or steer roping events. In 1928, managers of the Issaquah rodeo were charged with cruelty to animals when the rodeo included a bulldogging event. They were fined $10.
Accusations that rodeos are inhumane have never completely subsided. In 1947, the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA, which became the PRCA in 1975) established rules and bylaws regarding the humane treatment of rodeo stock and the equipment used by both handlers and riders. To this day, violations of those rules result in fines and disqualifications.
Depression and War Years (1930-1944)
Beginning in 1930, the next 15 years would see two significant events play out: the Great Depression and World War II. Both would impact Washington rodeos to varying degrees.
Throughout the Depression, some rodeos were briefly canceled, but others persevered. For many, the rodeo was affordable entertainment, and a slate of new rodeos thrived for decades, including the Goldendale Jamboree (1933, most likely folded into the Klickitat County Fair and Rodeo); the Sedro-Woolley Rodeo (1934); the Grand Coulee Rodeo (1934, now called the Colorama Rodeo); the Tonasket Rodeo (1937); and the Lake Chelan Rodeo (1938). World War II had a similar effect on Washington rodeos. In 1942, Goldendale’s Jamboree and the Whitman County Fair were suspended due to gasoline rationing and tire shortages. Some rodeos were held specifically because of the war. The Sedro-Woolley Rodeo Association held a free rodeo for service members in 1943.
The Boom Years (1945-1979)
Following World War II, Washington experienced a rodeo boom, especially in rodeos for children and teens. In 1947, the Methow Valley Eagles sponsored a junior rodeo at Twisp, calling it the first strictly junior rodeo in the Methow Valley. Events included calf riding, colt riding, bulldogging, and pony and horse racing. In 1948, Kennewick held its first all-junior rodeo for cowboys and cowgirls aged 10-16. Besides the usual rodeo events, the Kennewick affair also included a musical-chair race and a potato-peeling contest. In 1956, the Rodecanna Club organized six junior rodeos throughout the Inland Empire for boys and girls aged 8 to 17. Other junior rodeos established during this time include the Benton County Junior Rodeo (1958), the Ritzville Junior Rodeo (1959), the Deer Park Junior Rodeo (1970), and the Sumas Junior Rodeo (1974).
Rodeo also garnered interest at the college level. As early as 1950, Washington State College (now Washington State University) had a rodeo team and sponsored intercollegiate rodeos into the mid-1980s. Rodeo as a team sport has also been practiced at Walla Walla Community College, Spokane Community College, Central Washington University, Wenatchee Valley College, and Eastern Washington University. The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association has been headquartered in Walla Walla since 1979.
Rodeos were always looking for ways to provide more entertainment. In 1948, the Sedro-Woolley July 4 celebration combined the rodeo with a logging competition, calling it the Sedro-Woolley Loggerodeo. The Loggerodeo celebrated 73 years in 2023.
In 1949, the Pend Oreille County rodeo did a twist on the rodeo queen competition, rejecting "shapely, teen-age" ("Pioneer To Be ...") queens and instead selecting a pioneer queen from among the county’s earliest residents. Four candidates vied for the crown: Mrs. Clara Davis, Mrs. Annie Grace Gregg, Mrs. Lilly Jared, and Mrs. Sarah Vannier, with Mrs. Vannier ultimately taking the title. And in 1955, the Lacey Rodeo, which ran from about 1947-1956, added a "Show-Dee-o." The Show-Dee-o included a trick horse show, cutting horse classes, dogging and decorating, calf roping, pole bending, trailer races, and fireworks.
Several notable rodeos debuted in the years after World War II, including the Chesaw Rodeo (1942); the Last Stand Rodeo in Coulee City (1952); the Chief Kitsap Stampede and the Roy Rodeo (both 1960); and the Lewis County Roundup Rodeo (1980). Expo ’74 in Spokane included a rodeo that coincided with the Calgary Stampede, one of North America’s best-known rodeos. The Expo ’74 rodeo was produced by Larry Mahan (1943-2023), a semi-retired champion bull rider who was also competing at Calgary. Mahan used his private plane to fly himself and several other contestants back and forth between the Calgary and Spokane events.
