By Danny Freeman and edited by Kathy Krause

The following article was originally written by Danny Freeman,who is the author of the book "World's Oldest Rodeo." This article has been edited by Kathy Krause.

The first formalized ‘rodeo’ was held in Prescott, Arizona Territory during the 4th of July celebration in l888 and has been a yearly event ever since. That first ‘rodeo’ was called a "Cowboy Tournament". It was added to the 4th of July activities that year to entice more people to come to town to enjoy the festivities and to spend money with the merchants. There was a planning committee of merchants and professional people to organize and stage the events including the cowboy contests. Admission was charged to help pay for prizes and other expenses. That first ‘rodeo’ was a success; contestants and spectators were thrilled and the entire event was documented and written up in the Arizona Journal-Miner newspaper.

Cowboys came from ranches throughout the country. The cowboy contests were bronco riding, steer roping and cow horse racing. In the bronco-riding contest, the contestants were required to bring their own horses and then before the event started, the judge had the cowboys exchange horses. Local and well-known men served as the judges. That first year, Mose Bryan of Prescott won the cow horse race. The first steer-roping contest was won by Juan Leivas. The steer received a 100-yard head start. Juan roped and tied him in one minute and seventeen seconds. For winning the steer-roping as well as first in bronco-riding, Juan received the trophy for "Best Cowboy." He was from Big Sandy Valley, Mohave County but was working on the Date Creek Ranch southwest of Prescott at the time. His 125 year-old trophy can be seen at Sharlot Hall Museum.

That first ‘rodeo’ was held in Forbing Park in Miller Valley in the northwest part of Prescott (near present day Watters Garden Center). The contests in later years were held at different locations, including the City Park (now Ken Lindley Field) on East Gurley Street. Beginning in 1913, it was held at the present rodeo grounds located just west of Miller Valley Road and has been at that location every year since.

From 1888 to 1924, the annual event was called by a number of other names such as Fiesta, Cowboy Contests, Stampedes, etc. The word ‘rodeo’ was first used in Prescott in 1924.

But how do we know that our rodeo is the "World’s Oldest"? In determining which rodeo was the oldest in the country, members of the Prescott Frontier Days Committee did a lot of research in the early 1980s. Their research concluded that in order to have a formalized rodeo certain criteria must be met: a committee was required to plan and stage the rodeo; cowboys were invited to compete; admission charged; prizes and trophies given and the contests had to be documented. Prescott’s 1888 event met all five requirements. With this information, the committee applied to the U.S. Patent Office to have "World’s Oldest Rodeo" registered. The application was approved and Service Mark No.l,353,477 was issued on August 6, l985.

There have been protests over the years. In l985, the game Trivial Pursuit had a card with the question, "What rough-and-tumble Western sport was first formalized in Prescott, Arizona? Answer: rodeo." This brought a protest from Pecos, Texas. Pecos claimed the answer on the card should have read Pecos, not Prescott. Pecos claimed that they had an earlier contest, but even some Texans agreed that that contest only happened once and was not repeated again until the late 1920s before becoming a yearly event. Pecos threatened to sue if the card was not changed to benefit Pecos and Prescott threatened to sue if the card were changed! The Trivial Pursuit people were surprised by the controversy and promised to check it out and see what could be done. After checking around, Trivial Pursuit sent Pecos and Prescott a letter stating, in effect, that after reviewing the matter, the card is correct and will remain as written. This ruling by Trivial Pursuit pleased the people of Prescott because they knew all along that Prescott’s rodeo was the oldest in the country. No further word was ever received from Pecos.

Payson, Arizona, also claimed to have the oldest rodeo, beginning in 1884, but reliable sources pointed out that those early contests in Payson were local cowboys competing in roping. They were not organized and the other criteria were not met. In addition, Payson has no documentation stating when its rodeo really started.

We know from local papers and records that Prescott did not close down the rodeo because of war or depression. According to the local paper, the show was held during the Spanish American War (only a few days after our hometown hero, "Buckey" O’Neill, had been killed in Cuba!), World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. For two years in the 1890s, nothing is mentioned in the newspaper of the contest, but ‘old-timers’ such as Sharlot Hall, Levi Jones and H. D. Aitken attested in the 1930s that the show was indeed held every year.

So, Rodeo fans enjoy the "World’s Oldest Rodeo" right here in "Everybody’s Hometown." Prescott, Arizona.

Danny Freeman is author of World’s Oldest Rodeo 100-Year History 1888-1988


Illustrating image
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number:(po1845p) Reuse only by permission.
Juan Leivas, c. 1890, winner of the "Best Cowboy" award at Prescott’s first ‘rodeo’ in 1888.


Illustrating image
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number:(po1067pa) Reuse only by permission.
Tom Mix had been a cowboy, ranch foreman, sheriff, deputy U.S. Marshal, Texas Ranger and rodeo performer before becoming a silent movie stuntman in 1909. When they started making westerns in Prescott, he quickly moved from stunt man to star. He made many movies around Prescott first with Selig then with Fox and later his own company. Tom Mix won first prize at the Prescott Frontier Days rodeo on July 5, 1913 for steer riding and bull dogging. This photo, with wonder horse "Tony" was taken in Prescott on July 4, 1920.