by Jim Olson
In the early days of rodeo, steer roping competitions were how cowboys competed at roping. Calf (tie-down) roping came along later, then team roping. Around the turn of the last century, as roping competitions started taking hold, three men were known as the “ones to beat.” Joe Gardner, Clay McGonagill and J. Ellison Carroll were the “Trevor, Cody and Fred” of their day. Carroll wore a gold-colored badge with a steer’s head on it. It was engraved, “World Champion Roper.”
John Ellison Carroll, known as “J. Ellison,” was born of pioneer stock on September 14, 1862 in San Patricio County, Texas. He was the son of John Ellison and Mary Carroll. As a young man he worked as a cowboy, even going on some of the last trail drives. Little did he know at the time he would go on to become one of rodeos celebrated pioneers and a World’s Champion roper.
He was a large man for his time, said to be 6’4”. Carroll won his first major contest as a steer roper at Canadian, Texas, in 1888. He was soon considered among the best ropers in the state. He would challenge anybody, any time, primarily to roping matches, where earnings from side bets often exceeded the prizes.
Of course, there was no officially recognized “World Champion” back in those days. Several rodeos claimed their winners were the “World Champion.” This was mostly a publicity stunt. However, in 1904, J. Ellison had a match roping against Clay McGonagill (who many considered to be the best).
Rodeo historian, Willard Porter wrote of the match, “It is said to have been a three-day affair. On twenty-eight head, Carroll averaged 40.3 seconds to the loser’s 46.1. The steers reportedly weighed between 800 to 1000 pounds.”
Thereafter, Carroll went around with business cards he had printed up which had a picture of him next to a tied-down steer on one side and the words, “J. Ellison Carroll – Champion Roper of the World” on the other. He also wore the aforementioned badge. Most folk did in fact consider him the World Champion.
In 1905, the state of Texas outlawed steer roping (also known as “Fairgrounding” at the time). So Carroll moved to Oklahoma where he continued to defend his title against anyone who would take him up on it. He also ranched there.
While living in Oklahoma, he worked for a spell with Col. Zach Mulhall on the 101 Ranch and Wild West Show. The Kansas City Star, April 13th, 1910 wrote, “A Wild West show, headed by Col. Zach Mulhall, of Oklahoma fame, will begin a week’s engagement in Convention Hall Sunday night, with a daily matinee beginning Monday. The show began its season in St. Louis last week, meeting with much approval there. Colonel Mulhall, through his advance representatives, announces that the new show has all necessary Wild West equipment, including one hundred broncho busters, cow punchers, rough riders and Indians. Mulhall’s cowboy band also is a feature. Lucille Mulhall, who is announced as “the world’s greatest horsewoman and lariat thrower,” will engage in roping contests with Ellison Carroll, who now holds the world’s championship medal for roping, throwing and tying a wild steer.”
Typical of that era, where things really were “Western,” it was reported at the Dewey Roundup in 1909 that J. Ellison Carroll did a stunt in which, riding in an automobile, he roped a steer.
Thanks to his reputation as a roper and Wild West show star, Carroll had minor success with his own Wild West show. He toured for a short time under a show bearing his own name. During his time with the Wild West shows, he performed with such notables as Lucille Mulhall, Tom Mix, and Will Rogers.
Also while living in Oklahoma, Carroll helped organize various roping contests where the best ropers (usually about fifty) were invited to compete. They were billed as “World Championship Contests.” More often than not, Carroll won these events.
Along about 1913, Carroll semi-retired from rodeo and the Wild West. He bought a ranch near Big Lake, Texas where he lived the remainder of his life. Carroll married Marie Van Wert on October 16, 1916. She died when their son, J. E. Carroll Jr., was born in 1919. In 1926 he re-married to Frances McClour. He served as sheriff of Reagan County from 1931 to 1933 and was a county commissioner from 1937 to 1942.
Carroll remained interested in rodeo throughout his life. During the 1930s he judged the Stamford Cowboy Reunion and competed in its Oldtimers’ Rodeo. He was also president of the Texas Cowboy Reunion Oldtimer’s Association. He died on April 20, 1942.
The legendary steer roper, John Ellison Carroll was posthumously inducted to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1976. ▫