prairie rose henderson cowgirl magazine

On March 1, 1933, four men left Casper, Wyoming, to search for a woman that had been missing since mid-February.  Mrs. Rose Coleman was reported missing by her husband, the reputed cattle rustler Charles W. Coleman.  Charles wrote his brother-in-law Ernest Gale from jail informing him that he’d not heard from his wife for more than two weeks and was worried.  Gale recruited three of his friends to travel to the Green Mountains, fifty miles northwest of Rawlins, to look for his sister.  The Colemans’ ranch was in that area, and it was the last place Charles saw his wife when he was arrested on February 10, 1933.  

Ernest and the other men trapsed through deep snowdrifts around the Colemans’ home and into the dense forest surrounding the property but found no trace of the woman.

News of Rose Coleman’s disappearance made headlines in all the Wyoming newspapers.  Reporters speculated she left the state carrying with her incriminating evidence against her husband.  Charged with stealing and slaughtering cattle, authorities believed he had several accomplices and that his wife might have been one of them.  It was well known that Rose was devoted to Charles, and the idea she would assist him in a crime or try to hide his misdeeds was not unreasonable.

More than a month after the search began, and subsequently halted due to blizzard-like conditions, Rose had still not been seen.  In early April, state law enforcement commissioner George Smith received an anonymous call from a man claiming to have met her in Riverton where she was staying with a friend.  Smith told the press he had sent officers to the location to talk with her, but the authorities could not confirm she was, indeed, in town.  There was a rumor she had left the state and was living in California.  

Charles was convicted and sent to the state prison.  Law enforcement officers returned to the Coleman ranch in late spring when the snow began to melt to search again for Rose.  The woman was still nowhere to be found, and there were no clues to help authorities determine what might have happened to her.

If the police knew the missing woman Rose Coleman was also known as Prairie Rose Henderson, they did not note it in their records.  There was nothing written to tie her to the days when she was a rodeo star.  Even the newspapers glossed over that fact.  More than two decades had passed since she burst onto the scene riding wild horses, and all that had been forgotten.  

Rose Coleman was born on February 5, 1875, in Ohio.  Her parents, Ezra and Melvina Gale, named their little girl Rose Belle.  When her father passed away in 1883, mother and daughter moved to Nebraska to be close to her mother’s brothers and sisters.  Melvina remarried, and she and her new husband had three sons.  

Rose was married several times.  Her first husband, Arthur Columbus Clayton, and she were married in Custer County, Nebraska, in September 1893.  In three short years, the couple had two children, a daughter named Cora May and a son named Henry Arthur.  When exactly Rose took an interest in riding is unclear.  By the time the Claytons’ son was born in January 1896, the pair was living in Sweetwater, Wyoming.

The first annual Frontier Days celebration was held in Cheyenne in September 1897.  According to the October 14, 1897, edition of the Natrona County Tribune, “the purpose of the event was to perpetuate the memory of the sturdy pioneers who settled in the wilderness and became founders of a new state.”  Included in the celebration was a program where working cowboys put their ranching skills to the test by competing against one another for prizes in roping and riding.  Rose decided to show off her talent for racing horses at Frontier Day in 1899.  Arthur also took part in festivities roping steers.  

Not long after participating in the Frontier Days event, the Claytons moved to Clarksville, Nebraska.  By 1906, Rose and Arthur had divorced, and Rose relocated with her children to a town close to Salt Lake City in Utah.  Whether in Nebraska or Utah, Rose continued to hone her riding talent.  There are some reports that note Rose competed in women’s cow pony races in Denver, Colorado, and in Highland Boy, Utah, and even won trophies for the event; however, there is no concrete evidence to support the claim.  

At some point prior to 1910, Rose signed on with Charles and Frank Irwin’s Wild West show.  The Irwins had been instrumental in orchestrating Cheyenne’s Frontier Days but, after a few years, had decided to create their own show and take it on the road.  Rose was one of the first women hired to be a part of their program.  She successfully parlayed the survival skills she learned riding and working on the prairie into a sport on the rodeo grounds.  While employed with the Irwin Brothers Wild West Show, she met a bulldogger named Tom Henderson.  Henderson had once been a working cowboy on a Colorado ranch, and he was married to lady rider Maude Tarr.  Rose and Tom became romantically involved, and she adopted his last name.  By 1910, she was being billed as Prairie Rose Henderson.  Prairie Rose was primarily a bronc rider, but she also participated in roping and trick riding events.

