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Buckaroo Museum, Winnemucca Nevada


Sammy Bill Spahan

Sammy Bill Spahan (1926--)

Sammy Bill Spahan was born on October 26, 1926 on a Native American reservation in Merritt, British Columbia. He grew up in a time and place where living a western lifestyle was not a choice, but a way to survive, and it was all he knew.

When Sam was very young, he and his brothers were taken by the Catholic Church and placed in an Indian Catholic school far from his family. After several years, his grandfather was able to remove him from that school and place him in a local school. Sam and his brothers would ride their horses to school every day and tie them up to the pole outside. His horse became his first and favorite form of transportation. He left school in the 5th grade at the age of 12 to start working full time as a ranch hand on one of the largest cattle ranches in Canada, the Niccola Valley Ranch. He also spent some time working for the Douglas Lake Ranch in Niccola Valley, B.C. It was during this time in his young life where he really learned to rope and ride, round up cattle, break and care for horses. At an early age he discovered that he was very good at handling “unridable” or “unbreakable” horses.

In the mid-1940s Sam moved to Mexico with his father, Antoine, to buy and sell cattle. They would buy the cattle about 250 miles from the Mexican border and drive them up to the Arizona border. They would have to wait 30 days for the cattle to go through quarantine and then drive them across the border and sell the cattle in Arizona.

In 1947 Sam had moved back to Canada where met a beautiful, wild eyed woman who shared in his passion for riding horses, travel, and for living an adventurous life. Joan was a strong and stubborn soul who matched him in grit and kept up with him on a horse. They were married in 1949 and spent the next 60 years exploring the west together.

Sam’s extensive knowledge and skill with horses and cattle led him to work at several ranches all over the western United States from California to New Mexico and up to Washington. In 1949 he moved to Keller, Washington and bough a brand new Jeep truck to help him round up mustangs in the eastern mountains. Within 6 months he had completely worn out the Jeep and returned to using a more faithful form of transportation: his horse.

In the early 1950s, Sam worked for stock contractor Andy Arrigi in Bend, Oregon. He would help to pick out the stock that would be used in rodeos. His job during this time was to get on horses to determine whether or not they would be good to use as bucking broncos. He would ride 25 bucking horses a day for $10 a horse. They would drive down to St. George, UT to buy the horses. There was one time when he went down to St. George to buy another load of horses but it was with a different stock contractor and Andy didn’t go with them. Sam tried out all of the horses and looked them over and told the contractor not to buy them. None of the horses were any good because all but one had been eating locoweed. The contractor went against his recommendation and bought them anyway. They took the horses back up to Oregon to use for a night rodeo. The night of the rodeo came and the bad batch of bucking broncos were rounded up and taken to the rodeo grounds. The first horse was saddled and put in the shoot, with a rider on its back. The start buzzer rang and the gate flung open. The bright lights flashed in the horse’s eyes and the horse stumbled out of the chute and he did not buck. The disoriented horse stood there frozen in the bright stadium lights with a confused rider on his back.

Between 1955-57 Sam worked for the Soto Ranch catching wild cattle between Needles, CA and Parker, AZ. It was during this time when he ran into some trouble with quicksand. Along the Colorado River right below Needles on the Arizona side, he was rounding up wild cattle and decided to give the horse a break and take him down to the river for a drink. Sam was looking for an open spot on the river, but his horse had other plans. When the horse saw the river he became impatient and took off towards the water, plunging right into a batch quicksand. Sam quickly jumped off the horse to a safe area, but the horse had fallen onto his side and was sinking. Luckily he was riding with a friend that day. He shouted for the guy to come over and help with the struggling horse. They were able to tie a rope around the stuck horse to try and pull him to the edge using the second horse. Every time they would pull the horse up, he would flop right back down. They spent the next few hours pulling the horse out of the quick sand. At the end of the day everyone was tired, and surprisingly no one was hurt. After that experience, the horse was terrified of the river and would refuse to go down to the water to drink. This caused Sam to carry a bucket with him every time he took that horse out. When it was time for a break, he would hobble the horse with a rope and take the bucket down to the river to fetch water for the cautious horse.

