1911 Bucking Finals: Controversy Lingers

February 27, 2009

From the book Pendleton Round-Up at 100: Oregon’s Legendary Rodeo.

In an era of stark racial divides, it was remarkable that the Pendleton Round-Up’s most famous contest happened at all. The year was 1911. Segregation was rampant, and memories of Indian wars and slavery lingered. Viewed through the lens of today’s world, the storyline smacks of something Hollywood might contrive for maximum ratings: three cowboys — one white, one black, and one Nez Perce survivor of U.S. Army bullets competing to become champion bronc-buster. But the Round-Up had been an open affair from its start a year earlier, and the usually strong grip of prejudice loosened long enough for the historic competition to take place. Unanswered even now, however, is whether racial bias rather than skill dictated the controversial outcome.

None of the 15,000 people who crowded into the arena on an autumn Saturday knew they were about to watch a contest that’s still the centerpiece of Round-Up lore, or that they collectively would become a key character in the story’s dramatic conclusion. In the end, the crowd chose one champion, and the judges chose another.

It was the final day of events, and a ticket line had formed on Main Street before seven in the morning. Prices ranged from $1.50 for box seats to 75 cents for bleachers and 50 cents for anyone viewing from horseback. The skies threatened rain off and on, but this didn’t deter the crowd. The East Oregonian newspaper, with typical exuberance, described the spectators as “wildly enthusiastic fans of the frontier who packed themselves into one mammoth solid mass of humanity.”

The crowd had plenty to cheer when twelve bronc riders competed in the semifinals. All but a few made impressive rides, some on notorious horses. The three judges had no easy task determining who should advance to the finals, where $150 and a silver-adorned saddle worth $350 awaited the winner. Apparently the deliberations took longer than usual. Perhaps the judges had trouble choosing the three finalists based on the merits of each performance. Or they might have been reluctant to create a contest that the newspaper later called a “racial struggle . . .for supremacy.”

The men they chose were well-known horsemen of abundant skill. John Spain, the white contestant, had supplied horses to the first Round-Up and won the wild-horse race that year. His horsemanship was known throughout the Northwest. A day earlier he’d won the stagecoach race. George Fletcher, the black cowboy, had learned how to tame horses from members of the Confederated Umatilla Tribes. His free-form riding style and loose-fitting orange angora chaps gave him a flamboyant aura in the saddle. The Native American, Jackson Sundown, had been wounded by U.S. soldiers in 1877 at age 14 while trying to flee to Canada with his uncle, Chief Joseph, and their band of Nez Perce. Unlike his two competitors, Sundown was lean and reserved. At 48 he was the senior citizen of the field, but his skills had not diminished, nor had his reputation for subduing the wildest of horses.

Wearing black angora chaps, Sundown rode first atop “Lightfoot.” The small horse whirled and twisted violently at the start. Sundown’s sombrero flew off and his two long black braids, tied beneath his chin, came undone and flapped with the horse’s every jolt. “Lightfoot,” still whirling in a tight circle, twisted its head sharply to the right and tried to bite Sundown’s leg several times. The horse ran suddenly, brushing against a judge’s horse, dislodging one of Sundown’s feet from the stirrups. One jump later, he fell off and hit the ground hard, twenty-five seconds after his ride began. Sundown didn’t move until two medical attendants with a stretcher reached him. He was carried from the arena sitting upright on the stretcher but was only stunned.

Spain drew heavy and powerful “Long Tom,” a terror known for delivering a punishing ride to whoever mounted him. The horse was called a “pitcher” for his habit of throwing himself forward on his front legs while kicking his back legs high in the air. This violent motion often caused the high cantle at the back of the saddle to hit the rider so hard that he lost his breath. Spain rode snuggly and didn’t “scratch” the horse with his spurs. No one had ever done so and remained atop “Long Tom.” The horse crashed through the wood fence separating the arena field from the track and raced toward the bleachers. Spain remained in the saddle. Some fans later claimed that he touched the saddle with his free hand and should have been disqualified. The judges said otherwise. In two documentary films, Spain and “Long Tom” are a blurred image seen at too great a distance to determine the truth.

Fletcher rode last. During the semifinals, he had won the crowd’s admiration by mastering “Hot Foot,” a small black bucker with a long record of sending cowboys airborne. In the finals, he drew “Del” The horse raced around the arena as if fleeing demons but bucked to no one’s satisfaction. So the judges ordered Fletcher to ride another mount, “Sweeney,” a brute that looks almost white in the old colorless pictures. The horse jumped repeatedly as it raced around the arena, pausing occasionally to lurch almost upright on its back legs. Typical of Fletcher’s style, he spurred the horse’s flanks while his torso bobbed forward and back in a long rhythmic arc, all the while waving his cowboy hat in a wide circle and smiling.

The crowd roared loudest for Fletcher. Reports differ on how quickly the judges announced the winner; some said the decision came immediately while others said it took several minutes, perhaps indicating disagreement. The announcer, perched in a tower, shouted into a megaphone the victor’s name: John Spain.

Although spectators applauded Spain as he rode past the grandstand and bleachers aboard the first-place saddle, they cheered louder and longer for Fletcher. In the 1998 award-winning documentary American Cowboys, narrator William Hurt says the audience declared the black cowboy the “people’s champion.” Sheriff Tillman Taylor, a Round-Up director at the time, cut Fletcher’s hat into small pieces and sold them to the crowd, raising enough money to buy a $350 saddle like the one awarded to Spain in order to give it to Fletcher.

Newspaper accounts said the judges chose Spain because he rode a tougher horse in more traditional buckaroo style, while Fletcher rode sloppy and loose. The next day, friends of Fletcher and Spain continued to argue about who deserved to win. Fletcher said that he could master “Long Tom” if given a chance, and the two sides put up $250 each. But the bet fell apart when Round-Up officials refused to make the horse available.

Spain told the Live Wire, a weekly Pendleton newspaper, that he won the championship fairly. “The judges said so, at least, and their word must go. Fletcher made a good ride all the way though. If he made a better ride than I, the judges should have given him the saddle. There is no trouble or argument between George Fletcher and me.”

Fletcher was also interviewed. He said “the drawing of the color line” decided the outcome and that Spain had “pulled leather” when “Long Tom” broke through the fence. He also said he could ride any animal at the Round-Up if given the chance.

The debate was just beginning.

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