The first stories were published in 1917 by Edward O'Reilly for The Century Magazine and collected and reprinted in 1923 in the book Saga of Pecos Bill (1923). O'Reilly said they were part of an oral tradition of tales told by cowboys during the westward expansion and settlement of the southwest including Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. But American folklorist Richard M. Dorson found that O'Reilly invented the stories as "folklore", and that later writers either borrowed tales from O'Reilly or added further adventures of their own invention to the cycle. One of the best-known versions of the Pecos Bill stories is by James Cloyd Bowman in Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time (1937), which won the Newbery Honor in 1938 and was republished in 2007.
Edward "Tex" O'Reilly co-authored a cartoon strip with cartoonist Jack A. Warren, also known as Alonzo Vincent Warren, between 1929 and 1938. When O'Reilly died in 1938, Warren began a strip titled Pecos Pete. This was a story about "Pecos Bill", who had received a "lump on the naggan" that caused him amnesia. The cartoons originally were published in The Sun and were later syndicated. He also has a wife, named Slue-Foot Sue.
Pecos Bill made the leap to film in the 1948 Walt Disney animated feature Melody Time. He was portrayed by Patrick Swayze in Disney's 1995 film Tall Tale.
"Pecos Bill" was also the nickname of Civil War general William Shafter, although this was before O'Reilly created the legend. Shafter was considered a hero in Texas and even had some legendary poetry written about how tough he was.
According to the legend, Pecos Bill was born in Texas in the 1830s (or 1845 in some versions, the year of Texas' statehood). Pecos Bill's family decided to move out because his town was being "too crowded". Pecos Bill was traveling in a covered wagon as an infant when he fell out unnoticed by the rest of his family near the Pecos River (thus his nickname). He was taken in and raised by a pack of coyotes. Years later he was found by his real brother, who managed to convince him he was not a coyote.
He grew up to become a cowboy. Pecos used a rattlesnake named Shake as a lasso and another snake as a little whip. His horse, Widow-Maker (also called Lightning), was so named because no other man could ride him and live. Dynamite was said to be his favorite food. It is also said Pecos sometimes rode a cougar instead of a horse. On one of his adventures, Pecos Bill managed to lasso a twister. It was also said that he once wrestled the Bear Lake Monster for several days until Bill finally defeated it.
Pecos Bill had a lover named Slue-Foot Sue, who rode a giant catfish down the Rio Grande. He was fishing with the pack when he saw her. Shake, Widow-Maker, and Slue-Foot Sue are as idealized as Pecos Bill.
After a courtship in which, among other things, Pecos Bill shoots all the stars from the sky except for one which becomes the Lone Star, Pecos proposes to Sue. She insists on riding Widow-Maker before, during or after the wedding (depending on variations in the story). Widow-Maker, jealous of no longer having Bill's undivided attention, bounces Sue off; she lands on her bustle and begins bouncing higher and higher. Pecos attempts, but fails, to lasso her, because Widow-Maker didn't want her on his back again, and she eventually hits her head on the moon. After she has been bouncing for days, Pecos Bill realizes that she would eventually starve to death, so he lassos her with Shake the rattlesnake and brings her back down. Widow-Maker, realizing that what he did to her was wrong, apologizes. In Bowman's version of the story, Sue eventually recovers from the bouncing but is so traumatized by the experience she never talks to Pecos Bill again. Though it is said that Bill was married many times, he never liked the others as much as Sue, and the other relationships didn't work out. In some versions, Sue couldn't stop bouncing, and Bill couldn't stop her bouncing either, so Bill had to shoot her to put her out of her misery. Although he married many times after that, he never loved a girl as much as Sue.
In the Melody Time version, Sue gets stranded on the moon upon impact due to Widow-Maker's interference in preventing Bill from lassoing her, causing a disheartened Bill to leave civilization and rejoin the coyotes, who now howl at the moon in honor of Bill's sorrow.Pecos Bill appeared in the 1995 Disney film Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill portrayed by Patrick Swayze. In the story The Death of Pecos Bill, Pecos Bill is in a bar when a so-called city boy walks in with gator-skin shoes and a gator-skin suit, otherwise trying to present himself in the manner of an outlaw cowboy. Pecos Bill found it amusing and laughed himself to death outside.Comedian Robin Williams recorded a children's audiobook version of the story, with music by Ry Cooder, for Rabbit Ears/Windham Hill, in 1988.Pecos Bill appeared in the children's book The Great Texas Hamster Drive by Eric A. Kimmel.Harold W. Felton authored three books of Pecos Bill tall tales