A True Pioneer
It is almost September, which means it’s almost time for another Pendleton Round-Up.
The town of Pendleton is home to our original mill, and our company has been involved with the Round-Up since its very beginning, including the controversial saddle bronc competition of 1911 immortalized by Oregon’s Ken Kesey in his novel, The Last Go-Round.
It was around a sagebrush campfire in eastern Oregon that Kesey first heard the tale from his father – about the legendary “last go round” that took place at the original Pendleton Round Up in 1911. Hundreds of riders were competing for the first World Championship Broncbusting title, but it was one special trio of buckeroos that provided the drama: a popular black cowboy, George Fletcher; a Nez Perce Indian cowboy, Jackson Sundown; and a fresh-faced kid from Tennessee name of Johnathan E. Lee Spain. Who would walk away with the prize money and the silver-studded saddle? When the dust cleared, everyone knew they’d witnessed something extraordinary (Amazon.com).
We’ve written before about Jackson Sundown. Today, we’d like to talk about another one of those three cowboys: saddle bronc rider George Fletcher.
Fletcher was born in 1890 in Saint Mary’s, Kansas. His family came West on the Oregon Trail when he was quite young. He grew up near Pendleton, Oregon, working with horses at ranches and on the Umatilla Reservation. He entered his first rodeo at the age of 16 and went on to become one of the finest saddle bronc riders on the circuit.
Fletcher is best remembered for his presence at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, where he was the first African American to ever compete in bronc riding. Judges awarded first prize (the winner’s saddle) to Spain. Second place went to Fletcher and third to Sundown.
To put it mildly, the crowd did not agree with the decision. Witnesses said the enraged audience began to take apart the grandstand, plank by plank. In order to calm the crown, Sheriff Til Taylor tore George Fletcher’s hat into pieces. He sold the scraps to the audience until he had raised enough money to buy Fletcher a champion’s saddle, declaring him “The People’s Champion.”
Fletcher continued to ride, but he was not allowed to compete in many large rodeos. Other cowboys refused to compete against him, due to both his skill and his race. But he continued to display his skills. According to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, “Fletcher made exhibition rides on rank broncs, bulls and buffalos at Pendleton and elsewhere prior to his service in World War I. After the war he cowboyed for many years in Oregon…George Fletcher passed from the arena in 1971.”
When the Round-Up began its Hall of Fame in 1969, Fletcher was among the first group of ten honorees. Learn more about the Hall of Fame here: Pendleton Round-Up Hall of Fame
In 2001, George Fletcher was inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. See his entry here: George Fletcher at the Rodeo Hall of Fame
In 2014, the city of Pendleton erected a bronze statue of George Fletcher by artist Jerry Werner.
The statue is located the 300 block of Main Street as part of Pendleton’s Bronze Trail, which commemorates people and places in the town’s history. You can read more here: The Bronze Trail
In 2019, acclaimed children’s author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson published a picture book about Fletcher’s legendary ride. Learn more about it here: Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion
In 2021, Travel Oregon posted a feature on George Fletcher. Read it here: Pendleton Pioneers who Paved the Way for Diversity
In 2021, the city of Pendleton unveiled a George Fletcher mural. See it here: Pendleton Mural Honors Cowboy George Fletcher
Learn more about the Pendleton Round-Up here: The Pendleton Round-Up
And if you’re ready for a wild and wooly (and fictionalized) deep dive, Ken Kesey’s novel is here: The Last Go Round