Pawnee Bill

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Gordon William Lillie
Pawnee Bill.jpg
BornFebruary 14, 1860
DiedFebruary 3, 1942 (aged 81)
NationalityUnited States
Other namesPawnee Bill
OccupationWild West Show performer
SpouseMay Lillie (m.1886–1936, her death)

Gordon William Lillie (February 14, 1860 – February 3, 1942), known professionally as Pawnee Bill, was an American showman and performer who specialized in Wild West shows and was known for his short partnership with William "Buffalo" Bill Cody. In 2010, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.[1]

Early life and family[edit]

Pawnee Bill was born on February 14, 1860, in Bloomington, Illinois. His father Newton operated a flour mill in Bloomington; the mill burned to the ground in 1876.[2] 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 as the Pawnee interpreter with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. His work with the show was the origin of his nickname as "Pawnee Bill".[3]

Wild West show[edit]

Poster for Pawnee Bill's Historic Wild West.

After courting for two years, Lillie married May Manning in 1886, a petite Quaker from Pennsylvania. She was younger than he, a graduate of Smith College, and the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia physician. Her parents objected at first to their refined young daughter marrying a cowboy, but eventually they agreed to the union.[4]

In 1888, the Lillies launched their own Wild West show, which they called "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." That show was popular and financially successful. Lillie added Jose Barrera to the cast; he was widely popular performing as "Mexican Joe". Mamie Francis performed with Pawnee Bill's from 1901 to 1905. 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."[5]

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.[6]

While Gordon Lillie had been on tour, May supervised their buffalo ranch, now known as Pawnee Bill Ranch. The Lillies completed work on their Arts-and-Crafts style home on Blue Hawk Peak in 1910.[7]

Later life[edit]

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. He died in his sleep on February 3, 1942, at the age of 81 in his home outside of Pawnee, Oklahoma.[8]


The Pawnee Bill Ranch continues to exist, including a museum.[9] The Pawnee Bill Memorial Rodeo is held annually,[10] as is a version of Pawnee Bill’s Original Wild West Show.[11]


  1. ^ "Hall of Great Westerners". National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Retrieved November 22, 2019.
  2. ^ Willey, Eric. "One of Our Own: Pawnee Bill's Life as Viewed by Bloomington Residents." Bandwagon, 60, no. 4 (2016): 72-90.
  3. ^ Shirley (2017).
  4. ^ Enss, Chris (August 3, 2016). "Wild Woman Wednesday: May Manning Lillie". Cowgirl Magazine. Retrieved February 5, 2018.
  5. ^ Farnum; Bock (1992).
  6. ^ Wheeler (2006).
  7. ^ Kemp, Bill. "PFOP: Wild West legend Pawnee Bill got start in Bloomington". The Pantagraph. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  8. ^ "Famous 'Pawnee Blll' Dies on His Ranch in Oklahoma". Santa Ana Register. UPI. February 4, 1942 – via open access
  9. ^ "Pawnee Bill Ranch Historic Site & Museum". Retrieved March 23, 2020.
  10. ^ "Pawnee Bill Memorial Rodeo". City of Pawnee. Retrieved March 23, 2020.
  11. ^ "Pawnee Bill's Original Wild West Show". Oklahoma Historical Society. Retrieved March 23, 2020.


  • Farnum, Allen Lester; Bock, Harry V. (1992). Pawnee Bill's Historic Wild West: A Photo Documentary of the 1900-1905 Show Tours. Schiffer. ISBN 9780887404375.
  • Hyde, G. Hyde and Savoie Lottinville. The Pawnee Indians: Civilization of the American Indian Series, (2007).
  • Moses, L.G. Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883-1933. University of New Mexico Press, (1999).
  • Shirley, Glenn (2017). Pawnee Bill: A Biography of Major Gordon W. Lillie. Pickle Partners Publishing. ISBN 9781787203976.
  • Wallis, Michael. The Real Wild West, The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West. St. Martin's Press, New York. (1999).
  • Wheeler, Richard S. (2006). The Honorable Cody. Sunstone Press. ISBN 9780865345218.
  • Weltfish, G. The Lost Universe: Pawnee Life and Culture (1990).

External links[edit]