A New Kind of Rodeo
By the 1980s, a new kind of rodeo had made its way to the Evergreen State. Bull-a-ramas are rodeos focused mainly on bull riding. In 1980, Wellpinit had a bull-a-rama. In 1981, a Super Bull-A-Rama was held in Benton City and promoted as the "richest bull-riding event ever staged" ("That’s a lot ..."). Prize money totaled $65,000. A second Super Bull-A-Rama was held in Kennewick the following year, but came under scrutiny when the winner, Charles Needham of Wyoming, among others, claimed they were paid with bad checks. A jury found organizer Steven Clary not guilty, deciding he didn’t intentionally try to cheat anyone.
The popularity of bull-a-ramas continued to grow, and many Washington rodeos have added standalone bull-a-ramas to their schedules, such as the Last Stand Rodeo in Coulee City, the Newport Bull-A-Rama, the Lind Rodeo, and Colorama Rodeo. Sumas, the little town once known for its big rodeo, even jumped on the bull-a-rama train, starting one in 1991.
Also in 1991, Wade Leslie, a bull rider from Moses Lake, scored a perfect 100 in bull riding at the Central Point Rodeo in Oregon. This was the first and, to date, only 100-point bull ride in the history of the PRCA. At the time, Leslie was ranked 28th in the PRCA and, despite the score, did not qualify for the National Finals Rodeo that year.
Rodeo organizers continued to add events to entice spectators, sometimes with mixed results. At the 1992 Walla Walla Frontier Days, organizers held a downtown cattle drive to kick off the event. Things didn’t go quite to plan as one resident reported: "I looked out the window, and there was a steer in my back yard, eating my garden like he owned the place, and there was a cowboy whooping it up in my front yard" ("Downtown Cattle ...").
Washington rodeos came out of the closet in 1990 with the formation of the Northwest Gay Rodeo Association (NGRA). The NGRA, which represented Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, was a regional association of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), which was founded in 1985. The first NGRA-sanctioned rodeo was held at the King County Fairgrounds in Enumclaw in 1993, drawing about 1,500 spectators and some controversy as a number of residents protested the event. Profits from the rodeo were donated to charitable organizations focused on gays and lesbians. Two more NGRA rodeos were held, in 1994 and 1995, but the 1996 event was canceled for unknown reasons. The NGRA is no longer listed as an active IGRA association.
Women in Rodeo
Women were involved in rodeo from the beginning and on a much more equitable basis than their current role might suggest. It wasn’t unusual for cowgirls to compete in roping and bucking contests, as well as racing. The Dexter Indian Congress and Wild West Show that appeared at the Spokane Fair in 1908 included bucking and roping contests for ladies. The 101 Ranch Wild West Show that appeared in Spokane in 1912 featured Tillie Baldwin (1888-1958), who is thought to have been the first woman to try bulldogging.
The 1913 Toppenish Indian Fair and Roundup on the Yakama Nation Reservation included a first prize of $125 in the cowgirl bucking horse contest. Cowgirls seemed to be the big draw at the 1919 Wenatchee Roundup as, "the cowboy no longer enjoys a monopoly in the riding, roping and bulldogging game. Like every avenue of activity, woman has invaded the gentle art of mollifying the bronk and soothing the savage steer" ("Putting All The ..."). The 1925 Adams County Fair in Ritzville included cowgirl relay and bucking contests.
Attitudes toward women in rodeo began changing, however, in 1929 when championship bronc rider Bonnie McCarroll (1897-1929) was thrown and trampled to death at that year’s Pendleton Round-Up. Following the accident, the Pendleton rodeo committee permanently banned women from the event, and other rodeos followed suit. The Rodeo Association of America, which formed in 1929, didn’t sanction women’s bronc riding, and when cowboys organized the Cowboys’ Turtle Association in 1936 to fight for higher prize money and better judges, women weren’t included.
While World War II was hard on rodeos, it was even harder on cowgirls. In the face of rationing, rodeos had to cut costs, and many of them chose to cut the women’s events. By 1948, women's participation in the sport was mostly limited to rodeo queen contests and barrel racing. A group of cowgirls gathered in Texas and formed the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) to promote more involvement by holding all-women's rodeos and forming an agreement with the RCA to include women’s events – bronc riding, cutting, and barrel racing – at RCA-sanctioned rodeos.
