At The Pendleton Round-Up
By: Lora Thorson
The little ranching and farming town of Pendleton, Oregon, tucked up in the northeast corner of the state, got its start along the banks of the Umatilla River in the early 1860s. It has served as a center for the agricultural community and the Umatilla county seat since 1868. The name was chosen for George H. Pendleton, the Ohio senator and 1864 Vice-Presidential candidate. The Umatilla Indian Reservation had been created after the Treaty of 1855 formed the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. The confederation consists of the Walla Walla, Umatilla and the Cayuse nations and is just east of the town.
In 1909, after a wild Fourth of July celebration of greased pig races, horse races, Indian feasts, fireworks and the most popular event, the bronc riding, a group of civic-minded citizens came up with the idea of an annual event. They designed it with the local farmers and ranchers in mind and set it for September, after the crops were in and before the ranchers shipped their cattle. It was formally founded July 29th, 1910 as the Northwestern Frontier Exhibition Association (N.F.E.A.), and informally called the Pendleton Round-Up. They adopted the slogan ‘Let ‘er Buck!’ and purchased fifteen acres that included the existing grandstand and facilities.
The Round-Up hit the ground running in 1911. Ticket prices were set at $1.50 for a box seat, $1.00 for the grandstand and $.75 if you were in the bleachers. Children or anyone who wanted to watch from horseback paid 50 cents. The citizens of Pendleton, always big supporters of their namesake event, help raise $12,000 for improvements and expansion of the old facilities. The event, a non-profit from the start, gave any and all profits to charity. In 1918 they voted to donate their profit of more than $5,000 to the American Red Cross.
By the early twenties the Round-Up had developed a reputation as a great venue for both contestants and spectators. In 1924, a painter by the name of Wallace Smith was allowed to make sketches of bucking horses in the arena. He presented the committee with a sketch that he felt represented the thrill of the bucking horse event.
The committee agreed and copyrighted the image in 1925. Today that sketch of a cowboy in a yellow shirt on a bucking horse is their logo, and it can be found on their world famous Let ‘er Buck calendar. As the reputation of the Pendleton Round-Up grew, the contestants and the fans began to put the event on their annual calendar. In 1915, the Happy Canyon Show, now called the Happy Canyon Indian Pageant and Wild West Show depicting the settling of the American West, made its first appearance.
The involvement of the Native American Indians has always been one of the keys to the success of the show and the Happy Canyon event quickly became a fan favorite. By 1930, the depression hit the Round-Up as hard as it had the rest of the country. After struggling along for a few years, the old N.F.E.A. was dropped and was reformed as the Pendleton Round-Up Association. They again appealed to the citizens and businesses of Pendleton and they came up with enough money to keep the show running. By the late thirties the event, thanks to the constant support of the people of Pendleton, was back on solid ground.
From the beginning the event drew a colorful cast of characters. Possibly the most famous of those was a fullblooded Nez Perce Indian by the name of Waaya-Tonah-ToesitsKahn. Born in 1863, he rode with Sitting Bull in the NezPerce war of 1877. His rodeo career began at age forty-nine under his newly chosen name of Jackson Sundown, and he quickly became a bucking horse champion and a master showman.
Decked out in spectacular angora wollies and colorful shirts he would tie his long braids under his chin and wave his hat to the crowd as he blasted out of the chute. In 1915, he decided to retire. In 1916, at the age of fifty-three he was talked into entering the event one more time. Jackson Sundown became a legend that day on a horse named Angel, winning the bucking horse event and the All-Around title as well.
Another association that gave the Round-Up a solid start were the brothers Roy, Clarence and Chauncey Bishop, the founders of the Pendleton Woolen Mills. With a large source of fine wool in the area, their products were a natural fit for the rodeo event. Their most important customers at the time were Native Americans. Today, they still sell more than sixty percent of the blankets produced to their Native customers. Roy knew that the event needed something more than just the bucking horses to make the show a success. He personally took the giant step of meeting with tribal leaders and inviting them to participate in the event, something unheard of at the time.
In 1936, rodeo cowboys, unhappy with their pay and conditions, had boycotted a large rodeo in Boston. They formed the famous Cowboy’s Turtle Association and one of the conditions for their return to the rodeo circuit was to have Turtles-only events. This was not acceptable to the Round-Up board and they declared themselves an open rodeo for anyone that wanted to come. The fans of the event really didn’t care who was in the arena, they just loved the show. After working out an agreement, the Turtles returned to the Round-Up in 1939.
These days, by the second week of September, the whole town of Pendleton has been fully engulfed in Round-Up business for months. The impact on the city is enormous, bringing in more than 50,000 fans and contestants to town every year. It starts with a dress-up parade with boy scouts and girl scouts and the high school band as well as many businesses building floats for competition. The Happy Canyon Pageant and Wild West Show starts on Wednesday. The competition has ten events, including the Indian Relay Races and Wild Cow Milking, one of the crowd favorites. Unlike most rodeo arenas, the Round-Up has a feature that makes it stand out even more – natural grass instead of dirt. You can always tell photographs from the Pendleton event by the green grass in the arena.
For over a hundred-years, the success of the Pendleton RoundUp has been a group effort. The town of Pendleton, together with the Pendleton Woolen Mills and the members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, have worked tirelessly to keep the high quality of the event. For someone looking for a true taste of the WildWest, Pendleton, Oregon is the place to be in September.