Pecos Bill is a great example of a tall tale hero. Bill was raised by coyotes and rejoined human society to become a sort of Western superhero. In a collection of stories, he outdid everyone in tales of derring-do that explain the origins of the Rio Grande and the Grand Canyon, among other things. He met his match in Slue-Foot Sue, a larger-than-life woman of the Old West who married Pecos Bill but then insisted on riding his horse, Widowmaker, and came to a bad end.
The stories of Pecos Bill are said to have grown out of the tales cowboys told around the campfire in the evening, just as the stories of Paul Bunyan are said to have originated in logging camps. Like Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill was introduced to the general public by a newspaperman.
James Bowman wrote a Newberry Honor Book, Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time, telling the legend in 1938. Steven Kellogg has done a nice picture book version for modern kids. Rabbit Ears has done an audio version.
You can also find them online:
- A collection of Pecos Bill stories.
- A play by Joe Janes, to be used with care and maybe a little cleanup for older students.
- Walt Disney did a cartoon version of the story, with Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.
- Palace Digital has uploaded the Rabbit Ears video at YouTube, so you can watch it here (or on your classroom projector) without fear of piracy.
Once you’ve read, heard, acted out, or watched the legend of Pecos Bill, add some cross-curricular lessons.
- Pecos Bill is the biggest, meanest, strongest, wildest — here’s a great chance to work on superlatives!
- A matching worksheet from Discovery School reviews vocabulary.
- Several of the Pecos Bill stories explain how things began. Encourage students to make their own stories explaining phenomena around the school.
- Rudyard Kipling wrote stories explaining things like how camels got their humps (Just So Stories), and also wrote about a child raised by wolves (The Jungle Book ). Haul out the Venn diagrams and compare the two sets of stories.
- While many kids’ versions of the stories have been cleaned up, Pecos Bill is often portrayed as a drinker and a smoker. Take the opportunity to work on the topic of substance abuse.
- Pecos Bill has close relationships with lots of animals, from his coyote family to the rattlesnake he uses for a lasso. List the animals in the stories, classify them, and learn more about them. Research the real-world relationships of the animals with humans. This would make a great report.
- Pecos Bill can ride “twisters” — tornadoes. A study of tornadoes would go well with this unit. National Geographic Expeditions has an excellent lesson plan on the subject.
- If Pecos Bill had been a real person, he would have been a feral child, a child raised by nonhuman animals. Stories of such children have been around for a long time. Check Feral Children at Neuroscience at the Movies, The Straight Dope, and Wikipedia, and encourage students to make and support their own conclusions on the controversies surrounding this topic.