The red and white sign on the side of the road proudly states you have entered the “Home of the World’s First Rodeo”. While the town of Deer Trail, Colorado, is quite certain the contest between a group of cowboys in July 1869 was the world’s first organized rodeo, towns in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona disagree.
Prescott, Arizona claims their 1888 rodeo was the first formalized rodeo. Proponents point out the Prescott rodeo was the first with an organizational committee, admission fee and prizes. Even the ProRodeo Hall of Fame points to the Prescott rodeo as the forerunner of the modern sport we know today.
Pecos, Texas claims their 1883 rodeo, five years earlier than Prescott, was the first. It seems a group of cowboys at a local saloon decided to hold a July 4th steer roping and bronc-busting competition. Local ranchers put up $40 in cash prizes for the event.
Payson, Arizona claims the “oldest, continuous rodeo”, beginning in 1884 and running annually for 136 years. Payson was one of the few that held their competitions though the war years. Although the continuous run is impressive, and all three rodeos were well organized with cash prizes, chronologically they were held at least fourteen years after Deer Trail’s rodeo in 1869.
But there may be a predecessor to Deer Trail’s 1869 rodeo. In 1847 a “Round-Up” in Santa Fe New Mexico is described in a letter by Captain Mayne Reid, an Irish immigrant and prolific American writer. Mayne writes, “At this time of year, the cowmen have what is called the round-up, when the calves are branded and the fat beasts selected to be driven to a fair hundreds of miles away. This round-up is a great time for the cowhand, a Donny-brook fair it is indeed. They contest with each other for the best roping and throwing, and there are horse races and whiskey and wines.”
There is little information about this event in Santa Fe. It does have the makings of the first rodeo, but from Mayne’s description seems to lack the prerequisites of organization and prizes.
It is clear that “round-ups” were common throughout the region, reaching south into Mexico and as far west as California. In fact, similar practices are documented dating back to the Spanish Conquistadors. It is almost certain these rodeo-style contests were held long before the declaration of the first “official” rodeo.
Back in Deer Trail it seems the title of title of “World’s First Rodeo” stands. Pre-dating the Texas and Arizona events, an old copy of the Field and Farm Journal of Denver describes the first organized competition of cowboys in 1869. That day’s bronc-riding winner was an Emilnie Gardenshire who rode a horse named Montana Blizzard. As Champion Bronc Buster of the Plains, Emilnie’s prize was a new set of clothes.
Although it may not have been the most organized or continuous rodeo in the country, in 1969 Colorado House Joint Resolution No. 1025 declared the first rodeo held in the world was in Deer Trail, Colorado on July 4, 1869.