The first professional rodeo took place on July 4, 1883, in Pecos, Texas. “Professional,” meaning that it was the first rodeo to award prizes to contestants. But where did the sport come from? Surely, it did not appear overnight. To answer this question, we need to look back much farther than the 19th century.
It is impossible to discuss any part of Southwestern, or Western, history without considering the tremendous influence of Spanish/Mexican culture and ingenuity. From the introduction of horses in North America, to the skills and tools mastered by the vaqueros, so many facets of the Western identity have their roots firmly planted in the foundation of the Spanish Mexican settlers – and the modern rodeo is no exception.
The 1800s was a landmark period for the rodeo. The beginning of Anglo settlement in Texas and a blending of cultures paved the way for the era of the American cowboy. An over-abundance of wild horses and cattle in Texas combined with a high demand for beef on the East Coast helped to create the need for the Southwest cattle industry. As ranches began to form, cowboys adopted the Spanish Mexican methods of branding, herding, riding, and roping that became a necessity for cattle drives and working the open range.
So how did these skills lend themselves to the professional rodeo competitions that we know today? Plainly put, it started as friendly competition between ranch hands. Springtime meant the arrival of new calves and foals. This meant that there was plenty of work to be done which allowed the hands to show off their skills. Roping and branding calves and breaking-in horses (from the previous 2-3 springs), led to rodeo events such as bareback and saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, and team roping. The hand who was the best at different tasks would retain bragging rights for at least the next year.
Eventually, ranch owners began arranging contests with neighboring ranches, for friendly fun or placing bets. Over time these “regional” competitions started to draw spectator crowds to the hosting spread. Ranch owners later capitalized on this by adding stock-showings and auctions to the events while they had a captive audience. As these exhibitions increased in popularity, a bigger venue was needed to host more participants and larger audiences. The county fair became a popular option, and it was often planned around local July 4th celebrations.
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) states on their website that they sanction approximately 600 rodeos in the United States annually, a majority of which take place between June and August each year. If you would like to learn more about the history of rodeo or the tools of the American Cowboy, please visit the Statehood & Beyond gallery at The Bryan Museum. Happy trails!
LeCompte, Mary Lou, “The Hispanic Influence on the History of Rodeo, 1823-1922,” Journal of Sport History, 12 (Spring 1985)
Texas State Historical Association, “Rodeos:” https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/rodeos.