Rodeo: A Celebration of Western Heritage Through Sport

The 1919 Victory Stampede was held 100 years ago to commemorate the end of the Great War.

Developed from the real skills that cowboys used herding cattle on the open range, rodeo is an iconic celebration of western heritage through sport. Originally, working cowboys staged competitions that tested their horsemanship and livestock skills. Wild West Shows then advanced rodeo from being tests of mettle between ranch hands to entertainment for large crowds.

Rodeo was one of the main features of the 1919 Victory Stampede and by 1919, the sport was entering into a transformative period of professionalization. Stampede founder Guy Weadick, a world-champion trick roper, was a product of the Wild West circuit and a showman through and through, but he also believed that crowds would be just as entertained by professional sport. The Infield and Chutes made their first appearance in 1919, giving everyone in the Grandstand a chance to see the action.

The 1919 Rodeo featured an Infield and Chutes, which was an evolution from the 1912 Stampede.

Weadick offered the biggest purse in rodeo anywhere. He also recruited the best cowboys from North America to compete. The Stampede was held at the end of August, right after a big rodeo in Bozeman, Montana, so that Weadick could bring all of the rodeo stock, wranglers and 75 competitors and performers to compete in Calgary.[1] In all of these ways, Weadick ensured that the rodeo would be an exciting, world-class and increasingly structured community celebration of western tradition. Yakima Canutt, from Colfax, Washington, who later went on to do stunt work for John Wayne, won the Saddle Bronc competition that year. Jesse Stahl, an African-American who would set a standard for rodeo performances across North America, won the Bareback competition.

Yakima Canutt won the Saddlebronc competition.

Canadian cowboys also competed in the Victory Stampede. Four of the Canadian cowboys had experience with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War. Their wartime experiences are as varied as those of the rest of the city and region, reflecting the broader life in the West. Rodeo—from the competitors in the arena to the spectators in the stands—was a way for a diverse community to connect and celebrate western heritage through sport.

Tom Bell

When you think of a soldier of the First World War, a man like Tom Bell might come to mind. Born in Scotland, he left his family behind and immigrated to Western Canada, where he joined the Royal North West Mounted Police. He was a cowboy. His medical records indicate that he had “pigeon breast”—a bowed chest—thanks to being thrown from a horse at age 12.

In 1916 in Winnipeg, this strapping 23 year old, 6’3” Mountie enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Naturally, perhaps, he joined the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), and arrived in France in May with the cavalry.

He was wounded on December 1, 1917 in the Battle of Cambrai, where he suffered a bullet wound to his left chest. By August of 1918, Sgt. Bell was still suffering from sharp pain in his left chest and experienced a “drowning sensation” every time he took a deep breath, coughed or lifted his left arm above his head. He endured, and worked hard to heal.[2]

Exactly one year later, Sgt. Bell was competing in the Bareback Riding and Wild Horse Race competitions in the Victory Stampede.

Nels Porter

Records indicate that Nels Porter may have enlisted immediately after the war started in 1914, but was discharged on September 25, 1914 in Valcartier. Whether this happened or was a clerical error is unclear, as is the reason for discharge. We do know, however, that in March 1917, the 23 year-old definitely enlisted in the CEF and was immediately assigned to the Forestry Corps.[3]

At the time, the CEF was creating new forestry districts across the country, because the need for wood was greater than the supply. German U-boats made it difficult to transport Canadian timber to Great Britain, so Canada agreed to send a Forestry Corps to cut trees in the UK.[4]


Porter never made it to England, however. He was Indigenous from Cache Creek, B.C., and shortly after signing his attestation papers, was discharged, because he had enlisted without the consent of his Chief. Presumably, Porter returned to his wife who was living in Ashcroft, B.C, where he worked as a cowboy and driver. In August, 1919 he competed at the Calgary Stampede in the Bareback and Saddle bronc competitions.[5]

Dick Smith & Gustave “Gussy Gatine”

Smith and Gatine were both conscripted into the CEF. Smith was drafted into the 1st Depot Battalion in Alberta, which was comprised of men who were intended to be sent overseas. Smith never left Alberta, and was formally discharged in March, 1919.[6]

Gatine was born in St. Charles, a Métis settlement in Winnipeg. He was conscripted in Calgary to the 1st Depot Battalion, and was transferred to the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, Royal Canadians. He left Canada on August 10, 1918, two days after the “Last Hundred Days” of the First World War began. He stayed in England as part of the Canadian Reserve Cavalry Regiment, and was discharged in Canada in June, 1919.[7]

Smith and Gatine both competed in the Saddle Bronc competition.

These cowboys, with incredibly different upbringings and wartime experiences, shared the rodeo ring as competitors at the Victory Stampede. Just like those attending the Stampede, the cowboys helped the Stampede celebrate western heritage through the western sport of rodeo during a formative period in the sport.


Cowboys at the 1919 Victory Stampede

[1] James H. Gray, A Brand of Its Own: The 100 Year History of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede (Saskatoon: Western Producer, 1985), 52-53.

[2] Library and Archives Canada (LAC), “Thomas Bell Personnel Record,” Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 623 – 15.

[3] LAC, “Nels Porter Personnel Record,” Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7913 – 29.

[4] Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson, Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1964), 499-500.

[5] LAC, Porter Personnel Record.

[6] LAC, “Richard Douglas Smith Personnel Records,” Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 9094 – 46.

[7] Library and Archives Canada (LAC), “Gustave Gatine Personnel Record,” Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 3440 – 31.


Source: Calgary Stampede