Barrel racing showed up in Washington as an official event in the 1950s. Members of Washington State College’s rodeo club competed in an intercollegiate rodeo that included barrel racing in Lewiston, Idaho, in 1951. From 1959-1961, several barrel racing associations were formed, including the Washington Barrel Racing Association, the Washington Girls’ Barrel Racing Association, and the Valley Girls Barrel Racing Association in Walla Walla. In 1960, Elvetta Phillips, a long-time writer at the Spokane Chronicle who wrote a rodeo-adjacent column, Traildust, called barrel racing a "new and colorful horseback sport, strictly for girls that has come to the state of Washington" ("New Sport ...").
In 1961, the Girls Northwest Rodeo Association formed and began sponsoring girls-only rodeos throughout Washington. Events in the 1961 Grand Coulee Girls Rodeo included steer riding, wild cow milking, cow cutting, barrel racing, pole bending, steer riding, goat tying, and rope and run. Prizes included a trophy saddle, a dress western suit, and a transistor radio. Other all-girls rodeos held during this time included Brewster (1962), Roy (1964), Colfax (1973), and Othello (1975). By the end of the 1970s, all-girls rodeos in Washington were becoming a thing of the past, as was the Girls Northwest Rodeo Association.
The Girls Rodeo Association changed its name to the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association in 1981 and sanctions barrel racing, team roping, breakaway roping, and tie-down roping events at many Washington rodeos.
Notable Figures in Washington Rodeo
Yakima Canutt (1895-1986), born in Colfax, officially debuted at the 1912 Whitman County Fair. He would win titles at some of the country’s biggest rodeos, including the Pendleton Round-up, Cheyenne Frontier Days, and the Calgary Stampede. During his career, he won the World’s Champion All-Around Cowboy title five times. Canutt parlayed his spurs into show business as a movie cowboy, actor, and stuntman. He would eventually move into designing and supervising action sequences in films, which earned him an honorary Oscar in 1967 and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1985. He was inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1976.
Ruth Parton (1895-1978) was a well-known relay and trick rider from Toppenish. In the 1910s, Parton was part of the rodeo circuit, earning relay race titles at Walla Walla, Pendleton, and Cheyenne, among others. In her 20s, she left rodeo and focused on racing and horse training. She is known as the "Mother of Thoroughbred Racing" for her work. Parton was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 1988.
Mabel DeLong Strickland Woodward (1897-1976) was born and raised in Wallula. By 1914, she was entering rodeos and winning events, as she did that year in trick riding at the Walla Walla Frontier Days. She would go on to compete in almost every rodeo event open to women, including bronc and steer riding, roping, and trick riding, for the next two decades. In 1921, she was named World’s Champion Ladies Bronc Buster and Woman Trick Rider. In 1922, she was crowned "queen of the cowgirls of the world" during a rodeo in Madison Square Garden in New York. In 1922 at Pendleton, she roped and tied a steer in 18 seconds, a time that few men could match. She and her first husband, Hugh Strickland, found some success in Hollywood as stunt riders. She was inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1981 and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 1992.
George Prescott (1921-2002) was a long-time rodeo announcer, known for his decades-long association with the Ellensburg Rodeo and the Puyallup Fair Rodeo. Despite losing a leg while serving in the U.S. Navy, the Tacoma native successfully competed in roping events before picking up a microphone. Besides the Ellensburg and Puyallup rodeos, he announced rodeos all over the Western U.S. and into British Columbia. He retired from announcing in 1990 and was inducted into the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1998.
Silverdale native Clint Corey (b. 1961) specialized in bareback riding. He spent two years on the International Rodeo Association circuit, winning the world championship in 1982. In 1984, he joined the PRCA and quickly rose through the ranks. He qualified for the National Finals Rodeo from 1985-2001 and won the world title in 1991. Corey is the only roughstock rider to claim three titles: the National Finals Rodeo in 1991, the Columbia River Circuit title from 1989-2000, and the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo title in 1989, 1991, and 1997. Corey was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2004.
Grand Coulee’s Shane Proctor (b. 1985) was named the 2011 PRCA World Champion Bull Rider. He began his rodeo career in junior rodeos at the age of 5. He has qualified for the National Finals Rodeo six times (2011-1013, 2015-2016, 2021) and the Professional Bull Riders World Finals nine times (2006, 2008-2011, 2013, 2015-2017). He has earned more than $1.5 million over his career. Besides bull riding, he also competes in bronc riding.