Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce Indian, was named the champion buckaroo of the 1916 Pendleton Round-Up with a sensational ride on Angel to win the saddle bronc contest. But while the crowd cheered their acclaim for the 50-year-old’s feat, only a handful in the arena that day knew just how Sundown won the judges’ approval against fierce competition.
Sundown’s closest competitor in the final go-round was Rufus Rollen of Claremore, Okla., a renowned champion rider, who drew the famous Long Tom as his mount. Both men had successful rides, but the crowd was wowed by Sundown’s flashy style and roared their approval. The judges acceded after just a few minutes, but based their decision on very specific points of difference between the rides of the two men.
Sundown rode first, using an old saddle with a slick tree and the standard-issue halter and rope provided by the Round-Up. He constantly spurred Angel throughout the ride, waving his large hat in the air, long woolly chaps flapping like flags. It was an all-or-nothing ride and a huge gamble.
Rollen, who rode last, was the favorite to win the contest. He used a saddle with large, square-cut bucking rolls designed to help the rider keep his seat, and brought his own halter rope, which was made of cotton and braided and plaited at the end to give him a good grip. Cowboys familiar with Old Tom also suggested that Rollen keep his spurs in the cinch and “ride safe,” which he did.
The bucking rolls and braided halter rope were legal, but in the end they may have been Rollen’s downfall. The judges marked Rollen’s ride down because Sundown had neither advantage. Rollen’s decision not to spur his mount also contributed to his second-place finish.
Sundown was pretty sore and fighting a cold the day following his championship ride, and told the East Oregonian that he was done with riding bucking horses. He planned to return to his Idaho ranch and teach young Native men how to ride. And when he went to Hamley’s to claim his $350 championship saddle, he was disappointed to find out he couldn’t have his wife’s name engraved on the silver plate reserved for the champion’s inscription.