Continuing the discussion of diversity in the west, let’s talk about Jesse Stahl.
In 1912, when Jesse Stahl was about 30, he began riding on the rodeo scene. His background was a bit of a mystery. He lacked a southern drawl but some thought he was born in Tennessee or Texas. Others thought he was from Eureka, California. Some thought he was born in 1883, others thought 1879.
Despite all of these unknown facts there are two things that we know for sure. The first is that he had a brother named Ambrose. The second is that he was one of the best damn bronc riders.
Here he is riding Glass Eye (which we’ll get to in a moment).
One theory on why black cowboys, and Jesse Stahl in particular, were such great riders is because they did extra work at the ranches where they were hands. Some accounts say that the black hands were given the job of breaking extra horses before eating breakfast each morning.
He was a gifted showman and traveled all over the country competing and putting on exhibitions.
He and another black cowboy, Ty Stokes, would both sit on a horse, one facing the front end and the other facing the rear, while it tried to buck them off. Each position required a different skill set and they would alternate positions with each show.
He would ride a wild horse backwards.
Saddle bronc riding was where Stahl truly excelled. Back then there were only two rules:
- The rider must hold the reins with one hand and the free hand must not touch anything else.
- The rider who stayed on the longest won
The rider would ride the bucking bronco until it stopped or he was thrown. In modern rodeos the rider is judged on an 8 second ride.
There were times that the white judges would place his rank lower and other times that white cowboys refused to ride against him (because if his skill or his race is unknown). The crowds loved him however and promoters started paying him to do exhibition rides. An old timer is is quoted as saying that Jesse Stahl was “most remembered for winning first, but getting third.”
Some black men in the audiences, especially back East, didn’t know that there were black cowboys. There are reports of men returning with friends and family to meet Jesse Stahl.
In 1927 the people of San Ardo California wanted to see the great Jesse Stahl in action but there was a small problem. They didn’t have an arena, or any other appropriate venue, except for a field. So they made a circle with their cars around the field.
Now let’s talk about Glass Eye. The Wild West Show of 1912 was held in Salinas California. It was the second year of the big event and women were allowed to ride for the first time. There were four thousand people in attendance including politicians and other dignitaries. San Francisco mayor “Sunny” Jim Rolph was in attendance.
It was apparent that Glass Eye was the wildest bronc that people had seen in a long time. He exploded out of the gate with incredible force. He jumped, stomped, and twisted. As soon as one end was on the ground he threw the other end of his body up trying to do everything possible to throw Jesse Stahl.
Stahl used every skill and trick in his bag to stay in the saddle. And he did. Suddenly, Glass Eye was out of gas and came to a halt, breathing hard and catching his breath. Jesse Stahl had ridden the fearsome Glass Eye to a stand still. The legend of Jesse Stahl began.