Prairie Rose officially burst onto the rodeo scene in El Paso, Texas, in March 1912 when she dared to ride a famous outlaw horse named Kelly.  The wild bucking bronco had thrown and trampled numerous cowboys.  Rose would be the first woman to try and stay on the animal’s back for a record-breaking time.  After conquering Kelly, she volunteered to ride another unbroken beast named Dynamite Powers.  At the end of the Cowboy Park Rodeo, Rose had won more than $100 in prize money.

From Texas, she hurried to California to appear in the Los Angeles Rodeo.  She entered the women’s roping contest and competed against Bertha Blanchett and Hazel Hoxie.  Next, Rose made her way to Wyoming to participate once again in the Frontier Days celebrations.  The world championship bronco busting honors were at stake in Cheyenne.  Rose and Goldie St. Clair were each determined to carry off the woman’s title.  St. Clair had won the competition in 1911, but Rose was expected to outride her in the 1912 contest.  Riding the horse Gin Fiz, Rose gave a respectable showing and, after four days of competition, was named the winner and new champion.  

Rose took little time out to celebrate her big win.  The cast of the Irwin Brothers’ Wild West Show was expected in Topeka, Kansas.  She performed before a packed crowd riding a renegade horse named Bowman.  According to the September 12, 1912, edition of the Topeka Daily Capitol, Bowman was the least of Rose’s worries during the riding exhibition.  Clouds of giant green bugs filled the arena, swarmed around the entertainers, and, at times, made it hard for Rose to see.  The insects kept her from performing at her best.  

When Prairie Rose Henderson entered the Los Angeles Rodeo in February 1913, she took home the top prize in the bucking horse contest.  Not long after winning the title, she learned she would be competing against Fanny Sperry Steele at Frontier Days in Cheyenne.  Fanny had been named Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World at the Calgary Stampede, and Rose was determined to hold on to the title at the contest in Wyoming in July.  A $500 purse was on the line.

Rodeo fans not only appreciated Rose both for her ability to stick in the saddle and how she dressed during the ride.  Rose’s look was unique.  She wore Turkish-style pants that gathered just below the knees, chiffon blouses, and vests covered with sequins, feathers, or furs.  Newspaper reporters interviewing her about her riding talents would inevitably ask her about her costumes and what she thought of the everchanging fashions of the day.  “‘Prairie Rose’ Henderson, although a wearer of the split skirt, is not an apostle of the cause of revolution in women’s dress,” an article in the July 3, 1913, edition of the Sioux City Journal noted.  “I can see nothing commendable in the split skirt, and even dislike the riding skirt, although riding is my specialty.  Out here in camp I’m always looking ahead to the period of free time in which I can put on what I consider a proper skirt.  Camp life and companionship with the rangers makes one careless, but I never seem to get away from a desire to be like other women.”

Sadly, Rose did not win the women’s bronc riding contest at Frontier Days.  Her relationship with Tom Henderson was suffering, and she later admitted to being preoccupied with thoughts about their future.  Unable to prevent what she believed to be the “ultimate demise” of her association with the cowboy, she focused on performing in the Wild West show.  The Irwin Brothers troupe met in Wisconsin in late July 1913 to present an exhibit at the state fair.  Rose received top billing among the cowgirls with the program, and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper featured Rose on the cover of the July 21 edition of the publication.

In August, Rose was in Canada and in an exhibition at the Calgary Stampede with Hazel Walker, Blanche McGaughey, and Fanny Sperry Steele.  At the conclusion of the program, Rose returned to her home in Utah.  With the relationship between her and Tom Henderson dissolved, she could focus solely on her children and her new romantic interest, an engineer named Homer Corwin.  Except for participating in the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon and Frontier Days in Walla Walla, Washington, in September 1914, winning the cowgirl’s bucking contest in the Washington rodeo, Rose stayed close to home.  

On November 2, 1914, Rose and Homer were married in Salt Lake City.  

Rose’s rodeo name did not change when she wed Corwin.  Prairie Rose Henderson was known throughout the rodeo circuit as the Ladies’ Bronc Busting Champion.  A three-reel Western roundup motion picture featuring the well-known rider was shown in nickelodeons from coast to coast in 1915.  Her popularity attracted crowds, but it didn’t guarantee she would maintain the bronc riding title she had worked so hard to obtain.  Dorothy Morrell took the top prize in that category in May 1915 at the Roundup Rodeo in Cheyenne.  Rose vowed to improve and take the next title.

As always, in between competing in rodeos, Rose performed in the Irwin Brothers’ shows.  On October 5, 1915, Rose appeared at a Wild West show in Salt Lake and participated in a cow pony race against Mrs. Roy Rogers of St. Anthony, Idaho, and Mrs. Theone Hampshire of Salt Lake.  Although Mrs. Rogers contested the results, Prairie Rose beat both riders to the finish line.  

