Monday, May 16, 2011

Historic Southwestern Biography: Pawnee Bill

Wild West Showman Gordon “Pawnee Bill” Lillie joined the first Buffalo Bill Wild West show at age 23, after spending a number of years living with the Pawnee Indians in Oklahoma. After being recruited to organize a Pawnee performing troupe, he joined the show as a performer and interpreter. While on tour with the show in Philadelphia, he met May Manning, a 15-year-old Quaker girl, who was watching the parade. Gordon was smitten, and after two years of a long distance courtship they were married.

Gordon gave his new bride a pony and a rifle as wedding gifts, and May turned out to be a natural horsewoman and a natural shot, as well. Lillie went on to feature May in all his shows as “Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” She was one of the first women to perform as an equestrian and shooter in American Wild West Shows.

After his marriage, Lillie found backers for a show of his own, and in 1888 took the “Pawnee Bill Wild West Show” on the road. After only one season it failed, but Lillie had many irons in the fire, and after receiving some notoriety for leading the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, he reorganized his show and named it “Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West Indian Museum and Encampment.” This time the show met with success.

After a number of years touring with different versions of his show, Pawnee Bill would join forces with Buffalo Bill to create the last show either would produce, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East Show.” The show ran for five years, finally closing in Denver Colorado in 1913, but while it ran, it was the entertainment triumph of the ages.

Bill and May settled into a more private life on their land in Pawnee, Oklahoma. As years went by, they started a buffalo ranch, a movie production company, and developed a wide variety of interests.

Several of their “Wild West Show” friends had settled in Taos, New Mexico, and the Lillies made a habit of spending part of every summer in Taos, where they added greatly to their circle of friends. Among that circle were Doc and Helen Martin, who had important roles in the founding of the Northern New Mexico community. Doc and Helen had purchased a number of buildings surrounding a small plaza, and over the years had provided lodging for artists and others who were new to the area, which in the meantime had become a thriving art colony.

When Doc died, Helen bought the last of the properties on the Plaza and made it official. The Hotel Martin (now the Taos Inn) opened in 1936 with a grand celebration. On hand for the events were their friends Pawnee Bill and May, who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary that summer in Taos. It would be the last time the Lillies visited Taos together.

Pawnee Bill was without a doubt, one of the foremost Wild West Showmen, and a perpetuator of the Wild West as both history and myth in America.

This year the Taos Inn is again having a grand celebration for its 75th anniversary.

Visit the Taos Unlimited Wild West Section for More on Pawnee Bill

More about the the Doc and Helen Martin and The Taos Inn

More about Taos as an Art Colony on Taos Unlimited

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