In 1958 Sam worked for a burro supplier that would sell wild burros for the Burro BBQ in Bull Head City, AZ. For over a year he helped to catch about 250 wild burros. In 1966 Sam moved to Nevada and ran mustangs and rounded up wild cattle for Coyote Creek ranch in Unionville for one year. During that year he caught around 150 head of wild cattle all by himself. He would ride out and track the cattle, rope them, jump off his horse and tie them down, and brand them without any help. In 1968 he moved over to the Jersey Valley Ranch in Central Nevada near the Tobin Mountains and worked for Tom and Marie Ormachea. Always on the move, Sam packed up his family and went back to Arizona. In 1969 he worked on the Goswick Ranch in Meyer, AZ. During the early 1970s Sam also helped Dave Erickson catch wild cattle in Arizona.

In 1976 he moved his family back to Nevada to work for Coyote Creek. While he was there, he cleaned up the cattle heard and changed out all of the bulls because they still had the same bulls from 10 years earlier. Once again he caught another 150 head of wild cattle on his own and branded them for the ranch. In 1977 he was hired on at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to round up mustangs. Sam had a different way of rounding them up than most. He would build corrals that blended in with the sage brush. He would then round up the mustangs and run them unknowingly into the hidden corrals. A broken knee from a serious car accident caused him to retire from the BLM, but this did not mean he stopped working. From 1978 through the1980s, Sam worked for the Flying M/Coyote Creek ranch doing what he did best. He also worked helping the Duncan family near Lovelock, NV working cattle and branding as well as John Thacker in Pershing Co. Nev. A few years ago at age 85, he was called on to help gather some wild cattle off the range at Caliente, Nev. Over his ranching career Sam started a lot of horses, he liked the Arab breed. According to Earl Horton, Sam had an Arab stallion named Chablis, that was a heck of a horse. He was good and light in the mouth, like all of the horses Sam started.

Although Sam loved working on ranches and rounding up cattle in the rural west, his greatest passion was being on the back of a bucking bronco in a rodeo arena. When rodeo season came around, nothing could keep him from riding; it is in his blood. During the season he would enter as many rodeos as he possibly could, driving thousands of miles following the rodeo from town to town. One night he might be riding at a rodeo in California and the next at a rodeo in Arizona. At times like this Sam and Joan would pack up as soon as he got his winnings from that night’s ride and Joan would drive through the night while Sam would sleep and rest up for the next day’s event.

Sam started his rodeo career in Canada. Recognizing his son’s talent, Antoine built a chute and riding arena for Sam to practice. He would spend all of his free time saddling up wild horses and bulls and bring them into the arena to ride. During this early time he would drive his Model T Ford from rodeo to rodeo. There were times when it was so cold that they would have to put Copenhagen chewing tobacco on the windows to keep them from freezing.

Rodeo is what brought Sam to the United States. Rodeo life in the U.S was different than what he was used to; he was a Native American riding in a white world. Frankly, discrimination against his race kept him from winning the top spot at several rodeos. Despite this drawback, he won bronc-riding championships all over the west. In 1948 he was crowned the northwest bronc-riding champion at the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon. As part of his prize, he was awarded a bunch of Pendleton shirts. He was traveling through Snowville, Utah to get to the next rodeo and pulled over to the side of the road for a bit. Unbeknownst to him, a farmer had turned on the water to irrigate his fields and ended up flooding under the car and causing him to get stuck. He ended up jacking up the car and putting the prized Pendleton shirts under the tires to use as traction.

