The world-famous Pendleton Round-Up began in 1910 and continues to be one of the most popular rodeos in the world. Each year a bevy of beauties reigns over the festivities, and the Round-Up queen and her court, along with a pair of Native women representing Happy Canyon, spend 12 months traveling across the country to represent Pendleton and its iconic rodeo.
For 68 years, Laura McKee Thompson was accepted as the first queen of the Pendleton Round-Up, reigning over the 1911 rodeo. But a Sept. 14,1979 East Oregonian article reignited controversy that began in 1978 when Mildred Searcey, an Athena historian, author and former Round-Up Association office manager, declared that Bertha Anger Estes was actually the first Round-Up queen, though she was not elected as such by the Round-Up Association board. And Patty Daly, office manager for the Round-Up Association, said that official Round-Up records list Bertha Estes as the first queen.
In the run-up to the first Round-Up in 1910, local merchants sponsored young ladies who would sell tickets to the rodeo and ride on the business’ float during the Westward Ho! parade. Bertha Anger was sponsored by the People’s Warehouse and rode at the head of the float. After the rodeo was finished and the ticket sales were tabulated, she was declared the winner of the contest. But a search of the East Oregonian archives for 1910 and 1911 uncovered no mention of Miss Anger being the official queen. The only mention of her name was as one of 50 young ladies who were to dress in costume and ride floats in the parade.
Genevieve Clark Tromblay, a member of the 1910 and 1911 courts, said it wasn’t until after the parade that it was suggested they were the first Round-Up court. “They never really got that settled,” she said. “It’s all mixed up and nobody’s left anymore that’s connected with the People’s Warehouse to say.”
Mary Johnson of Hermiston, a family friend and surrogate niece of Laura Thompson, formally challenged the designation of Bertha Anger as the first Round-Up queen. She said it wasn’t until seven years later, in a Sept. 20, 1917 article, that any mention was made of the 1910 court. When Thompson herself was interviewed in 1978, she said she had no doubt that she was the first Round-Up queen, and had been considered so for years. The 1911 East Oregonian made special mention of “Round-Up Queen Laura McKee (later Thompson) surrounded by her maids, Misses Genevieve Clark, Iva Hill, Norma Alloway and Muriel Saling.”
“Aunt Laura has always been accepted as the first queen,” Mary Johnson said. “It was very embarrassing and humiliating for her when they said last year it was Bert Anger. It hurt her.”
So who really deserves the title of first Round-Up queen? The question may never be answered.