The Cavalry Returns to the Pendleton Round-Up & Happy Canyon
By Casey Beard
The Pendleton Round-Up began 107 years ago as, “a frontier exhibition of picturesque pastimes, Indian and military pageantry, cowboy racing and bronco busting”. This year, the legendary Round-Up returns to its roots. The Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon will pay special tribute to military pageantry in marking the 100th Anniversary of America’s entry into World War I. The anniversary has special meaning for the Round-Up and Happy Canyon, who will honor the men of Cavalry Troop D, Oregon Cavalry. Made up of Round-Up contestants and local cowboys, Troop D trained at the Round-Up Grounds and Happy Canyon. Commemorating Troop D, and all of the heroic men and women serving their country today, the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Night Show are proud to announce that the thunder of the charge and call of the bugle will again stir the echoes of memory in the Round-Up grounds this year.
The 1st Infantry Division’s Commanding General’s Own Mounted Color Guard will again bring the call of boots and saddles and the refrain of “Gary Owen” to the Round-Up and Happy Canyon grounds. Formed from troops assigned to Ft. Riley, Kansas, the former home of the US Army Cavalry School, the soldiers of the color guard performs mounted drills, exhibitions of cavalry skills and provide interpretive displays of life as a cavalry trooper on the frontier. Additionally, the Color Guard includes an 1871 covered escort wagon, used to resupply troops on western frontier battlefields.
Appropriately, the 1st Infantry Division is also celebrating its 100th Anniversary in 2017. Formed to fight in World War I, the “Big Red One” is the longest serving, and perhaps the most storied, division in the Army. Its battle honors include World War I, World War 2, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan where its men and women have fought with great distinction.
The story of Troop D has a special poignancy for Round-Up and Happy Canyon fans. Moved by patriotic fervor, local cowboys, led by All Around and Saddle Bronc Champion Lee Caldwell and Bull Dogging Champion Dell Blancett, raised a volunteer troop of cavalry. Cowboys from the surrounding area flocked to Pendleton to join the unit, including twenty-five men from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Sworn in at Happy Canyon, the new soldiers conducted their training on the Round-Up grounds. One of the troop’s first acts was to unanimously elect Lee Caldwell as their captain.
Called up for federal service, the men of Troop D reported to Camp Lewis, Washington for further training before deployment to Europe. The entire town of Pendleton turned out to joyously see the boys of Troop D off at the train station, little appreciating the horrors they would face. In a special ceremony for the Confederated tribal members of the unit, each was given a Pendleton Woolen Mills blanket.
Arriving in France, the cowboys from the great Northwest were bitterly disappoint to learn that they would no longer be cavalrymen galloping across the battlefield. Converted to an artillery unit, the men kept their Round-Up connection alive; painting “Let ‘er Buck” on their cannons. The troops were soon in the thick of some of the bitterest fighting in the war and fought with great distinction; never deserting their guns even under heavy fire. A war correspondent covering the fighting reported on the troops, who protecting their guns, began to fall back. He wrote, “The officers and men of the 148th Field Artillery were from Pendleton and other parts of Oregon, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. Does a combination like that ever say die? This is what they did: Gunners, ammunition men, orderlies and everyone else handy got hold of rifles, deployed themselves as doughboys, took up positions some distance in front of their guns and poured in fire on the Germans that made them think the infantry was still holding the line… That’s the sort of people Pendleton sent into this war.”
Ironically, Dell Blancett, who along with Lee Caldwell had spearheaded raising Troop D, failed his physical due to a shoulder injury sustained bull dogging. Despite the protests of his wife, early Round-Up star Bertha Blancett, Dell headed to Calgary, Canada, where he heard that additional troops were being raised for Lord Strathcona’s Horse, a Canadian cavalry regiment. After a brief training period, Blancett joined the regiment in France.
In a desperate attempt to knock the allies out of the war before newly arriving American troops could change the tide, the Germans launched an offensive. Breaking through the allied lines, German troops were advancing rapidly. The only force available to block the advance was Lord Strathcona’s Horse. In a gallant charge of sabers against machine guns, the outnumbered Canadians turned back the advancing German’s; changing the course of the war. The victory at Moreuil Wood came at a heavy price – seventy percent of the Canadians were killed or wounded in the desperate fighting. Among the casualties of history’s last cavalry charge was Dell Blancett. When reinforcements arrived to relieve the valiant men of Lord Strathcona’s Horse, they found a mortally wounded Dell Blancett. Grimacing in pain, his last words were, “Those German bullets sure hit hard”.
Other early stars of the Pendleton Round-Up also served in the Great War. Saddle bronc rider George Fletcher, banned from joining Company B because he was black, was drafted into an all-black unit. Yakima Canutt, winner of the 1917 Saddle Bronc Riding and All Around titles, served in the US Navy; returning to the 1918 Round-Up to compete in his sailor’s uniform.
With the Armistice in November, 1918, the surviving men of Company B returned to a hero’s welcome in Pendleton. Special arrangements were made to route the train carrying the soldiers to Ft. Lewis, Washington, for demobilization through Pendleton. The East Oregonian reported, “Straight from the Rhine to the Umatilla they came with “Let ’er Buck and “Pendleton” chalked on the train in letters a foot high. Those cowboys, who as members of Troop D jumped into the saddle to lasso the biggest outlaw of all, came back last night and were laughed over and cried over as “Pendleton’s own.” They had fought bravely and contributed to the allied victory.
The 1919 Happy Canyon held a special performance to honor Pendleton’s war heroes. Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservations were given special permission to perform a victory scalp dance, which had been banned for a generation, at Happy Canyon. The Happy Canyon performance ended with a glorious patriotic celebration that brought the crowd to its feet.
Gradually, the men returned to their lives; very different than the excited boys who flocked to the colors on the Round-Up and Happy Canyon grounds in the spring of 1917. For some, their lives were changed forever. Devastated by the loss of her husband, Bertha Blancett never entered another rodeo nor remarried. Plagued by war wounds and the effects of being gassed, Lee Caldwell was unable to resume his rodeo career; his colorful days as a dashing bronc rider sacrificed on the battlefields of France.
In the spirit of Lee Caldwell and Dell Blancett, to support our courageous veterans of today the Pendleton Round-Up will be raffling off a special, limited edition Pendleton Woolen Mills blanket created for Pendleton’s Bravo Company, 168th Aviation after their tour of duty flying combat missions in Iraq. All money raised from the raffle will be donated to the Wrangler Nationals Patriots Day fund to support veterans and their families.
To learn more about the history of the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon, Wrangler National Patriots Day and special offers for military personnel, please visit our websites at pendletonroundup.com or happycanyon.com. or call Pendleton Round-Up General Manager Casey Beard (541) 612-3493. Buy tickets at pendletonroundup.com or call (541) 612-3496.