Racial Diversity at the Pendleton Round-Up

Ken Kesey, author of the great American novel, collaborated with long-time friend Ken Babbs for, Last Go Round in 1994. The book was appropriately titled; it was his final work of fiction. The story takes place at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, the second annual. The characters in the story were real people. Kesey’s father had told him stories about the Round-Up and the disputed results of the bronc-riding contest.

Pendleton citizens had such a good time 1909 with Fourth-of-July horse races, Indian dances, greased-pig contests and fireworks that they decided it should be an event on its own, separate from Independence Day. The first Round-Up took place in 1910 and has been held annually – except 1942-1943, World War II hiatus – every September since. The event brings more than 50,000 people to Pendleton, nearly quadrupling its population.

George Fletcher

It only took until the second Round-Up for controversy to arise. The headline event, the saddle-bronc-riding championship, featured three marquee names competing: George Fletcher, an African-American cowboy who grew up on the Umatilla reservation; Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce who was a nephew of Chief Joseph and was wounded in the 1877 war against the U.S. Army; and John Spain, an itinerate bronc rider of white European stock. Judges awarded Spain the first-place prize, a new saddle. The spectators in attendance considered Fletcher the clear winner and vociferously expressed their disagreement. To calm the crowd and avert a riot, the local sheriff took Fletcher’s hat, tore it up, sold the pieces and collected enough money for an equally-fine saddle for Fletcher, the champion by popular acclaim.

Jackson Sundown
John Spain

Ken Kesey took this story, embellished it and conjured up additional events and dialogue. The main characters were made even larger than they were in real life. John Spain’s hero, Buffalo Bill, was pulled into the story, as were a professional wrestler, an Indian preacher, a cowgirl and other real-life and legendary characters. Kesey first wrote Last Go Round as a movie script, but after unsuccessful attempts to sell it, he engaged Ken Babbs to assist him in turning into a novel. If you can’t make it to Pendleton for this year’s Round-Up, Kesey’s tall tale could be a good alternative.

In 2014 the city unveiled a statue of George Fletcher, along with two other local icons: brothel madam Stella Darby and former Pendleton High football coach Don Requa.

Jackson Sundown
George Fletcher

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