Pecos Bill

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: May 1, 1995

Pecos Bill, a mythical cowboy, grew out of the imagination of southwestern range hands who told tall tales to pass the time and to out-do each other in boasting. His originator is unknown. The story goes that Bill, the youngest of eighteen children of a Texas pioneer, was lost in crossing the Pecos River and was brought up by coyotes. He considered himself a coyote until a cowboy convinced him of his true identity, a human being and the cowboy's brother. After returning to civilized territory, Pecos Bill became the cowhand who invented all the tricks of the ranching trade; in various tales he appears as a buffalo hunter, cattleman, railroad contractor, and oilfield worker. His activities include teaching gophers to dig postholes, killing snakes by feeding them mothballs filled with red pepper and nitroglycerin, and roping whole herds of cattle at a time. He rode everything in the West, including a mountain lion and a cyclone. He invented the branding iron to stop cattle rustling and the cowboy song to soothe the cattle. On their wedding day, Slue-Foot Sue, Pecos Bill's girl friend, was determined to ride Bill's famous horse, the Widow-Maker, but the animal pitched Sue so high that she almost hit the moon. Her steel-spring bustle continued to bounce her so high that Bill finally shot her to keep her from starving. Pecos Bill's death is a matter of controversy. Some cowboys say that he died from drinking fishhooks with his whiskey and nitroglycerin; others insist that he died laughing at dudes who called themselves cowboys. Whatever the mode of his death, Pecos Bill exists in cowboy folklore as a hyperbole of the endurance, enterprise and other qualities required of cowboys.

Mody C. Boatright, Tall Tales from Texas (Dallas: Southwest Press, 1934). Charles E. Brown, Cowboy Tales: Pecos Bill, Tall Yarns of the Mighty Hero of the American Cattle Trails and Ranches; Other Cowboy Stuff (Madison, Wisconsin, 1929). Ariane Dewey, Pecos Bill (New York: Greenwillow, 1983). Harold W. Felton, New Tall Tales of Pecos Bill (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1958). Edward Synnott O'Reilly, Pecos Bill (New York: Ridgway, 1935).


  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Literary Works and Characters
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Legend, Mystique, and Legacy

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Anonymous, “Pecos Bill,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 24, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995