Dorothy Morrell was a superstar and a World Champion bronc buster.
But did you know she traveled to Prescott, Arizona, in 1919 to participate in the World’s Oldest Rodeo with her husband, Skeeter Bill Robbins?
The July 2, 1919, edition of the Weekly Journal-Miner, reported that Dorothy Morrell had “sent a wire to the management of the Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo advising them that she intended to come to Prescott to participate in any of the stunts of the Frontier Days contests, which are open for lady contestants.
And by all accounts, this is precisely what she did, evidenced by a poem titled, “Don’t Herd Your Pelf,” written by Dorothy’s husband, Skeeter Bill Robbins, and published in the Weekly Journal-Miner on July 7, 1919. In it, Robbins mentions her participation in the 1919 Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo along with the Duncan girls and Grace Porter, who were also bronc riders.
I have no earthly idea how Robbins came to title the poem. I assume he meant, Don’t Hurt Your Self. But we will never know for sure.
It must have been exciting for Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo spectators to see Dorothy Morrell in action. Her exhibition skills were a thing to behold. Not only was she an expert bronc rider, but she was also an accomplished trick rider with one hell of a way with a rope.
Dorothy Morrell was born in Russia on October 17, 1888, and immigrated with her family to Winnipeg, Canada, in 1889.
She spent her life riding broncos and performing stunts with her husband, Skeeter Bill Robbins, as part of 101 Wild West Shows.
Her career made her one of the most celebrated female riders ever to take up a saddle, inspiring future generations.
Dorothy Morrell and other women like her regularly competed in bronc riding in the early 20th century. Many women today who want to compete in bronc riding are not allowed. And it’s not for lack of trying. Many women today would welcome the opportunity to follow in Morrell’s footsteps. But they are shut out, save two, who have taken on the challenge—one a bronc rider and the other a bull rider.
Currently, 34-year-old Kaila Mussell and 19-year-old Maggie Parker are the only women I know allowed to compete with the boys in the PCRA (Professional Cowboy Rodeo Association). Kaila is also a member of the CPRA (Canadian Pro Rodeo Association).
Women are making strides to compete professionally again. Many women are active in bronc riding in ranch competitions throughout the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
Dorothy Morrell: A Pioneering Bronc Rider
Dorothy Morrell never intended to be a bronc rider. In 1913, she was studying to be a nurse. She had never ridden a horse in her life and couldn’t tell you the difference between a bridle and a martingale. All she knew about sticking a bronc could be put through the eye of a needle.
Morrell rode her first horse on a dare from a man that would later become her husband, Skeeter Bill Robbins. She took the dare and rode a mustang named Lillian Russell, and the rest is history.
In 1915, Dorothy was the star attraction at the 101 Ranch Show at “The Zone” (a half-mile-long street of amusement) in the Golden Gate recreation area of San Francisco at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
In the same Exposition, Dorothy was trampled by one of the bronc horses and was seriously injured, suffering a crushed and broken leg. The doctor who treated her at a San Francisco hospital said she would never ride again. Dorothy would later prove her doctor wrong.
The year before her injury in San Francisco, she won the World Championship for Bronc Busting at Cheyenne “Frontier Days” in Wyoming.
Morrell entertained crowds worldwide by riding the most fractious and dangerous horses available. She managed to stick on horses that had bucked off some of the best and loudest cowboys. She could rival the best of any man who ever set a horse.
Dorothy was a handsome woman, too. In her early 20s, she had snapping black eyes, jet-black hair, and a beautiful complexion. Reporters at the time say that she had a bit of a swagger when she walked, her jangling spurs singing the music of the wild west. Her voice had a soft and pleasing cadence, and many a cowboy was bewitched by her beauty.
No cowboy drawl either. Dorothy’s diction and grammar were always precise when she spoke, indicating she was a well-educated young woman and fit as a fiddle. She had the complete package, and the crowds loved her.
She and Skeeter Bill Robbins performed daring stunts such as standing atop two galloping horses while holding hands or jumping between them while still mounted. During their performances, they often paid homage to the traditional ranch lifestyle by dressing like cowboys with chaps, boots, and hats, using lassos during their showmanship displays.
