Pawnee Bill & May Lillie, c. 1890

Pawnee Bill & May Lillie, c. 1890

Gordon William Lillie (1860-1942) became famous as Wild West showman, Pawnee Bill.

Gordon Lillie was born February 14, 1860 in Bloomington, Illinois. His parents, Susan and Newton Lillie, owned a flour mill. Gordon was the oldest of the Lillie’s four children. His younger siblings were Lena, Effie, and Albert. As was typical of agricultural families all of the Lillie children worked alongside their parents at the mill. Gordon attended regular grammar school and according to his memoirs supplemented his reading assignments with dime novels, many of which described life in the Old West and Buffalo Bill. The Lillie’s mill was destroyed in a fire during the 1870s and the family relocated to Wellington Kansas. At this time the United States government was in the process of relocating a Pawnee Indian tribe from Nebraska to Indian Territory. That winter the Pawnees camped near Wellington and became temporary neighbors of the Lillie family. Gordon and his siblings spent a great deal of time with the Pawnees. Gordon developed a special friendship with Blue Hawk, a Pawnee scout.

After the Pawnee moved to Indian Territory Gordon decided to follow. He lived near the newly founded reservation with Blue Hawk, near present day Pawnee, Oklahoma. He worked in a local quarry and as a construction worker helping to build the house for the Indian agent. During this time Gordon hunted buffalo and fur trapped with the Pawnee. He acted as an interpreter for the local Indian agent and eventually he was hired as the agency secretary. When the reservation began a school, Gordon worked there as a teacher.

Gordon Lillie married young and petite May Manning in 1886; May (aka "Mae"; born "Mary") was seventeen years old. In 1888 Gordon and May Lillie launched their own show: Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West. Mae starred in the show as the “Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” Their first season was a financial disaster and they re-organized as a smaller operation called “Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West Indian Museum and Encampment Show.” The show traveled to Europe, performing in France and Belgium. The show was popular but not lucrative. They returned to the United States and added Jose Barrera to the cast; he was widely popular performing as Mexican Joe. In 1907 Gordon hired performers from a variety of backgrounds. He organized Mexican cowboys, Pawnee and Sioux scouts, Chinese and Japanese performers, and Arab jugglers. The ensemble debuted as the “Pawnee Bill’s Wild West and Great Far East Show.”

In 1908 rival showman 'Buffalo Bill' Cody’s managing partner, Bailey, died. Cody contacted Gordon and encouraged him to buy Bailey’s share of the show. The "Two Bills" merged shows and became "Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East" with Gordon as the managing partner. The show was a great financial success. However, in 1913 Cody signed a short-term loan agreement with a Denver businessman. He foreclosed on the show while it was playing in Denver Colorado. After the show closed Gordon returned to live at the ranch full time.

Previously, Blue Hawk sold Gordon and May Lillie some of his land in Pawnee, and the couple built a cabin and established a buffalo herd there. Gordon objected strenuously and frequently to the sportsmanship hunting of buffalo. He approached Congress several times with proposals that the sport be outlawed. While Gordon toured May supervised the buffalo ranch. The Lillies completed work on their Arts and Crafts style home on Blue Hawk Peak in 1910. Gordon invested in banking, real estate, and oil. In 1916 he and May adopted a baby boy whom they named Billy. Tragically, Billy died in an accident when he was eight years old. Gordon operated various business interests and dabbled in film at his ranch. In 1930 May and Gordon opened Pawnee Bill’s Old Town near the ranch. They sold Indian and Mexican crafts, and featured yearly rodeos.

In 1936 Gordon and May celebrated their fiftieth 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 Gordon lost control of their vehicle. May died as a result of her injuries and Gordon never fully recovered. He died in his sleep in 1942.

This photo was taken at Swords Bro's. Professional Photographers, York, PA.


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