Pawnee Bill

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Pawnee Bill (1860–1942), born Gordon William Lillie, was a Wild West showman and performer.

Best known for his short partnership with Buffalo Bill, Pawnee Bill was born February 14, 1860, in Bloomington, Illinois. His father, Newton, operated a flour mill in Bloomington until it burned to the ground in the 1870s. The family then moved to Wellington, Kansas where Gordon developed a love for the west. By the age of 19, he was working on the Pawnee Indian agency in Indian Territory. In 1883, he was given the chance to work with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show as the Pawnee interpreter. This work with the show would give him his nickname Pawnee Bill.[1]


Gordon and May Lillie.

Lillie married young and petite May Manning in 1886, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, after courting her for two years. In 1888 the Lillies launched their own Wild West show: "Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West". May starred in the show as the “Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” Their first season was a financial disaster. They re-organized as a smaller operation called “Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West Indian Museum and Encampment Show.” The show was popular and financially successful. Gordon Lillie added Jose Barrera to the cast; he was widely popular performing as "Mexican Joe". In 1907 Lillie hired performers from a variety of backgrounds. The show included Mexican cowboys, Pawnee, Japanese performers, and Arab jugglers. The ensemble debuted as “Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East Show.”[2] In 1908 Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill joined forces and created the "Two Bills' show. That show was foreclosed on when it was playing in Denver, Colorado.[3]

Poster for Pawnee Bill's Historic Wild West.

While Gordon Lillie had been on tour, May supervised the buffalo ranch, now known as Pawnee Bill Ranch. The Lillie's completed work on their Arts-and-Crafts style home on Blue Hawk Peak in 1910. Pawnee Bill invested in banking, real estate, and oil. He operated various business interests and dabbled in film making at his ranch. In 1930 May and Pawnee Bill opened Pawnee Bill’s Old Town near the ranch. They sold Indian and Mexican crafts, and featured annual rodeos. That enterprise burned to the ground in the 1940s and was never rebuilt.

In 1936 the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Taos, New Mexico. In September of that year they attended a local celebration in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While driving back to their ranch that night, Pawnee Bill lost control of their vehicle. May died as a result of her injuries and Pawnee Bill never fully recovered.

A newspaper clipping by the (AP) at the time of his demise, listed this article in the newspaper entitled: "Pawnee Bill" Dies; Was Frontiersman

Quote: "Pawnee Okla.,Feb 4---(AP)----"Maj. Gordon W. "Pawnee Bill" Lillie, frontiersman, wild west showman and last surviving leader of the Oklahoma boomers, is dead.

The stocky, white-haired old veteran died last night at his buffalo ranch. He would have celebrated his 82nd birthday On Valentine's Day.

He has been an invalid since 1936, when he was injured in an automobile accident near Cleveland, Oklahoma. His wife Lilly, was killed.

Pawnee Bill was captain of the boomer movement, which had for its purpose the colonization of Oklahoma Territory.The boomers had become a menace to the peace of the communities along the border of Oklahoma territory and in 1888 Pawnee Bill was employed by the Wichita, Kansas, Chamber of Commerce to organize the scattered bands and lead them into the new country.

Lillie, who took the job because the show business was in a slump, assembled about 4000 followers and moved to Caldwell Kansas, preparatory to an invasion of Oklahoma. The pressure of this group was credited with speeding through Congress a bill opening Oklahoma for settlement in 1889.

Pawnee Bill was a colorful showman.

Once, when playing to empty houses in Belgium, he saw that a balloon ascension was getting a big play. He got on it. The balloon broke away and for three days he and the balloonist sat in the basket and gestured at each other. Neither spoke the others language"...End of quote.

He died in his sleep in 1942, at the age of 81.

See also[edit]

List of Wild West shows



Thomas A.Link's contribution, who is from Greenville, Darke County, Ohio Valley, sharing newspaper article passed down through the years by a Native American "OTTAWA", Ruth Johnston, his Grandmother, whose family was from Northeastern Oklahoma.

  1. ^ Shirley, Glenn, The Biography of Gordon W. Lillie.
  2. ^ Pawnee Bill's Historic Wild West by Allen Farnum,(1992).
  3. ^ The Honorable Cody by Richard Wheeler (2006).

External links[edit]