Dorothy Morrell’s life inspired many, and her pioneering spirit will live on in the many women who compete in rodeos nationwide every year. If she were alive today, she would be the first to encourage women desiring to bronc ride today to give it a try.
Dorothy Morrell was a beautiful, well-mannered, and articulate woman. She was very involved with the Suffrage movement, was an accomplished lecturer, and frequently gave speeches.
Dorothy and her husband, Skeeter Bill Robbins, also acted in the movies with Tom Mix, Bill Hart, and Hoot Gibson. Skeeter Bill Robbins was the General Manager of Gibson’s Golden State Rodeo and became a silver-screen comedian.
Even at the age of 41, Dorothy was still performing in rodeos. She is remembered for her daring, proficiency, and commitment to the sport.
Dorothy Morrell’s career as a bronc rider was filled with hard work, dedication, and passion for the sport. Her legacy, along with many other women bronc riders of her day, lives on today in the world of women’s rodeo, where her influence is still felt through her many contributions.
Unfortunately, after 1929, bronc riding for women was over. Women were barred from competing largely due to the tragic and violent death of Bonnie Carroll while riding a horse named “Black Cat” at the Pendelton Oregon Roundup in 1929.
Many believe Bonnie’s death was caused by the hobbling of her feet in the stirrups. I don’t know how anyone could think this was a good idea or why it was even allowed to happen. Perhaps if her foot wasn’t hobbled, the foot could have been freed, and she may have lived. Whatever the actual cause, it was a sad day for women in the sport of bronc riding.
The decision to bar women from competitive bronc riding after Carroll’s death was no doubt a man’s decision. The decision to bar women from competitive bronc riding was made in a blind panic. Suddenly, women were looked at as too delicate to ride a bronc, even though they were every bit as good in the arena as a man.
A scholar and historian of rodeo cowgirls, Mary Lou LeCompte, said, “[Rodeo] was the first, and perhaps the only, sport in which men and women truly competed as equals.” When women were barred from bronc riding, LeCompte blamed Gene Autry, stating, “The end of women’s rodeo was Gene Autry. He put women in their place–in the square dances and out of competition.”
Today, women are making strides to compete in rough stock competitions right along with men.
I’m all for it. And trust me when I say that I know Dorothy Morrell and Bonnie Carroll would be right there supporting them today.
Celebrating Dorothy’s Life
Every year, rodeo competitions around the country celebrate the lives of all those lost in tragic ways by continuing the rodeo tradition.
Dorothy was a pioneering bronc rider who blazed a trail for female athletes everywhere. She competed in contests across the United States, Canada, and Europe during the Suffrage movement and when females were typically prohibited from competing with males in most athletic activities. Despite these odds, she excelled at riding bucking horses and even won several championships.
In addition to being an accomplished athlete, Dorothy also served as a mentor for aspiring young riders throughout her career.
We can show our appreciation for everything she did for the sport of rodeo—and female athletes everywhere by attending and supporting rodeo performances wherever we live in the country.
For women everywhere who want to compete in the boy’s club of Bronc riding, it’s a reminder that anything can be achieved if you put your all into it – just as Dorothy did in her time.
Dorothy died in August 1976 at the age of 87. She is buried in Canada. She was widowed in 1933 at the age of 45. Sadly, a driver struck and killed Skeeter Bill Robbins while cleaning the snow from his car headlights in Acton, California, in 1933. He is buried in North Hollywood, California.
Dorothy Morrell’s trick-riding skills and participation in 101 Wild West Shows alongside husband Skeeter Bill Robbins made Dorothy one of the most recognizable female bronc riders ever.
Her impact will remain remembered for years, an emblem in the rodeo realm. We can honor Dorothy’s life by learning more about her accomplishments and sharing our knowledge with others who may not have been aware of her incredible story.
It was wonderful to learn that Dorothy Morrell and her husband, Skeeter Bill Robbins, competed at the Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo in 1919. What an honor it must have been to have them here.
Do you believe women should compete as professional bronc riders today? Let us know what you think.