Pawnee Bill and Collections Acquisitions

I am so excited to be back at work in the Special Collections department! I hope everyone has had an enjoyable summer. My husband and I bought a house, so Tulsa is officially home for me! We also celebrated our first full year here, and I hope to have many more to come! Things may look quite differently from last year with everything going on, but no matter what is happening, Special Collections always provides an adventure!

One of the most exciting things we get to do is acquire new collections and make them available to both our TU community and the public at large. Many acquisitions come from donations, but on occasion we are able to buy certain objects or collections from rare book and manuscript dealers. Today, I want to feature one of our most recent acquisitions, a small set of photographs, picture postcards and portraits of G.W. “Pawnee Bill” Lillie and his wife May Manning Lillie.

Photograph of two framed portraits, one each of May Lillie and G.W. Lillie aka Pawnee Bill. They are posed individually with their rifles.

These portraits showcase their wild west personas perfectly

G.W. Lillie was originally born in Illinois, but relocated to Kansas with his family as a teenager, where he first met and worked with the Pawnee people as a teacher and interpreter (thus the nickname is best known for). After marrying the young May Manning in 1886, they launched a “wild west” show, which was initially a commercial flop. Years later, after the Oklahoma Land Rush, he and May tried their show again and finally achieved success; they eventually merged shows with the wildly popular Buffalo Bill and everyone enjoyed even more success!

Photograph of a "Pawnee Bill Pioneer Days" poster featuring Pawnee Bill in the center surrounded by a variety of people who appeared in the show with him

The handbill for Pawnee Bill’s Pioneer Days, featuring a huge cast of exotic and notorious characters from around the globe.

Pawnee Bill was a successful performer and businessman, with investments in oil and real estate across Oklahoma, and was well known across the state of Oklahoma as well as the nation. Our new collection includes a few personal letters Lillie wrote to his friend, addressed simply “Friend Miller.” I’d like to learn more about Pawnee Bill and even find out who ‘Friend Miller’ is.

Photograph of a handwritten letter from G.W. Lillie to "Friend Miller" written on "Pawnee Bill's Buffalo Ranch" letterhead

Pawnee Bill’s letter to “Friend Miller” offering to help someone when he went back east.

Lillie evidently trusted ‘Friend Miller,’ at least enough to offer the use of his Rockie Mountain Concord stagecoach, an “imitation (made light) stage coach,” and a “conistoga [sic] wagon which is a good looking prairie schooner.”

Photograph of a handwritten letter from Pawnee Bill to "Friend Miller" on personalized Pawnee Bill's Wild West letterhead

Check out that letterhead! Pawnee Bill definitely understood the importance of brand long before modern marketing appeared.

I snapped these quick pictures for you to see, but they are in no way the best way to capture these objects digitally. Part of the fun of acquiring new materials is documenting and photographing them in as much detail as we possibly can; this enables researchers and the generally curious to access as much information about them as possible before coming to visit. Our small staff works extremely hard to properly document, photograph, and preserve all of our collections; these time- and labor-intensive tasks are never ending!

Photograph of three photo postcards of Pawnee Bill taken from different angles

Fashionable from any angle! Pawnee Bill also understood the ongoing work of maintaining his brand recognition long before marketing was a formal discipline. 

Personally, I find the work of documentation, digitization and increasing the accessibility of historic objects to be extremely fascinating. This focal point naturally led me to the world of museums and archives; it is now one of my main career objectives. Digitization and accessibility are especially important in the time of Coronavirus and distance learning, so we will continue working on this and all of our diverse collections.


For further reading on Pawnee Bill I recommend checking out this short article (the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia as been so useful for me as I continue learning about Oklahoma history!). You can also see what material we already have on Pawnee Bill by searching here.


We are currently open by appointment only to TU students, faculty, and staff; please email at least 24 hours in advance and we will get your appointment set up. Non-TU affiliates are welcome to browse our Catalog and Digital Collections to request photocopies or scans of our materials also through Kelsey and I fulfill requests as quickly as possible, but especially large requests or a high volume of requests can take up to 4-6 weeks. We are happy to help you as best we can. Stay safe and healthy!

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