As a child I constantly heard far-fetched stories about relatives and ancestors who had incredibly interesting lives, mostly in Texas and Indian Territory. This included tales of bootleggers, gun slingers, Cherokee and Chickasaw ancestors, Wild West stars, a professional boxer who beat Jack Dempsey and...the list goes on.
When I came across photographs of one of these mythic relatives on Ebay, I started to wonder if some of the tales had been factual. What started out as a curious search to discover the story of my great-uncle, Bee Ho Gray, turned into a 300-page biography, complete with 32-pages of photographs. (The Legendary Life of Bee Ho Gray, JMH Publishing, 267 pages.)
Bee Ho was one of the most versatile and interesting figures in the history of Western performance. He was part of a small group of performers who essentially created the worldwide conception of the Wild West. He was born on the Chickasaw Nation in 1885 and was named by Quanah Parker, last chief of the Comanche. He used his time in Indian Territory as a springboard to a fifty-year career as a trick roper, trick rider, banjoist, knife thrower, whip artist, actor and comedian. He performed with many Wild West shows including the famous Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. His friends and daily companions were legends like Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Bill Pickett, Iron Tail and many others who defined the legacy of the American West.
Bee Ho won the title of "World Champion Trick and Fancy Roper" at Guy Weadick's Winnipeg Stampede in 1913 and held it until 1916 when he lost it to Chester Byers at the New York Stampede. Bee Ho taught many of his best rope tricks to Will Rogers (as acknowledged by Rogers in one of his books). He developed several unique riding tricks and even escorted Sioux Chief Iron Tail to New York to model for the artist who created the likeness on the "Indian Head Nickel." He moved from Wild West and round-up competitions to vaudeville stages, Broadway, silent films and radio where he performed with the likes of Bing Crosby and Fred Stone until his death in 1951.
|I spent two years gathering letters, photographs, newspapers, magazines, and books that discussed Bee Ho. I also found a number of people, mostly in their 80s and 90s, who personally knew my great-uncle or remembered seeing his show. The process of deciphering the family myths surrounding my great-uncle took me to several states and introduced me to many people who lived through an interesting part of American history, the early 20th century.