Roping 300 cattle in one day at the age of 13 is just one of the feats that earned Lucille Mulhall her iconic status among Wild West Women.
Equally skilled with rifle, lariat and horse, a teenager from Oklahoma named Lucille Mulhall became America's first cowgirl. Lucille Mulhall was born on October 21, 1885, in St. Louis, Mo. There were other horsewomen, of course, like those who rode in William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wild West shows, but none were cowgirls. Lucille Mulhall has been given many different titles. Rodeo Queen, Queen of the Western Prairie, Queen of the Saddle, American's Greatest Horse Woman. But there is no doubt that she was American's First Cowgirl. In fact, Will Rogers wrote that Lucille's achievement in competition with cowboys was the 'direct start of what has since come to be known as the Cowgirl'. He continued to write that 'there was no such a word up to then as Cowgirl. It was coined to describe her after she beat dozens of cowboys in a 1904 cattle-roping competition that set world records.
Native American tribes still roamed the open grassland of the Mulhall Ranch when Lucille was growing up. Wolves prowled the prairie, preying on the Mulhall livestock. Cowhands were a vital part of ranching; roping, branding, round-ups and shooting were practical skills instead of pastimes. The little blonde girl with blue-gray eyes was an eager student for the ranch hands and cowboys who peopled the bunkhouses of the Mulhall spread. Lucille learned to toss a lariat and tie a steer from men who rode herd in the great cattle drives of the West's heyday.
Lucille Mulhall was a cowgirl long before she entertained crowds with feats of horsemanship on Governor, her trained mount. By the age of 7, she was riding around her father's 80,000-acre ranch. Cowboys who rode the plains of the Indian Territories tutored her in the art of lassoing. Zack Mulhall claimed that when his daughter was 13, he told her she could keep as many of his steers as she could rope in one day. Lucille, he bragged, didn't quit until she lassoed more than 300 cattle! "By the age of fourteen," the New York Times reported, "She could break a bronco and shoot a coyote at 500 yards." Teddy Roosevelt was among Lucille's fans. While campaigning in Oklahoma as a vice presidential candidate in 1900, Roosevelt first saw the blonde teenager perform. It was the Fourth of July, and Lucille roped in front of a crowd of 25,000 people at a "Cowboy Tournament." "Roosevelt was most enchanted with the daring feats of Lucille Mulhall," the Daily Oklahoman reported. "She rode beautifully throughout the contest and lassoed the wildest steer in the field."
Teddy Roosevelt visited Oklahoma to be guest of honor at a Rough Riders convention. It was during this visit that Roosevelt saw Lucille ride at the Fourth of July celebration. He was so dazzled by the 14-year-old's skills that he invited the Mulhalls to join him and a select group of Rough Rider veterans at a private dinner. That night Lucille gave the hero of the charge up San Juan Hill the silk scarf she had worn during the tournament.
When Zack Mulhall reciprocated the dinner invitation by asking Roosevelt to stay at his ranch, Teddy readily accepted. After watching Lucille's daredevil antics on the ranch, Roosevelt encouraged her father to get her more exposure. "Zack, before the girl dies or gets married or cuts up some other caper," Roosevelt reportedly said, "you ought to put her on the stage and let the world see what she can do." During that same visit, Roosevelt spent time in the saddle riding alongside Lucille. He saw a gray wolf at a distance, which whetted his appetite for the hunt. The wolf eluded Roosevelt that day, but it didn't escape Lucille. After Roosevelt left, she hunted down the predator. By one account, she dispatched it with a shot from her Winchester, but in another version she lassoed the creature and clubbed it to death. The pelt was sent to Roosevelt, who displayed it in the White House after he and McKinley won the presidential election that fall. Roosevelt later gave Lucille a saddle and an 1873 Winchester .44-40 that had been presented to him.
Lucille Mulhall, was the first well known cowgirl. She competed with 'real' cowboys - the range hardened cowboys accustomed to riding for days in the saddle; the cowboys who spent many hours branding cattle. Her expert roping skills were a natural talent honed by the skills of another natural roper - Will Rogers. She not only was an expert at using the lariat but she had a natural gift of working with horses. She trained horses to respond to the roping of a steer as well as how to perform a number of what she called 'tricks.' Her trained horses she called 'high schooled horses' and one was particularly famous: "Governor."
She claimed her horse, Governor, knew at least forty tricks. He could pull off a man's coat and put it on again, could walk upstairs and down again, a difficult feat. He could sit with his forelegs crossed, could lie down and do just about everything but talk.
