Rodeo History

Early Years (1700s - 1890s)

Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders Circus Poster
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images/Getty Images

Rodeo occupies a unique position in modern sports, having developed from an American culture that is rapidly changing. Rodeo is a window into the past while at the same time offers a unique and fully modern sport with an exciting and interesting atmosphere. Learn about the history of rodeo through the early years of its development.

The Early Years (1700’s – 1890’s)

The beginnings of rodeo can be traced back to the ranches of the early 1700’s when the Spanish ruled the West. The Spanish cattlemen, known as vaqueros, would influence the American cowboy with their clothing, language, traditions, and equipment which would in turn influence the modern sport of rodeo. Duties on these early ranches included roping, horse breaking, riding, herding, branding, and much more.

These activities remain the same today on modern ranches all-be-it with modern methods and equipment. These ranch chores would evolve directly into the rodeo events of tie-down roping, team roping, and bronc riding with the other events expanding on the ideas of these early events.

Birth of Western America

The early 1800’s saw the westward expansion of America's border with Manifest Destiny as the prevalent government policy. Americans from the East came into contact with Spanish, Mexican, Californian, and Texan cowboys and began to copy and adapt their styles and traditions of working the ranches.

Eventually, the American cattle barons would begin to rival their earlier counterparts in new states like Texas, California, and the New Mexico Territories. Cattle from the West fed the massive population in the Eastern United States, and the cattle business boomed, especially after the Civil War.

Ranchers from the Southwest would organize long cattle drives, to bring cattle to the stockyards in towns like Kansas City, where trains would carry the cattle east. This was the golden age of the cowhand, who made their living on the many ranches and cattle trails such as the Chisum, Goodnight-Loving, and the Santa-Fe.

At the end of the long trails, these new American "Cowboys" would often hold informal competitions among themselves and the various different outfits to see which group had the best riders, ropers, and all-around best drovers. It would be from these competitions that modern rodeo would eventually be born. The 1st recorded event took place at this time.

Barbed Wire and the Wild West Show

All too soon, toward the end of the century, this open range era would come to an end with the expansion of the railroads and the introduction of barbed wire. There was no longer a need for long cattle drives, and rangelands were being divided amongst the increasing population of homesteaders and settlers. Along with the decline of the open West, demand for the cowboy’s labor began to dwindle. Many cowboys (and Native Americans as well), began to take jobs with a new American phenomenon, the Wild West Show.

Entrepreneurs like the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody began to organize these Wild West Shows. The shows were partly theater, and partly competition, with the objective of making money, glamorizing and preserving the disappearing American frontier. Other shows like the 101 Ranch Wild West Show and Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show also competed to present their version of the ‘Wild West’ to captive audiences. Much of the pageantry and showmanship of modern rodeo comes directly from these Wild West shows. Today rodeo competitors still call rodeos ‘shows’ and they participate in ‘performances’.

Cowboy Competitions

At the same time, other cowboys were supplementing their income at their usual informal competitions, which were now being held in front of paying spectators. Small towns across the frontier would hold annual stock horse shows, known as 'rodeos', or ‘gatherings’. Cowboys would often travel to these gatherings and put on what would be known then as ‘Cowboy Competitions’.

Of these two types of shows, only the cowboy competitions would survive. Eventually, Wild West Shows began to die out due to high costs of mounting them and many producers begin strictly producing the less expensive cowboy competitions at local rodeos or stock horse shows. The joining of competition with the gatherings would be the spark for what we now see as Rodeo, originally two different aspects of western life joined to become a unique sport.

Spectators would now pay to see the competitions and cowboys would pay to compete, with their money going into the prize pool. Many towns began to organize and promote their local rodeo, just as they do today. In frontier towns all over the west (like Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Prescott, Arizona) the rodeo became the most anticipated event of the year.