By Michael Dean
Before we had radio, or movies or television, back to the late 1800s, Wild West shows were some of the most in-demand forms of mass entertainment. And among those shows, the Pawnee Bill Wild West show was one of the most popular.
Pawnee Bill was born Gordon William Lillie in 1860 in Bloomington, Illinois; the family moved to Wellington, Kansas after his father’s flour mill burned down. In 1874, Lillie met a group of Pawnee Indians who were moving through Wichita after giving up their reservation in Nebraska for new land in the Indian Territory. He learned their language and began his life-long relationship with the Pawnee Tribe.
In an interview with Lillie on WKY Radio recorded in 1939, Lillie was asked when he first came to the territory.
“I first came here in 1878, then returned to Bloomingtonwhere I was reared for a year where I went back to school. Then I came back to Oklahoma in 1879, and landed at Pawnee, Oklahoma. It was just a government post then, just employees of the government, no town back then; people weren’t allowed to live around there because it was Indian land to locate friendly Indian tribes. And the Pawnees were the only Indians in that section at that time. I was employed there as a teacher in the Pawnee school.”
Lillie was also appointed as interpreter and secretary to Major Edward Bowman, U.S. Indian agent. It was during this time that Lillie became known as “Pawnee Bill.”
In 1883 Buffalo Bill employed Lillie to recruit and coordinate a group of Pawnee Indians who were appearing in the first-ever Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
When the show performed in Philadelphia, he met 15-year-old May Manning. They courted for two years, and then married in August 1886. Her family urged him to open his own show; that show opened in 1888 but was a financial failure.
Following the failure of the Pawnee Bill Wild West show, something else for Pawnee Bill came up.Four years earlier, Capt. David Payne, leader of the Boomer movement, died from a heart attack.
“I knew Capt. Payne quite well. Capt. Payne was just an ordinary looking man, that is, you’d never take a second look at him. He was about six foot tall, a fine looking fellow, but he just didn’t know how to get any press.
“The Board of Trade of Wichita asked me to organize and lead the Boomers into Oklahoma. We had over 3,000 on theroll; I think it was 3,600 when the country was opened by proclamation. It was splendid land, no oil at the time of course.” On April 22, 1889 Lillie led those boomers into what is today Kingfisher County.
“Now, the first day I arrived in Wichita when I came up there, Mark Murdock, who was then the editor and owner of the Wichita Eagle newspaper, told me he got ‘52 telegrams after a 300 word story ran about you arriving to lead the Boomers into Oklahoma. They all said we’d like to get all the news about Pawnee Bill and the opening of Oklahoma.’Capt. Payne didn’t have the newspapers working with him.”
Lillie’s involvement in the Land Run of 1889 brought him much national attention. He used that to open his next show business venture – Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West, Indian Museum and Encampment. This show successfully traveled throughout the east and Europe. May Lillie starred in the show as the Champion Horseback Shot of the West. The show was a financial success and toured for years.
In 1908, Lillie said, “I finally bought the Buffalo Bill show from Mrs. James A. Bailey. Mr. Bailey had just died. They solicited me to buy it; they wanted to get rid of it, and I was the only prospect they had who knew how to run it.
“I got a postcard once from Calamity Jane wanting a job in the show. I didn’t know her; she didn’t live anywhere around where I did. So I took the postcard in to the Colonel and I said,‘Colonel, do you know Calamity Jane?’ And he said, ‘I’ll say I did.’ And I said,‘here’s a postcard from her;would she be an attraction in our show?’ And he said, ‘No, not a bit in the world, she’s as ugly as a mud fence.’ That was exactly his words.
“Then he told me later on, we were talking about her one day and he says, ‘you know, she was Wild Bill’s sweetheart for a long while. Says she’s buried next side of him now up there in Deadwood.”
The combinedBuffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East Show was the premier entertainment of its time, traveling the world with thousands of fans. In 1907 Lillie hired performers from a variety of backgrounds. The show included Mexican cowboys, Pawnee, Japanese performers, and Arab jugglers. The ensemble debuted as Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East Show. Pawnee Bill added Jose Barrera to the cast; he was widely popular, performing as “Mexican Joe”. After the show closed, Jose remained with Pawnee Bill, serving as foreman at the Pawnee Bill Ranch.
The success of the show led to Pawnee Bill starting a motion picture company. He had a well-developed skill at running the Wild West show as a business. That business acumen led him to successful endeavors in oil, real estate and banking.
Pawnee Bill was a promoter of Oklahoma, and it can be argued that no other Oklahoman perpetuated the mythical Wild West as did Gordon William Lillie. Pawnee Bill died in his sleep on February 3, 1942.
The Pawnee Bill Ranch became home to another of his interests. He became devoted to the preservation of the buffalo, an animal he felt most characteristic of Oklahoma and the American West. By this time, the buffalo had almost disappeared. He established a herd on his ranch and lobbied Congress to pass legislation to protect the animal.
Though he was a figure of the “old west,” he didn’t live in the past, and realized the progress that automobiles and modern highways could bring. He was president of the Highway 64 Association, and U.S. Highway 64 through Oklahoma was originally called “The Pawnee Bill Route.”
Today, the Pawnee Bill Ranch is located on Blue Hawk Peak, land he purchased from his Pawnee friend, Blue Hawk. The ranch features tours of the 14-room mansion that Pawnee Bill built in 1910 for May. It still contains their original belongings and is filled with Lillie family memorabilia, photographs, original art work and much more.
The Ranch property also houses a museum with exhibits related to Pawnee Bill, the Wild West Shows, and the Pawnees. The 500-acre grounds include the original Ranch blacksmith shop, a 1903 log cabin, a large barn built in 1926, and an Indian Flower Shrine, all available for the public to tour.
Through October, the ranch museum is open Tuesday thru Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday and Monday from 1 to 4 p.m. Adult admission is $3, Seniors $2.50, students (age 6 to 18) $1.50, and children under five are admitted free.
The 500-acre ranch and all the buildings have been owned by the Oklahoma Historical Society for many years. More information is available on the OHS website, www.okhistory.org/sites/pawneebill or call (918) 762-2513.