By Danny Freeman 

The first formalized rodeo was planned and staged in Prescott, Arizona Territory, during the 4th of July celebration in 1888. Others may claim to be older, but Prescott can prove when its rodeo started because it was written up in the local paper at the time. 

August 6, 1985, "World's Oldest Rodeo", was registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. This registration is renewed every five years. Also, in the 1980's, the international popular parlor card game, Trivial Pursuit, had this question on one of its cards: "What rough-and-tumble western sport was first formalized in Prescott, Arizona ? Answer: rodeo."

In reality "rodeos" have been held in this country for more than 400 years since the Spanish people brought cattle and horses to America. Rodeo in Spanish means to surround or to round up. However, the word "Rodeo" for cowboy sports was not used until 1916 and not in Prescott until 1924. The first "rodeo" in Prescott was called a Cowboy Tournament. From 1888 to 1924 the annual event was called by a number of different names such as Fiesta, Cowboy Contests, Stampedes, etc. 

That first rodeo in Prescott in 1888 had all the same ingredients as do present day rodeos. First, there was a committee of merchants and professional people to handle the event; cowboys were invited to participate; contestants were charged an entry fee and admission was charged the people who came to watch; prizes of merchandise and cash were offered to the winning cowboys; a trophy was presented to the "Best Cowboy". This trophy is on display at Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott; and finally, the entire event was documented and written up in the Arizona Journal-Miner newspaper which is also at Sharlot Hall Museum. 

The winner of the "Best Cowboy" trophy was Juan Leivas, a cowboy from Big Sandy Valley, Mohave County, but who was working on the Date Creek Ranch southwest of Prescott at the time of the Cowboy Tournament in 1888. His picture is on file at Sharlot Hall Museum (and shown with this article). 

Prescott was the first capital of Arizona Territory established in 1864. At that time the only people in the area were a few gold and silver miners and soldiers at nearby Ft. Whipple. Soon ranchers migrated to Prescott bringing cattle and horses with them. By 1866, two years after the town was started, horse racing began because ranchers were anxious to race their prized animals against others. Townspeople enjoyed the races as well. Horse racing has been a major source of interest and entertainment in Prescott since 1866. There was betting on the races from the beginning. Pari-mutuel betting, supervised by the State of Arizona, did not begin in Prescott until 1950, after a state law was passed in 1949 setting up the State Racing Commission charged with overseeing pari-mutuel betting. 

Since 1864 the 4th of July celebrations have been a big part of Prescott. Events in the early days included patriotic speeches, band concerts, fire company contests, hard-rock drilling contests by miners, parades, and special drills by cavalry soldiers from Ft. Whipple. This time of year has always been festive and joyous in Prescott. 

In 1888 the merchants and professional people of Prescott realized that if more people could be persuaded to come to Prescott and stay a few days they would spend extra money which would be good for the town. That was when the idea came to have a Cowboy Tournament to add to the already popular and always scheduled horse racing. Most townspeople knew the ranchers and cowboys of the area and were sure they would participate if invited and prizes offered. 

The events planned and staged at that first rodeo in 1888 included bronc riding, steer roping and cow pony racing along with one major horse race of known horses. It promised to be a first class extravaganza and it turned out to be just that. Those in attendance as well as the participants and contestants judged it a huge success and a lot of fun, and the concesus of all was to make it an annual event. And so it has been. This year, 1997, will mark the 110th consecutive year the big rodeo and all its appendages has been held in Prescott around the 4th of July. One day of the show is always on the 4th. 

All reading this, and others, are cordially invited to come to Prescott this year (1997) and enjoy the festivities. You will be happy you did and will enjoy every minute of it. The dates of Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo this year are July 2nd through the 6th, Wednesday through Sunday. There will be eight performances, four at night and four in the afternoon. 

Danny Freeman is the author of the book "World's Oldest Rodeo"

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (po1845p)
Reuse only by permission.

Juan Leivas was the winner of Prescott's "First Fourth of July Tournament" rodeo held in 1888.