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The Story of Pecos Bill

Updated on March 7, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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Whether it was diverting the Rio Grande River to water his ranch, rustling a tornado, or riding on the back of a mountain lion, Pecos Bill had a way to separate himself from all other cowboys in the Southwest. If it was impossible, this larger-than-life legend was going to be take the challenge and win.

He was even credited for creating the “cowboy way of life.” It seemed there was nothing Pecos Bill couldn’t do. And for that reason, he was the ultimate cowboy in which all other cowboys were measured by.

And that’s the truth…with the exception that all of his exploits were exaggerated.

In truth, Pecos Bill was (and still is) an enduring character of the great American tall tales, a folktale that often “stretched” the truth or exaggerated the abilities of its heroes. Pecos Bill was part of the Western mythology of the late 1800s and early 20th century.

He was also an Americanized form of age-old mythological characters. Pecos Bill was part Hercules, part Beowulf, mixed in with the ideal American cowboy who personified courage, strength and humor.

Pecos Bill in Comic Books (circa, 1949)
Pecos Bill in Comic Books (circa, 1949) | Source

Pecos Bill's Origins

It was originally thought that Pecos Bill got his start as a campfire tale told by cowboys from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The stories changed with each telling; Pecos Bill became more super-human and stuck in more extravagant and “exaggerated” situations.

However, the legend of Pecos Bill didn’t really take off until Edward O’Reilly started writing about him in 1916. The first stories appeared in The Century Magazine. Later, these stories were collected and reprinted in the book, Saga of Pecos Bill (1923).

There is controversy over Pecos Bill’s origin. O’Reilly claimed he heard the tales from cowboys. In 1950, American folklorist Richard M. Dorson claimed that O’Reilly invented the stories (In fact, Dorson referred to Pecos Bill as an example of fakelore” – described as inauthentic, manufactured story meant to be presented as a traditional and genuine folklore).

Folklore or fakelore: the story proved to be extremely popular. Its use of exaggeration -- as well as a protagonist with super-human strength, wit, humor, and the frontier spirit of the American west -- became a winning formula for O’Reilly and other writers who would add more stories to Pecos Bill’s growing saga.

O;Reilly influenced others to write stories about the mythical cowboy. One of the most noted was James Cloyd Bowman, who wrote Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time (1937). This particular book won the prestigious children literature award, Newbery Honor in 1938.

Writers were not the only ones to help the Pecos Bill mythos. In 1929, cartoonist Jack “Alonzo Vincent” Warren teamed up with O;Reilly to create a cartoon strip. It ran until O'Reilly's death in 1938. Still, after O'Reilly's death, Warren continued the stories under a comic strip called Pecos Pete in which Pecos Bill gets amnesia and assumes a new name.

Soon the silver screen discovered the affable cowboy of legends. In 1948, Disney featured him in its Melody Time animated shorts. In 1995, Disney made a live action film called Tall Tales. The film featured several tall tale characters such as Paul Bunyan, the blue ox Babe, and John Henry. The part of Pecos Bill was played by Patrick Swayze (and, yes, he rides a tornado in it).

A turning point in his life came rather early. His parents and siblings were crossing the Pecos River in a full and cramped covered wagon. Suddenly, Bill fell out and was swept away by the strong currents.

from a printable coloring book (online)
from a printable coloring book (online) | Source

The “Life” of Pecos Bill

Pecos Bill’s life story has been formed over the years by O’Reilly and the various writers, cartoonists, and filmmakers. Details about his birth, family life, his formative years, as well as the love of his life have emerged.

Pecos Bill was born in the 1830s in Texas. He came from a very large family and was the youngest of 18 children! Everybody knew there was something different about this kid. As a baby he used a bowie knife as a teething ring and made wild animals his playmate as a toddler (Weiser, 2010).

A turning point in his life came rather early. His parents and siblings were crossing the Pecos River in a full and cramped covered wagon. Suddenly, Bill fell out and was swept away by the strong currents.

Frantically, the family searched for the boy, only to realise that dear, sweet Bill was no more. However, this was not so, for down the stream, Little Bill was rescued by coyotes. They’d raise him until, by chance, Pecos Bill’s brothers would find him.

His journey back into the human world was not easy. First, his brother had to convince him he wasn’t a coyote. Second, he had to relearn the ways of humans. However, this was Pecos Bill; not only did he join civilization he became a shining example of it as the ultimate cowboy.

His feats were many. First, he tamed the horse Widow-Maker. The horse got its name because no man alive could stay on him. Also, it was said that he loved to eat dynamite. Of course, Pecos Bill made him his horse, even changing his name to Lightning (another story states he rode a mountain lion, as well).

His other feats – which were meant to explain natural phenomena – was digging the Rio Grande or making the Painted Desert so colorful. Also, let’s not forget he rode a tornado like a bronco and used rattlesnakes for a lasso (some accounts claim he invented the lasso, branding iron, and cowboy songs to soothe the cattle).

Pecos Bill had a romantic interest. Her name was Slue-Foot Sue, who was said to have ridden a giant catfish down the Rio Grande. Pecos proposed to her after literally shooting all the stars from the sky (except for one, which would become the Lone Star of Texas).

Widow-Maker/Lightning became jealous upon learning of this courtship. So, when Slue-Foot Sue insisted on sitting on the horse, the jealous horse responded by bucking her off. Sue landed on her bustle and started to bounce incredibly high, eventually hitting her head on the moon (here, the stories vary. Possibly, the most interesting version was the one in which Pecos Bill realized that he would have to lasso her to bring her down. She had been bouncing for days and was on the verge of starving when Pecos Bill decided to rescue her).

Eventually, the inevitable came. Even someone with super-powers like Pecos Bill has a fatal vulnerability. In this case (at least according to one version told by S.E. Schlosser) Bill confronted a newly transplanted Boston man in New Mexico who attempted to dress up like a cowboy by wearing “lizard skin boots, a shiny brass belt buckle, a new pair of blue jeans and a huge ten gallon hat with no speck of dust on it.”

Pecos Bill laughed himself to death.

Legacy

Folklore, fakelore, tall tale or modern mythology: Pecos Bill has endured, and has become a favorite legend to tell around campfires, reading circles, or on the silver screen. In the long run, his beginning may not matter. The stories of Pecos Bill will always astound his audience...And, that’s the truth.

Ballad of Pecos Bill by Roy Rogers

Adventures of Pecos Bill

© 2014 Dean Traylor

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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I learned about Pecos Bill when I saw a Walt Disney cartoon feature about him. Being from the north country, I am more partial to Paul Bunyan. Folklore, I think, adds insights into the real world. Great hub.

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