|Gordon William Lillie|
February 14, 1860|
February 3, 1942 (aged 81)|
|Other names||Pawnee Bill|
|Occupation||Wild West Show performer|
Gordon William Lillie (February 14, 1860 - February 3, 1942), known professionally as Pawnee Bill, was an American showman and performer who specialized in Wild West shows and was known for his short partnership with William "Buffalo" Bill Cody.
Pawnee Bill was born on February 14, 1860, in Bloomington, Illinois. His father Newton operated a flour mill in Bloomington; the mill burned to the ground in 1876. The family then moved to Wellington, Kansas, where Gordon developed a love for the West. By the age of 19, he was working on the Pawnee Indian agency in Indian Territory. In 1883, he was given the chance to work as the Pawnee interpreter with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. His work with the show was the origin of his nickname as "Pawnee Bill."
After courting for two years, Lillie married May Manning in 1886, a petite Quaker from Pennsylvania. She was younger than he, a graduate of Smith College, and the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia physician. Her parents objected at first to their refined young daughter marrying a cowboy, but eventually they agreed to the union.
In 1888, the Lillies launched their own Wild West show, which they called "Pawnee Bill's Historic Wild West". May starred in the show as the "Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West." Their first season was a financial disaster. They re-organized as a smaller operation called "Pawnee Bill's Historical Wild West Indian Museum and Encampment Show." That show was popular and financially successful. Lillie added Jose Barrera to the cast; he was widely popular performing as "Mexican Joe". In 1907, Lillie hired performers from a variety of backgrounds. The show included Mexican cowboys, Pawnee, Japanese performers, and Arab jugglers. The ensemble debuted as "Pawnee Bill's Great Far East Show."
Pawnee Bill invested in banking, real estate, and oil. He operated various business interests and dabbled in film making at his ranch. In 1930, May and Pawnee Bill opened Pawnee Bill's Old Town near the ranch. They sold Indian and Mexican crafts, and featured annual rodeos. That enterprise burned to the ground in the 1940s and was never rebuilt.
In 1936, the couple celebrated their 50th 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, Pawnee Bill lost control of their vehicle. May died as a result of her injuries, and Pawnee Bill never fully recovered. He died in his sleep on February 3, 1942, at the age of 81 in his home outside of Pawnee, Oklahoma.