June 28, 2020

World's Oldest Rodeo Was Not Yavapai County's First

One might think that carrying the moniker of “World’s Oldest Rodeo” would imply its being the first. However, the famous rodeo we love is actually the world’s oldest continuously running rodeo. Just 4 weeks prior to the first “Cowboy Tournament” in Prescott, one was held in Williamson Valley.

Up until 1888, the word “rodeo” meant something different than it does today. Back then “rodeo” was the process of rounding up all the livestock in an area. It mattered not whether the animal belonged to one’s own ranch, they all were heading to the same round-up where they could be sorted later in a process called “cutting out.”

When the rodeo round-up was completed, celebrations would follow. It was a chance for old acquaintances to reunite and catch-up as well as an opportunity to make new friends. 

Boasting about which cowboy was the best at his work brought the idea of holding a “Cowboy Tournament” to prove the claims. Eventually, of course, the word “rodeo” would become synonymous with these cowboy tournaments.

“A cowboy tournament is being arranged to take place at Lakes, in Williamson Valley, Arizona,” the Mohave County Miner stated, “which will be just at the close of the spring rodeos in the country.” The Journal-Miner observed that the idea of a competition “has been a general theme for discussion among the stockman of the county for the last few months, and has been definitely announced to take place on Saturday, June 9, (1888) that being the day on which the rodeo in that section closes. In addition to the rodeo party, which will in itself number about 60, there will be a great many visitors and contestants from other parts of the county to witness the contest for the handsome prizes offered.” 

“The chief prizes will be given for the most skillful rider of wild horses that have never before felt a saddle, and for lassoing and tying steers,” the paper added. 

Interest was high and it was reported that Prescott would “send quite a delegation to the cowboy tournament at Williamson Valley.” Entries included RG Lee of Upper Verde, Stuart Knight of Chino Valley, Lance Park, of Walnut Grove and Riley Johnson, of Williamson Valley. “As all four of these cowboys have the reputation of being an expert with the rope,” the paper pointed out, “we may expect to see good times made.” 

A misunderstanding had occurred in regard to the prizes offered which were a $35 bridle and a $12 riata, by Alex Ayers, for first and second best time in lassoing and tying a steer. The Hoof & Horn newspaper donated an $18 pair of silver mounted spurs to be given to the best looking cowboy. The ladies in the audience would decide that winner. 

It was reported that a saddle was to be given to the best bronco rider, and a large number of untamed broncos, just in from the range, had been corralled for the event. Buckey O’Neill, editor of the Hoof & Horn, “circulated a subscription paper and soon succeeded in raising a purse of $60 for a saddle.” 

Bronco riding was the first event with 6 cowboys entering. Unfortunately the event was underwhelming. Each horse was blindfolded while the cowboy mounted and the action began when the blindfold was removed. AH Moffat was the first contestant. “The bronco made a few very interesting bucks,” but not much more. Next was Thomas Anderson “who did some good riding, but his horse failed to give more than 2 or 3 well defined bucks.” Frank Simpson’s horse simply ran about without bucking at all.

Next was Riley Johnson. His horse started bucking immediately and continued across half the ground. “Johnson rode him splendidly,” the paper described, but the horse then quit bucking and just started running. “Johnson rode him back disgusted.” The last contestant was James Moffat. When his horse refused to do any bucking at all, Moffat stopped, took the saddle off, and started riding bareback “to try to induce him to amuse the audience, but to no avail, as he scampered around the ground carrying his bareback rider like an old family horse on a frolic.”

Riley Johnson was awarded the saddle. Today, special attention is given to find horses that are wild buckers just for the sport.

The rules for roping and tying were simple: “There will be placed in a corral the same number of steers that there are vaqueros (cowboys) engaged in the tournament; each vaquero shall have his choice of the lot by the drawing of slips; the steer shall be turned through a gate where the vaquero is mounted, and after the steer crosses the deadline at a distance of 50 yards from the gate, the word will be given (for the cowboy to start); the steer shall be roped and 3 feet tied. Then he shall give his signal by throwing up his hands. The time keepers shall decide the winner,” the paper explained. 

In the roping and tying event there were 3 entrants. Diego Monreal joined Johnson and Moffat. Eli Punteney was appointed timekeeper. The steers would get a 50 yard head start before the cowboy could begin pursuit. Riley Johnson went first “making a beautiful throw, and had (the steer) down in 20 seconds amid the cheers of the audience.” However, his rope slipped and the steer escaped. A second attempt was successful and Johnson scored a time of 90 seconds. 

Diego Monreal’s steer ran over the hill and out of the audience’s sight, but the flagman followed to the crest and signaled when the work was completed—in 2 minutes, 15.25 seconds. 

Moffat’s time was just over 2 minutes. But after an argument about the timing, Johnson and Moffat split the prizes after an additional $10 was offered.

While the spectators watched, the ladies were canvassed to decide the handsomest of the participating cowboys. “Their almost unanimous verdict was Frank Simpson, who won, not only the ladies’ smiles and favor, but the spurs as well,” the paper averred.

The “grand prize” saddle was also designed by Alex Ayers. It was made of white leather from Santa Cruz, California. It featured “double 3 inch stirrup straps, 24 inch tapaderos, and was first class in every respect,” the paper reported. “On the cantle (was) a silver plate bearing the following inscription: ‘Contested for and won by Riley Johnson, over all competitors, at the cowboy tournament in Williamson Valley, June 9, 1888, for skillful and graceful riding.’”

Williamson Valley’s rodeo party culminated in a grand ball that evening in which, according to reports, the light was tripped fantastically.

In this premier edition of Cowboy Escapades we look at true stories of bear roping and buffalo riding!



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Mohave County Miner, 4/28/1888; Pg. 2, Col. 2.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 6/6/1888; Pg. 1, Col. 4.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 6/6/1888; Pg. 3, Col. 4.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 6/13/1888; Pg. 1, Col. 3-4.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 6/27/1888; Pg. 3, Col. 4.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 7/4/1888; Pg. 1, Col. 5.

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