Monday, July 31, 2023

A little-known American Hero

You’ve probably never heard of May Lillie unless you’re from Oklahoma or study Old West history, but she was quite an inspiring woman.

Mary Manning was born on March 12, 1869, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents, physician William R. and Mary Manning were Quakers. May had two sisters, Elmira, and Elizabeth Manning and a younger brother, William B. Manning. She also had three half-brothers. May most likely lead a happy life in a nice home, helping her mother and caring for her siblings like most girls her age, but all that was about to change.

During her sophomore year at Smith College, May ventured to see the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show when it came to town. As the parade of arriving performers filled the streets, May caught the eye of a man as he rode by on horseback. Throwing a smile in his direction is how she met her future husband Gordon Lillie, nicknamed “Pawnee Bill” for his role as the Pawnee interpreter in Buffalo Bill’s crew. May later commented: “...she knew right then that ‘she could change the course of her life with a well-directed smile.’ Pawnee Bill said for the rest of his life, that the first time he saw May, he was instantly in love,”

Though Gordon was a decade older than May, they enjoyed a quick courtship and married at her parents’ home in Philadelphia later in 1886. Gordon Lillie's wedding gift to his bride was a pony and a Marlin .22 target rifle.

May must have been a quick study on the rifle and in learning to ride her horse, because the very next year, May1887, she debuted as a sharpshooter for Pawnee Bill's Great Wild West Show and was billed as 'the greatest Lady Horseback Rifle-shot of the World'. May traveled the country with her husband's show and was one of the first women to perform as an equestrian and shooter in American Wild West shows.

In 1899, May suffered a shooting injury during an act and required two of her fingers to be amputated. While on tour in 1907, May gave a speech to women in Chicago, where she said: "Let any normally healthy woman who is ordinarily strong screw up her courage and tackle a bucking bronco, and she will find the most fascinating pastime in the field of feminine athletic endeavor. There is nothing to compare, to increase the joy of living, and once accomplished, she’ll have more real fun than any pink tea or theater party or ballroom ever yielded."

Eventually, May and Gordon settled in Pawnee, Oklahoma, on Blue Hawk Peak. They built a cabin, established a buffalo herd, and, in 1910, completed work on their Arts and Crafts style home. In 1917, May and Gordon adopted a son whom they named Billy. He died in an accident at the ranch in 1925.

While her husband was on tour, May was the hands-on manager of the Lillie buffalo ranch. She believed in the buffalos’ importance to the heritage of the American West and to Plains Indian culture. May was also active in the Woman's Relief Corps. 

In 1936, May and her husband celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in Taos, New Mexico. In September of that year, they attended a local celebration in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While driving back to their ranch that night Gordon lost control of their vehicle. May died on September 17, 1936, as a result of injuries sustained in the accident.

In 2011, May Lillie was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame for her tireless work during her Wild West show career as well as her role in the preservation of the American bison.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum. The home Gordon and May built is still standing and was available for tours at the time I was there. We also enjoyed watching a wild west show, which I loved. You can catch the show yourself if you’re in Pawnee, OK, next June.


CBA, EPCA, and Amazon best-selling author, Vickie McDonough, spins a swashbuckling tale in Mutiny of the Heart.

Heather Hawthorne has no reason to like Lucas Reed, the man who deserted her cousin Deborah when he learned she was carrying his child. Lucas Reed is an American whose fight for liberty ruined her father's wealth and led to his death. Deborah's dying wish is that Heather take little Jamie to his father in Charleston. But how can she leave the child she's come to love as her own with a man who never wanted him?


  1. Thank you for posting today. I loved "meeting" May Lillie. It sounds like she would have inspired many young ladies with her wisdom.

    1. You're welcome, Connie. I think I would have liked May.

  2. Hi Vickie! This is a great story. I love anything Wild West and women and Oklahoma! You SC Brides books are wonderful!