It Happened Here: Pendleton, Ore.

The Pendleton Round-Up is the home of the grass field and some of the greatest stories of rodeo lore.
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The Pendleton Round-Up is the home of the grass field and some of the greatest stories of rodeo lore.
Photo of Jackson Sundown. Credit: National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Photo of Jackson Sundown. Credit: National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Located in the northeastern corner of Oregon, the Pendleton area had long been a place where cowboys and Indians alike gathered to celebrate. In 1910, local attorney Roy Raley and a number of other businessmen decided to organize a formal celebration, and by 1911, the Round-Up was already making headlines.

Three finalists were chosen for the saddle-bronc championship that year: Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce; John Spain, a Caucasian; and George Fletcher, an African American. Sundown rode first, atop “Lightfoot,” for about 25 seconds before his horse collided with the judge’s, causing Sundown to come off (at this time, there was no time limit on rough stock competitions—exhibitionists rode until the animal quit bucking). Though some thought Sundown deserved a re-ride, he was disqualified. Next, Spain climbed aboard “Long Tom,” who crashed through the fence between the arena and the track. Spain stuck, but some claimed that he grabbed leather going through the fence. Finally, Fletcher mounted “Del” for a ride that lacked in the bucking department and so was reassigned to “Sweeney.” This next mount bucked hard and Fletcher spurred harder, waving his hat and causing the crowd to roar with approval.

The judges awarded Spain the championship, but when Fletcher rode past the grandstand, the crowd’s applause made it clear who they thought should have won. Acknowledging the audience’s obvious choice, Sheriff and Round-Up Director Tillman Taylor took Fletcher’s hat, cut it up, and sold the pieces to the crowd—which brought in enough money to buy Fletcher the $350 saddle he arguably should have won.

Sundown continued to compete as an all-around cowboy and was ready to retire after winning third in the 1915 bronc-riding championship, but when sculptor and friend Alexander Proctor offered to pay his entry fees, Sundown obliged. 

In his last legendary Round-Up ride, Sundown drew “Angel,” spurring her into a fit. Sundown, who began rodeoing in his 40s, won the bronc-riding championship, as well as the all-around. He was 53.

When the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame was founded in 1969, George Fletcher, Tillman Taylor, Roy Raley, and “Long Tom” were among the initial inductees. Jackson Sundown joined the ranks in 1972, and John Spain in 2011.

Plan It

The Pendleton Mill Store, in operation since 1909, offers tours on weekdays. Learn about their weaving process used in the creation of those USA-made products we love. 541-276-6911, pendleton-usa.com