Lucille Mulhall with her kneeing horse at the Calgary Stampede, 1912 Glenbow Archives
At a Rough Riders reunion in Oklahoma
City in 1900, Theodore Roosevelt watched as the 14-year-old girl
galloped her horse, swinging a lasso overhead. When she roped around a
running steer, she beat sun-weathered cowboys for first prize.
Afterward, Roosevelt bowed to the girl and told her that none of his
troops could have done a better job.
The girl’s father, Zach Mulhall, later said that Roosevelt urged him to take her on the road. The country needed to see Lucille.
Lucille Mulhall was known as the first—or
original—cowgirl. She introduced countless audiences to the idea that a
woman could rope and ride better than men. “Although she weighs only 90
pounds she can break a broncho, lasso and brand a steer and shoot a
coyote at 500 yards,” wrote one reporter.
Mulhall became a symbol of the
Old West as it ebbed away with the turn of the century. With her
ranching background and daring rodeo performances, Mulhall linked
herself to open spaces and the freedom found riding astride in a divided
skirt and Western saddle.
Mulhall at the 1912 Calgary Stampede. (Photo: Courtey Calgary Stampede)
In one routine, Mulhall roped eight
galloping horses; in another, she lassoed a “horse thief,” and then
cowboys pretended to hang him. Lucille’s trick horse, Governor, could
kneel, play dead, ring a bell, take off Lucille’s hat, and sit back
while crossing his forelegs, like a bored spectator. Mulhall’s company
performed in New York City, and with their time off they thundered
through Central Park in full Western regalia. A young Will Rogers,
Mulhall’s early co-star who went on to enormous fame as a performer and
humorist, performed rope tricks alongside her, and Tom Mix, who would
become a leading movie cowboy, rode with the Mulhalls, too.
Sometimes, things got truly wild: at one
event, a steer got loose and bolted up some steps, scattering
spectators. The steer then tossed an usher who tried to grab his horns,
and vanished behind the box seats. Will Rogers headed the steer off and
rushed him back down the steps, hooves clattering, to the ring. During
all this, people heard Zach Mulhall shouting at his daughter. Why did
Lucille not “follow that baby up the stairs and bring him back”?
Mulhall provided some rich fodder for the
florid prose of the day. Here’s a reporter describing her background in
1903: “The plucky maid of the mountains was born and brought up, a
veritable child of nature, on a ranch in Oklahoma. Instead of a baby’s
rattle she heard the tinkle of spurs. Her cradle was the saddle. She
cannot recall a time when she could not ride a horse.” Mulhall gave
lively quotes, too. “I feel sorry for the girls who never lived on a
cattle ranch and have to attend so many teas, and be indoors so much,
with never anything but artificiality about them,” she told a St. Louis
reporter in 1902.
President Roosevelt wanted an Oklahoma
wolf, Mulhall said in 1905. But he would only accept it on the condition
that she roped it herself. She promised, and sighted the wolf she
wanted: a gray one, as big as a year-old steer. Mulhall chased the wolf
through canyons and over prairies, and roped him once only to have him
chew through her lariat and escape. Finally, he wore himself out. She
captured him, and sent his pelt to a taxidermist in Saint Louis. Next,
it was shipped, express, to Oyster Bay, for Roosevelt’s curio room. “I
have a letter from Mrs. Roosevelt telling about the arrival of Mr.
Wolf,” noted Mulhall. “She said that it was amusing to see the way the
dogs acted when they saw him come in the house.” Later, Roosevelt gave
By 1916, Mulhall was producing her
own rodeo. Lucille Mulhall’s Big Round-Up showcased bucking horses and
roping contests. With the Round-Up, Mulhall could also offer competition
and employment for other cowgirls, no longer a novelty.
But for Will Rogers, Mulhall would always
be the first cowgirl, he wrote in 1931: “There was no such thing or no
such word up to then.” That same year, Mulhall also noted a changing of
“Something has passed with the old life,” she said. “This new
day is probably fine, too, but I loved the unfenced range and the open
prairie and the boundless friendliness of the cattle country.”
Mulhall’s last public appearance was in
September of 1940; she died in a car accident that December. On the day
of her funeral, the Oklahoma mud was so slippery that cars were useless,
so a neighbor’s plow horse pulled her hearse. “A machine killed Lucille
Mulhall,” reported the Daily Oklahoman, “but horses brought her to her final resting place.”