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America's first Great Endurance Race

 by CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS

In this modern era of countless endurance races, it is easy to forget that the first great American endurance ride, that hard-riding granddaddy of them all, the Great American Cowboy Race, started as a joke.

Before it was over the 1,000 mile free-for-all had pitted Eastern sentimentalists against Western realists, introduced the concept of veterinarian inspections into horse racing, got Buffalo Bill Cody shaking his bearded head over a legal headache and given news-hungry Europeans plenty of stories about daring cowboy racers like Rattlesnake Pete riding half-wild broncos called Poison and Geronimo.

It was a ride to remember, even if it has been largely forgotten, and endurance racing today and cash-strapped cowboys back then might not be the same if the greatest practical joker in the history of the American West hadn’t decided to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible folks back East.



He was called “Paralyzer of the Truth” Maher, and if ever a man lived whose word was suspect from the gloomy woods of Maine to the hot swamps of Okeechobee, it was John Maher.

History does not record how or why he invented the myth, some wags said lie, about the up-coming Great Cowboy Race that he sent back east to several prominent newspapers.  The spring of 1893 found Maher at work in his capacity as clerk of Dawes County, Nebraska.  Situated as he was there in the growing town of Chadron, he was well placed to be the correspondent on local issues and western affairs for the eastern newspapers.

Maher had already perpetrated several astonishing hoaxes on news-hungry eastern editors such as The Petrified Man, The Alkali Lake Monster, and others.  He never intended to harm anyone by his Pecos Bill style stories, nor did he ever profit by them.  He simply loved to pull the leg of the folks back east who believed the American West was populated by savage red men, half-wild cowboys, damsels in distress, and the occasional Loch Ness style monster.

Chadron may have been dusty, but it was paradise for a man with a sense of humor.  Unlike his previous journalistic exaggerations, not even Maher could have foreseen that this hoax was about to change history.  His story informed eastern readers that more than 300 riders were gathering from around the American West.  Daring cowboys with names like Cockeyed Bill, Dynamite Dick and Snake Creek Tom were saddling up.  Two savage Sioux Indians named Spotted Wolf and He Dog were about to make the streets of Chadron more dangerous than ever.  And there was even a woman rider from Denver, Emma Hutchinson, who was going to “transform herself into a clothespin.”  This was a sarcastic reference to a lady who rode astride, an equestrian practice frowned upon in those days.  Emma and all the others were going to ride 1,000 miles flat out in America’s first endurance race.

No one seems to have noticed among other inconsistencies that the starting point was Maher’s hometown of Chadron.

The sensational news quickly spread to hundreds of American papers and then to Europe via the United Press wire service.  Soon the little Nebraska rail town was deluged with requests for details and interviews.  At first the local civic leaders and population shrugged it off as just another of Maher’s infamous jokes and had a good laugh at the folks back east.

There was even talk of trying to rein in the Paralyzer.

“The whole thing originated in the fertile brain of one of our local correspondents to the eastern press and well it might be to curb his imagination in the future,” a founding father recalled.

Problem was, it was too late.


In early March of 1893, “Little Bear” Iager told the other respected civic leaders of Chadron, Nebraska that their beloved town had a serious problem.  Word had not leaked out yet that Paralyzer Maher had invented the biggest lie this side of Texas.  If the eastern press got wind that this was all a hoax, Chadron would be laughing stock of the United States, no, the whole world.  Everybody who was anybody in Chadron was holed up there that night in the Nelson Opera House, including the sheriff, the bank president, the chief of the volunteer fire department, and even the physician for the Elkhorn Valley Railroad.

The situation was critical.

Little Bear told the others he believed Chadron only had one choice.  It had to sponsor America’s First Great Cowboy Race, bluff it out, or Chadron would go down in history as the home of America’s greatest liar.

Besides, he had an idea.  His old friend Buffalo Bill Cody had just opened his famous Wild West Show next to the World’s Fair in Chicago.  Everyone in the room knew Little Bear Iager had got his moniker from his old friend Bill Cody.  Little Bear thought he could persuade Cody to support the project.

Faces were grim.  A vote was taken.  What choice did they have?

Doc Middleton “the golden-toothed lover of other folks’ cattle” had “emptied a few saddles,” as he once put it.  Men had crossed him and men had died.  But after serving a few years of “vile durance” in the Nebraska prison he was looking to settle down and raise a family.  If not exactly respectable, at least he was not getting shot at on a daily basis.

Click on photo of Doc and his horse, Geronimo

The Great Cowboy Race was officially created.

Rules were quickly written up.

“The race will be open to anyone riding western horses;  horses must have been western born and bred;  each rider will be permitted two horses to alternate riding and leading;  only western cowboy stock saddles weighing at least 35 pounds will be used;  rider, saddle and blanket are to weigh not less than 150 pounds;  entrance fee for each rider will be $25 and must be paid no later than June 1;  the race will start at 8 a.m., June 13, 1893, from the Blaine Hotel in Chadron and end at the World’s fairgrounds in Chicago;  the purse is set at $1,000.”

Word was sent to Buffalo Bill Cody, who wired back that not only would he add his own prize of $500, in addition the finish line would be drawn at the “1,000 Mile Tree,” which coincidentally happened to be located directly in front of Bill’s Wild West Show tent.  Buffalo Bill was no dummy.  He knew a good thing when he saw it.

The Colt Firearms Company donated a beautiful revolver complete with gold-plated cylinder and carved ivory handles as additional first prize.  The Montgomery Ward store in Chicago offered to give the winner the finest saddle they made.  The hoax was becoming reality and everything looked fine until Chadron’s town fathers got wind that animal rights activists back east were trying to shut down their Great Cowboy Race.


If there was ever anyone who didn’t fit the image of being a cowboy, it was George T. Angell, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

George T. did not approve of ruthless men from tameless places with uncouth names like Nebraska riding defenseless horses into the ground in order to win a purse of ill-gotten gold.  Nor was Geroge T. a man to stand idly by and let the morals of the country go to the Devil without a struggle.  He circulated an open letter to sympathetic organizations throughout the United States and to all the newspapers in the country.  

“Some three hundred cowboys are proposing to race more than seven hundred miles from Chadron, Nebrasks to the Chicago World’s Fair.

If these semi-barbarians were to pass through Massachusetts we could take care of all of them without difficulty, but as it is we have written a letter to our friend John J. Shortall, Esq., president of the Illinois Humane Society, who will unquestionably do all in his power to prevent this proposed outrage.

The time of starting the race is fixed at about June 25th, (perhaps the hottest part of the summer), and each rider is allowed only two horses.

Under these circumstances we do most earnestly pray all of the about ten thousand American editors who will receive this paper and all humane citizens, will prevent by the power of the press and the enforcement of laws, this disgrace to American civilization so that if the race is begun no rider shall ever be permitted to enter Chicago having ridden two horses day and night, under whip and spur, to win these purses.

And we do most earnestly ask all humane people who may reside in any city through which these men pass to receive them with hisses and cries of “Shame.”

On behalf of the dumb beasts whom it is proposed to ride in this terrible race, I earnestly pray the assistance of all who are able in any way to assist in saving them from this torture and our country from this disgrace.”

George T. had poked Chadron in the eye with a sharp stick.  If the folks back in Nebraska had been half-hearted up until then about supporting Paralyzer Maher’s monstrous flim-flam, George T.’s letter calling them “semi-barbarians” molded the folks out West into one opinion.  No bunch of city-bred, coddled Yankees were going to dictate terms to the noble sons and daughters of pioneers.

The Great American Cowboy Race must go on!

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