In 1904 Lucille competed against the best cowhands from across the Southwest in a roping contest at Dennison, Texas, that would establish her fame. In competition she won a belt buckle, declaring her to be the World's Champion Lady Roper. She won three solid gold medals in Texas for steer roping, a trophy for winning a Cutting Horse contest as well as many other medal, trophies and honors. At the turn of the twentieth century Lucille Mulhall was American's greatest cowgirl. At the turn of the twenty-first century her accomplishments are still to be greatly admired.
While still in her early teens, Lucille was the top cowboy performer in the West. Extremely feminine, soft spoken, and well educated, she seemed a paradox, for she was so steel-muscled she could beat strong and talented men at their own games. She could have been a society belle, but she loved the rough, dangerous life and cowboying was in her blood. Had she been a man, she would have been content to work on a ranch, but as a woman she was a novelty and the only way she could make use of her singular talents was in show business. The term cowgirl was invented to describe her when she took the East by storm in her first appearance at Madison Square Garden (in 1905). "Against these bronzed and war-scarred veterans of the plains, a delicately featured blonde girl appeared," a 1905 New York Times profile intoned. "Slight of figure, refined and neat in appearance, attired in a becoming riding habit for hard riding, wearing a picturesque Mexican sombrero and holding in one hand a lariat of the finest cowhide, Lucille Mulhall comes forward to show what an eighteen-year-old girl can do in roping steers."
In 3 minutes and 36 seconds, she lassoed and tied three steers. "The veteran cowboys did their best to beat it," the New York Times reported, "but their best was several seconds slower than the girl's record-breaking time. The cowboys and plainsmen who were gathered in large numbers to witness the contest broke into tremendous applause when the championship gold medal was awarded to the slight, pale-faced girl, and from that day to this Miss Mulhall has been known far and wide throughout the West as the Queen of the Range."
Lucille had set a new world record. She won a gold medal and a $10,000 prize. Just as she had dazzled Teddy Roosevelt, Lucille now entranced journalists. Newspapers showered her with titles like "Daring Beauty of the Plains" and "Deadshot Girl," but the one that stuck was "Original Cowgirl."
She was at Madison Square Garden trying to rope an 800-pound steer whose horns spanned four feet, when the animal broke into the crowd. Several cowboys leapt into action, but only Will Rogers managed to lasso him and get him back into the arena. The feat made him famous. Rogers remained in New York performing solo when the Mulhalls decamped for Oklahoma.
Lucille's career took her to Europe, where she performed for heads of state and royalty. She officially retired in 1917 at age 32. Live Wild West performances were being eclipsed by the rise of Hollywood westerns. Ironically, many of the stars of silent movies, including "King of the Cowboys" Tom Mix, got their start in Zack Mulhall's Congress of Rough Riders. But as late as the 1930s, Lucille still did exhibition riding on the Mulhall Ranch.
Although there were many female wild west show entertainers like Annie Oakley and May Lillie who performed shooting or rope tricks, Lucille Mulhall was the first woman to compete in riding and roping events right along with cowboys (i.e., men). At the age of 13, she competed in relay horse races and steer roping contests, demonstrated the art of the lasso, and performed tricks with her trained horse named Governor. At the age of 17 Lucille was a four year veteran of Zach Mulhall's Wild West Show. She was allowed to ride in the Grand Entry, but not in the bronc riding or steer roping.
Throughout her life, Lucille remained captivated by show business and more loyal to her father than to any other man. Her two marriages ended in divorce, and she rarely saw her son, born in 1909, because she was always on tour. Though Lucille was a top draw at wild west shows and had run her own company, "Lucille Mulhall's Round-up," many people considered her an ineffective wife and mother because she had never learned to do "women's work" (i.e., housecleaning and cooking).
Although wild west shows became less popular and less financially viable starting in the mid 1910s, Lucille and her brother Charley continued to perform in them through the 1930s. Show attendance dwindled, as did the number of performers. Despite the lack of publicity being given to wild west shows in the shadow of the polio epidemic, the United States' entry into World War I, and then the Great Depression, Lucille seemed unable to pull herself away from the limelight. She made her last known public appearance in September of 1940.
Lucille Mulhall died less than a mile from the Mulhall Ranch in an automobile accident on December 21, 1940. She and her brother Charley, two miles north of Mulhall, the town named for her father. Charley had minor injuries, but Lucille died. She was only 55 years old. In December 1975, she was posthumously inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. The Winchester and saddle Roosevelt gave her were auctioned by James Julia, Inc. in a Western memorabilia sale. They sold for $37,375.
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