From 1916 to 1918, Rose stayed true to participating in the most popular rodeos, including Walla Walla Frontier Days, the American Royal Livestock Show, and the Pendleton Roundup.  She consistently placed in the top three or five women vying for bucking championship awards and many times won top honors.  Wherever Rose rode and won bucking titles, she received prize money along with either a trophy or belt buckle, and sometimes both.  Everywhere she appeared, rodeo fans crowded the stadium to see the “cowgirl with the reputation for skill and daring subduing bucking broncos” and to admire the items she was awarded.  

Tragedy struck Rose and her family in early 1919 when her twenty-four-year-old daughter Cora died suddenly.  An inquest was conducted to confirm the cause of death.  Authorities deemed it necessary because at the time Cora passed away she was a patient of a chiropractor whose medical practice was called into question.  She had sought his services because she was suffering from what she thought was a pulled muscle in her back.  She stopped seeing the doctor when she wasn’t getting any better and checked herself into a hospital.  Authorities suspected the chiropractor’s treatments might have contributed to her demise.  A full investigation was conducted, and it was concluded that Cora died from the Spanish Flu.  

Rose returned to the rodeo arena the summer after her daughter’s death to perform at the First Annual Roundup in Indianapolis.  Among the other noted female performers at the event were Fox Hastings, Mayme Stroud, Maude Tarr, and Mildred Douglas.  Rose was billed as the “greatest woman bronc buster in the country” and was praised for having won more championships than any other lady rider in the world.  

Between the summers of 1919 and 1925, she defended her titles or fought to gain them back.  She sustained a few injuries in the process, some more serious than others.  On September 29, 1920, the bronc she was riding at the annual Pawnee County Fair and Roundup in Larned, Kansas, broke loose and ran into the trees at the corner of the rodeo grounds.  Rose was trying to get the horse under control when her head met a limb and two of her front teeth were knocked out.  

Somewhere between rodeos, Rose and her husband Homer separated and then divorced.  Shortly after that marriage ended, she met and married a trick roper from Los Angeles named Johnny Judd.  The pair were introduced by the producers of the silent picture Cowboy Jazz.  Both Rose and Johnny were in the film along with several other well-known rodeo performers such as Ruth Roach and Tommy Kirnan.  After the premiere of Cowboy Jazz in the fall of 1920, the Judds spent the winter in Hollywood working as stunt riders in Western star William S. Hart films.  

Although Rose’s interests now included motion pictures, she didn’t abandon the rodeo.  She continued to compete in bronc riding contests from Oregon to New York.  At fifty years old, she appeared at the Frontier Roundup in Salt Lake in 1925 to ride against familiar challengers Lily Allen, Marie Gibson, and Bonnie Gray.  The Utah event was the last time Rose participated in a rodeo.  After that, she drifted from competition and from her marriage to Judd at the same time.  The couple divorced, and she moved to Wyoming where she met her next husband, Charles Coleman.  

Rose and Charles were married on August 29, 1929, in Lander, Wyoming.  The couple settled on a ranch near Rawlins.  Authorities would later note the “Coleman home was in one of the most secluded and isolated spots in that section of the West.”  Fremont County officers who had dealt with Coleman speculated he selected the property because he could “hide his illegal activities there.”  Coleman was a thief when he and Rose married, and he wasn’t particular about what kind of livestock he stole.  The week before their wedding, he had been caught on rancher Henry Johnson’s land looking over the forty thousand head of sheep owned.  Johnson fired two shots at Coleman to scare him away.  Coleman reported Johnson’s action to the sheriff, and the rancher was arrested.

When Coleman was apprehended in February 1933 in connection with cattle rustling, the sheriff’s department assured Rose they would return with provisions for her.  A heavy snow had blanketed the region, and another storm had been forecasted.  The officers were concerned Rose might be trapped at the ranch and unable to get food.  True to their word, law enforcement officials came back with groceries, but Rose wasn’t at home.

A search was immediately instituted, but efforts to find the rodeo star were hampered by bad weather.  The fact that Rose had deserted pets of which she was quite fond and that her brother hadn’t heard from her led residents in Lander to believe she had become lost in the snow or met with an accident.

On Sunday, July 22, 1939, Mrs. Rose Coleman was finally located.  A sheepherder named A. Martinez happened upon her remains less than two and a half miles from the Coleman ranch.  Rose’s brother returned to Rawlins to identify her skeleton and clothing.  She was wearing one of the belt buckles she had won busting broncos.  

Three months after her body was found, Prairie Rose Henderson was laid to rest at the Lakeview Cemetery in Cheyenne.