Over his career, Sam entered and placed in countless rodeos; there were too many to remember. His events were bareback, bull riding, and his favorite saddle-bronc. Unfortunately he never kept a comprehensive list, but just to name a few: in 1953, he won saddle bronc riding in Centralia, WA and then won in 1954 at Falkland, British Columbia. He was crowned saddle bronc-riding champion for three years in a row (from 1959-61) in Prescott, AZ. In 1968 once again he won riding saddle bronc at the Indian Rodeo in Fallon, NV. He won the bull riding championship in Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1968.

Being a rough and tumble cowboy comes with its own set of injuries; Sam had more than his fair share. There were times when he had to work two jobs just to pay his medical bills. His first major injury came in 1946 when he got hung up on a saddle bronc horse and ended up caving in his skull during the first day of a rodeo in Canada. He rode with this injury through the next three days of the rodeo and ended up winning the saddle bronc championship. The final day of the rodeo, after he received his prize, he passed out cold and fell into a coma for 31 days. He was one of the first guys to ever come out of a coma that had lasted that long. A metal plate was placed in his head to compensate for his loss of skull. This was the first time he had to re-learn how to walk and talk, and how to read and write. And it was the first time he was told that he would never ride again. He was placed in a rehabilitative school that taught him how to work with leather. It was there that he learned how to repair saddles and horse tack. A year after his injury, he entered the same rodeo and won for a second time.

Sam was working on a ranch in Washington during the 1950s, he was out rounding up cattle and he didn’t realize that the cinch on his saddle had rotted through. He had just roped a cow and was pulling back so he could tie the cow down. Unfortunately the cinch snapped and he fell breaking his right elbow. After it healed, he lost the rotation in his elbow and had to teach himself how to rope all over again using a different technique.

Over both his ranching and rodeo career Sam has broken several bones, but it rarely kept him from working. He would consistently break his hands when he rode bulls. Sam would ride with his right hand Friday night, break it, and have to switch to riding with his left hand on Saturday night. He knocked his kidneys loose twice – once in Cedarville, CA while riding a bucking horse in 1959, and a second time in a car accident in 1961. He has broken his neck twice and his back three times. From 1970 to about 1975 he was in several serious accidents in the Northern Arizona area. He had broken his back in a barn accident where he ended up thrown across a manger and had to have several surgeries, he was told for the second time that he would never walk or ride again. During this time, he was out of commission and unable to work.

One time Sam bought a new pair of extra-long Levis so that he could roll up his pant legs like Roy Rogers. He entered the bronc riding event and rode with his pants in Roy Rogers fashion. This particular time he was bucked off and the cuff of the pant caught on the horn of his saddle. The horse ended up dragging him all around the arena before he was able to get loose. Fortunately, he walked away from this event without injury.

As much as Sam loved to travel and chase the rodeo he was drawn to Winnemucca and finally settled down. Winnemucca has become his home. At 87 years young Sam is still living the life from his youth. He still keeps and cares for three horses, a clowder of cats, a muster of peacocks, and his dog. Any day of the week, Sam can be found shoeing his horses, building fence, repairing old saddles, helping a friend doctor an injured animal, or grabbing a bite to eat with an old riding buddy. If it is spring time he can be found branding the new calves any one of the local ranches.

Sam is well known in the community as a self-taught vet. He can heal horses, birth foals, and is amazing at corrective shoeing. These were invaluable skills that he learned from years of experience working on ranches. He has received dozens of 2 a.m. phone calls from friends and neighbors needing help with birthing a new foal or with a deathly ill animal.

Sam has also been a big influence on several young lives in the community including Ty Yazzi and Paden Munger. He is always more than willing to take anyone wanting to learn how to rope and ride, shoe and take care of horses under his wing. Living a western lifestyle was more than hard, but it is what Sam has loved and is still all he has ever wanted to know. This way of life has brought him severe injury, unimaginable pain, and great loss, but also has brought the thrills of winning a championship, boundless love, and an incredible life worth celebrating.

Sammy Spahan was inducted into the Buckaroo Hall of Fame in August 2013.


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