Image for Rodeo Celebrates Rich Heritage and Diversity

Pendleton Round-Up: Where Rural and Urban Oregonians Celebrate Together

Umatilla County is conspicuously absent from the 12 Eastern Oregon counties that have voted to join Greater Idaho. The annual Pendleton Round-Up may be a reason why.

The first Pendleton Round-Up took place in September 1910 with the billing as “a frontier exhibition of picturesque pastimes, Indian and military spectacles, cowboy racing and bronco busting for the championship of the Northwest.”

In its more than 100-year history, the Round-Up has become an institution with an impressive vision statement that says it “stands as a remarkable nonprofit community organization dedicated to the preservation and celebration of our rich western heritage, diverse cultures and vibrant community spirit.”

That vision was exemplified in the most recent rendition of the Round-Up that was attended by more than 40 members of the Urban League of Portland, an organization founded in 1945 to advocate for Black Oregonians.

Urban League CEO Nkenge Harmon Johnson organized the outing to make attendees more comfortable but also to expose them to a place “outside their bubble” that is open to cultural diversity and includes Black residents in rural Oregon.

“That was really the impetus that drove me to say, ‘Oh no no, this isn’t a once-in-a-while thing that we do,’” Harmon Johnson said. ‘We will do this every year because there are people here in the community who want to further connect with us and we want to connect with them.’”

A statue of a Black cowboy stands on Main Street in Pendleton. He was cheated out of his rodeo victory but was crowed the People’s Champion.

Black Cowboys
While only 1 percent of Umatilla County’s population is Black, it has a long history of accepting Black cowboys, smokejumpers and loggers.

A statue stands on main street in Pendleton of George Fletcher, who moved to Pendleton as a child, learned bronco riding on the Umatilla Indian Reservation and was cheated out of a prize in the 1911 bronc riding competition. A man in the crowd sensing Fletcher was wronged, snatched Fletcher’s cowboy hat and circulated it around the aroused crowd. When it went through the stands, the hat contained $700 in $5 bills, twice what the “winner” received.

As Fletcher stared at the hat brimming with cash, he was hoisted on the shoulders of the crowd and declared “The People’s Champion”, a phrase gracing his statue. Fletcher fought in World War I, was injured and never competed again in bronc riding. He lived in Pendleton until his death in 1973. His statue was erected in 2014.

Black Smokejumpers
During World War II, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the only Black parachute unit, trained at the Pendleton Air Base. The unit, known as the Triple Nickles, had received its initial training at bases in Georgia and North Carolina. It was sent to Pendleton to train as smokejumpers.

The Triple Nickles’ assignment was to parachute into Western areas where Japanese balloon bombs fell and ignited wildfires. The unit’s Operation Firefly responded to 36 incidents in forests from Canada to California and as far inland as Idaho and Montana.  One smokejumper died from a 150-foot fall in an operation at the Umpqua National Forest near Roseburg.

Unlike Black cowboys, the Black paratroopers weren’t warmly welcomed. They only could eat a two restaurants and go to one bar in Pendleton. The cold shoulder didn’t prevent the members of the battalion from reaching out. They performed a smoke jumping demonstration at the Pendleton Round-up and they spontaneously marched on Main Street. The unit returned to their original North Carolina base in 1945.

The outreach in Pendleton had a delayed effect. Members of the unit were invited back to Pendleton in 1997 and in 2008 to mark the naming of a conference room after the Triple Nickles at the Oregon National Guard Aviation Support Facility.

Black Loggers
In the early 1920s and 1930s, Black loggers were part of the crew manning the Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company in a town called Maxville, which at the time was the largest town in Wallowa County. They worked side by side with white loggers but lived in segregated housing and their children attended segregated schools. There even was an all-Black baseball team.

At the time, Oregon’s exclusion laws prohibited free Black people to move to and work in the state. The Oregon governor at the time was reputedly a Ku Klux Klan member.

The Great Depression triggered a severe economic downturn that resulted in the closure of the lumber mill, ending most jobs felling timber. The few Black families that remained in the hard-hit town moved 1in the mid-1940s after a winter storm damaged what remained of the town. Maxville became a ghost town.

Now descendants of Black logging families have established the Maxville Heritage Interpretative Center. A key goal is interviewing the surviving members of Maxville. The story-gathering has produced related stories from Native American, Greek and Japanese logging families who lived in or near Maxville.

Black Hermiston City Councilor
The Urban League contingent met with Jackie Linton, a Black woman who grew up in Hermiston, moved away, came back and decided to run for the city council. Her first attempt to unseat an incumbent  in 2018 was unsuccessful. She ran again in 2022 and won. “I ended up winning,” Linton said, “because voters felt the same way” about many city council positions. Linton is the first Black city councilor in Hermiston.

The Pendleton Round-Up draws huge crowds, including from urban Oregon. The Round-Up showcases events and a lifestyle very different from urban life. It also offers a moment in time to discover common interests and shared values.