Pendleton’s 1917 was a big year. As elsewhere in America, Pendletonians squared up to the challenge of the “World War,” following President Woodrow Wilson’s April 6 speech. The Pendleton Round-Up would mark its seventh anniversary in September. Already Pendleton and its rodeo had cemented the town’s reputation as the Round-Up City. It followed that both would salute Uncle Sam and join the war.
The Round-Up played a part in Pendleton’s war long before the U.S. entry. East Oregonian editor E.B. Aldrich followed the conflict closely from its outbreak in August 1914. He was horrified by the carnage of the first months, which saw nearly a million men killed, and he adamantly maintained that “this is not our war.” But he worried that it might yet draw in the U.S., and he believed knowledge is power. He seized upon the Round-Up, especially the EO Souvenir Edition, as a means of getting war features out to readers, placing them strategically.
For example, rodeo fans searching for coverage of the horse races got acquainted with “Three Men Who Direct England’s Fighting Army” on the same page. Similarly, readers admiring a trick rider’s photo would learn “How the Dynamite Storehouse of Europe Was Finally Exploded” in a neighboring column. Aldrich kept Round-Up themed articles coming, focusing on war horses. Reports came frequently of French and British representatives in the area, in search of quality replacement stock for cavalry and general use. Equine war casualties, readers learned, were staggering. Correspondent William Sims dramatized this point, grimly noting the battlefield deaths of “hundreds of horses a day” from wounds, “broken lungs, broken courage or broken hearts.” The war was surely an abstraction for rural Oregonians. Its packaging in Round-Up content was guaranteed to capture their attention.
When German attacks on U.S. shipping and sovereignty finally forced the U.S. into the war, the Pendleton Round-Up reported for duty. The show would go on, pomp and patriotism crowding into the arena with competitors and fans. Spectators thrilled to displays of the American flag and Round-Up legends like Yakima Canutt competing in military uniform. Afterwards, Pendleton’s draftees walked a little taller off to training camp.
The 1918 show stepped up big for the troops, “every cent” of the proceeds earmarked for the Red Cross. Three Round-Up directors — James Sturgis, Frederick Steiwer and Roy Ritner — volunteered for overseas war duty. Sturgis and Steiwer accepted commissions in the Army officer corps, while 41-year-old Ritner opted for service with the Red Cross. Round-Up President and Sheriff Til Taylor took command of the Umatilla County Guards, defending the home front.
Meanwhile, Round-Up heroes Dell Blancett and Lee Caldwell organized Pendleton’s marquee fighting force: Cavalry Troop D, a unit initially limited to Round-Up competitors such as 1915 bulldogging champ Frank Cable. Billed as Pendleton’s Rough Riders, they posed cowboy tough for the EO while training in then-Round-Up Park. The Round-Up’s Indian veterans marched off, too, notably Isaac Patrick, Gilbert Conner, Grover and Wilbur Minthorn and Johnson Barnhart. Troop D members assumed that Round-Up comrade George Fletcher would ride to war with them. But U.S. military authorities balked at putting African-Americans under arms alongside white soldiers, so Fletcher dismounted for service in an all-black unit.
Even as the Round-Up went overseas in the person of its participants, it began to bring the war home for Pendleton. Having failed his Army physical owing to a shoulder injury, Dell Blancett left Troop D to join the war in Canada. His unparalleled equestrian skills qualified him for service in France with Lord Strathcona’s Horse, an elite Canadian cavalry regiment. On March 30, 1918, the “Strats” rode into action against a resurgent German army at Moreuil Wood, near Amiens. Blancett became Pendleton’s first KIA when he fell in a fusillade of machine gun fire. In the EO, editor Aldrich urged shocked readers to “steel their souls” for victory to avenge their hero, and there was talk of a permanent monument in Round-Up Park. Ultimately, however, Blancett was commemorated in France on the great Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, his name among those whose bodies were never recovered.
Troop D swapped their horses for big guns when the Army suddenly reclassified them as field artillery. They still saw plenty of action, which they eagerly recounted in letters to the EO. Private Walter Belts introduced the new war in the air, describing shock-and-awe dogfights between Allied and German flying aces over his position. Sergeant Walter Gill was quick on the draw with his mask when clouds of mustard gas enveloped his trench. Elsewhere in France, Lieutenant Steiwer cast his new weaponry in terms Pendletonians could grasp: guns with a range “from Pendleton to Weston.” Lieutenant Sturgis survived his initial foray into French cuisine at the home of a French farmer. He bravely swallowed the snails served him, he reported, but curbed his enthusiasm, lest his host serve them again. George Fletcher took brief leave of his segregated unit to thrill French crowds with a trick-riding exhibition. A postwar photo told the story of Isaac Patrick’s faraway war: after battling Bolsheviks and brutal cold in the U.S. Army’s Siberian intervention, he posed proudly in a Russian fur hat.
As the conflict neared its end, the Round-Up became a place where Pendletonians took stock of their experience. Gold Star mothers and citizens with service flags sporting the names of every Pendleton serviceman headlined the 1918 Westward Ho! parade. In the arena, Dell Blancett’s widow Bertha — a future Round-Up Hall of Famer — competed sporting a gold-starred mourning band, recalling her husband’s tragic death. The EO Souvenir Edition provided readers with a detailed review of Pendleton’s war, including a special nod to lcoal Indians for exemplary service at the front and at home, with generous financial support.
The U.S.’s “World War” and the Pendleton Round-Up have both passed the century mark now. But these long ago stories of cowboys and Indians, town and country, war and remembrance continue to surprise and engage across the generations.
— Pendletonian Brigit Farley is a professor of history at WSU Tri-Cities.