"Pawnee Bill" Lillie 1860-1942
Looking across the Oklahoma
prairie, one can imagine scenes once visible to the people of the frontier:
No Man's Land, Indian Territory, cowboys, buffalo, and the great rolling
No other Oklahoman exemplified "The Wild West" as did Gordon
W. Lillie ...Pawnee Bill. He was born in Illinois in 1860 and became interested
in the west as a child. He came to Indian Territory in 1875 and was appointed
teacher for the Pawnee Indians in 1879, the tribe gave him the moniker
by which the world would know him: Pawnee Bill. In 1883, Gordon W. Lillie
joined the newly formed "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show" as an
interpreter and performer.
Designed to entertain rather than to educate, the Wild West shows painted
for city slickers a dramatic and thrilling picture of life in the largely
In 1886 he married May Manning, a 15 year old girl from Philadelphia he
had met while traveling with the show. In 1888 Pawnee Bill formed his
own "Wild West Show" and May, a proper Eastern lady, learned
to ride and shoot and soon became a headliner in the show. A very popular
act for her marksmanship and riding. The original show featured trick
riding, shooting, and roping. During the performance, Pawnee Bill and
his cowboys rode to the rescue of passengers on a stage coach being held
up by outlaws.
Pawnee Bill's Wild West show hit the road in the spring of 1888. It starred
May Lillie, Trapper Tom, brother Al Lillie, Indians from five different
tribes, 165 people, 165 animals, and Pawnee Bill himself.
In 1908, Pawnee Bill merged his Wild West Show with the Buffalo Bill Wild
West Show and the combined show became know as "The Two Bills' Show."
It was billed as the entertainment triumph of the ages and it traveled
all over the world entertaining audiences with both realistic and fantasy
views of the Old West. The show closed in Denver, Colorado, in 1913 after
touring for five seasons as "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee
Bill's Great Far East Show." Pawnee Bill now became active in many
civic and charitable organizations.
Between oil, banking, and real estate, Pawnee Bill and May were secure
for the rest of their lives. Their ranch became a gathering spot for famous
people from around the world.
In 1903 Pawnee Bill purchased land from Blue Hawk, his Pawnee friend whom
he had met prior to his coming to Indian Territory in 1879, and built
a log cabin on the property for himself and May. Their $100,000 mansion
was started on the highest point of the property in 1908 and completed
in 1910 when they moved in and left the log cabin for ranch hands to use.
He and May finally found time for a child and adopted a baby boy in 1916.
However Billie was killed in an accident on the ranch when he was only
nine years old. By 1930 Lillie had pioneered the construction nearby of
Old Town, and an Indian trading post in an effort to retain some of the
flavor of the old west.
Pawnee Bill, always an entertainer and interested in preserving the Old
West for future generations, built "Pawnee Bill's Old Town and Trading
Post" two miles west of his buffalo ranch. This tourist attraction
was complete with rustic cabins to rent, restaurants featuring buffalo
steaks, Indian dancing, Indian tepees and mud lodges, and buffalo grazing
in the background.
It was the scene of many large statewide celebrations for the boy scouts
as well as other organizations and famous people. Old Town burned to the
ground in 1944 and with it some of the finest objects of Indian art and
artifacts of the Old West were destroyed.
Pawnee Bill and May Lillie celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary
at a special celebration in their honor in Taos, New Mexico, in August
of 1936. Two weeks later May was fatally injured in an auto accident while
Pawnee Bill was driving home from Tulsa. She died September 14 of that
Pawnee Bill died in 1942, just eleven days before his 82nd birthday. Even
in his last years, time that had whitened his hair had not dimmed the
piercing grey eyes nor the spirit of this old frontiersman.
The year before his death he still presented a lithe, immaculate figure
in buckskins and wide sombrero. With his long hair touching his shoulder,
he still was that picturesque character who, in a varied lifetime, had
been a deciding factor in the settlement of the state of Oklahoma.