When Idaho searches turned up scant evidence of Idaho Bill, I began to wonder if his nickname had anything to do with Idaho at all.
I first ran across Col. R.B. Pearson—popularly known as Idaho Bill—in a Leslie’s Weekly from September, 1921. The gist of the article was that the Colonel was providing a service to rodeos that had recently become a necessity. Rodeos had previously found unbroken horses at about any cattle ranch nearby. But in the 1920s, ranches could no longer afford to keep horses that weren’t ready to work. So, Idaho Bill and some other entrepreneurs began gathering up broncos with bad reputations to supply to rodeos. For $600 to $1000 he would supply rodeos with 25 or 30 horses for three or four days, guaranteeing that they would buck.
The Leslie’s article, and many others I found said that Col. R.B. Pearson was born—probably without the rank—at or near Hastings, Nebraska while his folks were coming west on the Oregon Trail. That story morphed around a bit, but the upshot was that he was not born in Idaho. I found a reliable source that said he was also not born on the Oregon Trail, but in Sweden. His parents came to Nebraska when he was four.
R.B. Pearson went by Barney in his early days. His Swedish name, Bonde (pronounced boon-duh) was just not American enough. His father bought a ranch in the Weiser area and asked his son to run it.
According to many newspaper articles, Idaho Bill was a favorite Indian scout for Buffalo Bill, George Armstrong Custer, and others. How a transplanted Idahoan even met those people is open to speculation. Especially when Buffalo Bill died when Idaho Bill was eight.
Idaho Bill had a habit of roping anything that moved. Cows were no challenge for him, so he began roping wolves and coyotes. In 1921 newspapers all around the country ran a story datelined El Paso that began “A wild cinnamon bear went joy riding out San Antonio street in a claw-torn open car. Col. R.B. Pearson, bearded invader of the wilds for the last 45 years, was chauffeur for the bear.”
The story went on to say that Idaho Bill had roped the bear as a seven-month-old cub weighing 180 pounds. Speculation was that the bear would weigh 1,100 pounds when full grown.
“This is the ninth bear Colonel Pearson has roped.” The article stated. “He handled lions in Africa by the same method.”
The instinct of a carnivore to being roped and dragged is probably to try to get away by pulling, so this is… plausible?
This wasn’t the first time Idaho Bill had used his rope to impress the masses, and it wouldn’t be the last. In 1908 he roped wolves and delivered them to an exhibition in Chicago. In 1927 he delivered a 375 pound cinnamon bear to President Calvin Coolidge in Washington, DC. He was said to have capture many cougars and not a few snow leopards with his lariat.
Coolidge was not the only president to be charmed by Idaho Bill. Teddy Roosevelt is said to have befriended the Colonel. Some accounts say he visited Idaho Bill on a presidential tour of the state in 1903. Idaho papers covered that trip hour by hour without any mention of a side trip to Weiser.
Pearson acquired some wealth from his exploits, mostly from the wild west shows he produced. In 1923, while on his way to deliver broncos to a rodeo in East Las Vegas, New Mexico, Idaho bill lost his wallet in Santa Fe. He was loading the recalcitrant horses when the wallet fell out. Idaho Bill stated that there was about $40,000 in the wallet, three $10,000 bills (yes, they were in circulation at the time) and bills of lower denomination. He was offering a reward of $20,000 for the return of his wallet. No word on whether he ever got it back.
One more story about his money might have been because of that lost wallet. In 1930 the Falls City Nebraska Journal reported that Idaho Bill kept his money in his boots. He walked around with a couple of $10,000 bills and several $1,000 bills rolled up in his boots.
Idaho Bill demonstrated his “bank” for a local congressman. He pulled out a six gun along with the money as a deterrent to anyone who might be tempted to palm one of the bills he passed around for inspection.
For an in-depth article on Idaho Bill, read a story by Monty McCord in the January 2022 issue of True West Magazine.
Idaho Bill died in Los Angeles in 1942.