The Life & Legend of:
Wild Bill Hickok
Wild Bill Hickok
1837 - 1976
Gunfighter, Peace Officer and Folk Hero
James Butler Hickok, better known as “Wild Bill” was a gunman and lawman of the Old West. He was the real-life version of the modern day cowboy hero. The real Hickok was gentlemanly, courteous, and soft-spoken. He was a quiet man, and not of a quarrelsome disposition, yet left no doubt that if "put upon," he would meet violence with violence.
“Wild Bill” was a splendid specimen of physical manhood, he held himself straight and tall, being over six feet. He was muscular, with broad shoulders, a large chest and a small waist. He had a handsome face, with a large drooping moustache, and a mass of fine dark hair parted from the center and hanging down in wavy curls.
Wild Bill Hickok was inclined to be sociable, but he regarded with contempt any man that could stoop low enough to perform "a mean action." As Bill himself put it, "I have never insulted man or woman in my life, but if you knew what a wholesome regard I have for liars and rascals they would be liable to keep out of my way." Bill’s well deserved reputation did much to keep the ‘rascals’ out of his way and the violence down in the cow towns he marshaled. The simple cry "Wild Bill is on the street!" is said to have curtailed many a drunken brawl or sent ruffians scurrying for a rear exit.
Around his waist Bill wore a belt that held two ivory-handled Colt Navy revolvers, butts forward, in open-top holsters. Worn in this fashion, his pistols could be drawn underhand or ‘cross-body’. Either way, the weapons were easily available. In their rapid and accurate use, Wild Bill had no equal.
Hickok’s proficiency in the use of firearms was described by his friend and former commander Gen. Armstrong Custer as “a man whose skill in the use of the rifle or pistol was unerring; clearly the best pistol shot I have ever known. His quick reaction to danger enabled him to draw and fire his revolvers before the average man had time to think about it. He shoots to kill".
The reason for Bill's success as a gunfighter and lawman was his ability to draw and discharge his pistols with a rapidity that was astonishing, He never seemed to take any aim, yet he never missed.
Hickok's shooting skill was described by Colonel Nichols in an article for Harper's Magazine. “Wild Bill pointed to a letter "O" on a signboard some 50 yards away that was no bigger than a man's heart, and "without sighting the pistol with his eye," fired six times, and each ball hitting the center."
Wild Bill Hickok’s friend Buffalo Bill Cody, said that Hickok “would cock his pistols as he drew--which gave him a split-second advantage--and he never killed a man unless that man was trying to kill him."
Certainly Hickok must have been aware of the potential of his reputation and used it to his advantage when it suited him. Despite this reputation, Bill rarely drew his six-shooters in serious confrontation. In later life, when questioned by an inquisitive reporter about “What cause or provocation made you kill all those Men?”, Bill replied, “By heaven, I never killed one man without good cause."
Just who was this lawman and gunfighter of the old west and how did he achieve this great esteem by his peers and such distain and fear from those on the shady side of the law? Maybe the chronology below will give you some insight.
1837 - James Butler Hickok was born in the small agricultural community of Troy Grove, Illinois. Hickok's father, William Alonzo Hickok, came from Vermont and his mother, Polly Butler, from New York State. Bill was the fifth of seven children. When Bill was growing up his father played an active role in the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape from the South. In those days before the Civil War this was dangerous, but William Alonzo Hickok was made of stern fiber and early in young Bill’s life taught him to stand up against inequity. To the Hickok family the lines between right and wrong were not as blurred as they are today.
1854 - When Hickok's father died he took over the job of furnishing food for the family larder by shooting local game. This is where he first began to develop his shooting skills. He soon grew bored with both farming and life in Troy Grove. He took a job in Utica Illinois, working as a wagon driver on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. This job came to an end when James threw his employer into the canal for mistreating his horse team. This incident shows that young Bill was already prone to stand up for the oppressed, be they man or beast.
1856 - After making a trip to St. Louis, traveling with his brother Lorenzo, the Hickoks ended up in Leavenworth Kansas. At this time two very different factions were in the Kansas territory. One was pro-slavery, and the other, anti-slavery. It is reported that Bill joined General Jim Lane to fight against the injustices of slavery, eventually becoming his personal bodyguard.
1858 - Election records of Monticello Kansas show Hickok being elected "Constable" at the age of 21. This was the first time he assumed the position of a law enforcement officer. He also did some farming again during this period of his life.
1859 - Hickok drove freight wagons, and coaches along the Santa Fe Trail, where he once met the famous frontiersman Kit Carson.
1861 - While performing his duties as constable at Rock Creek Station in Nebraska Hickok crossed swords with the leader of a local "gang" of thugs and desperadoes. A notorious bully named David McCanles. When McCanles and three his friends came into the station looking for trouble, they found it in the form of Bill Hickok. Heated words were exchanged between Hickok and McCanles, which led to gunplay. At the end of the incident, McCanles laid dead and his two cohorts, James Woods and James Gordon were seriously wounded. They later died of their injuries. A local court, that looked into the matter and Hickok’s claim that he killed McCanles in "self-defense". Apparently, this was also their opinion, since no charges were brought against Hickok. After the Rock Creek incident Hickok went to Leavenworth Kansas and enlisted in the Union Army as a civilian scout. Historical records exist of numerous incidents of Hickok's bravery during his war duty. He served first as a wagon master and then as an agent with the Provost Marshal’s office in Springfield, Missouri. As a detective he caught soldiers not reporting for duty and horse thieves, investigated liquor license fraud, and tracked down counterfeiters. He was also a Civil War scout and spy for Captain Richard Bentley Owen, Quartermaster. It was during this period of time, in this area of the country, that James Butler Hickok began being known as "Wild Bill Hickok"
1863 - As the war continued a lot of Hickok's duties involved "spying" for the Union army.
1864 - Hickok was appointed by Gen. John Sanborn as his personal scout and spy, working in Missouri and Arkansas. There also exist several official documents that show Hickok being in the employ of the Provost Marshal's office. Molded by war, and many dangerous adventures, Wild Bill Hickok emerged from the Civil War as a man to be both feared and admired. He was now unemployed however, and needed to find a means of supporting himself.
1865 - Hickok's reputation as a gunfighter began when he killed David Tutt in the public square of Springfield Missouri. The two men naturally would not like each other, one being Union and the other Confederate. However, since both were inclined to games of chance it was inevitable the they would meet and quarrel over a card game. The trouble came to a head when Tutt grabbed and walked off with Hickok's pocket watch, supposedly as payment for a ten dollar debt Hickok disputed. Tutt began bragging about having seized the watch, and added that he would parade down the town square wearing the watch. Hickok warned Tutt that if he did there would be trouble. Ignoring the warning Tutt walked into the town square. It’s estimated that when the two men where about seventy-five apart Tutt drew a pistol. Hickok thereupon pulled his own pistol, and almost simultaneously both men fired. Tutt had missed, but Hickok's ball entered Dave's right side and exited through his left, piercing his heart, killing him instantly. Hickok then turned on his heel and faced an angry group of Tutt's friends, who had gathered behind him, some of whom had drawn their own pistols. He coldly told them to return their pistols to their holsters or there would be more "dead men" in the square. Tutt's friends thought better of their intentions and quickly complied with Hickok's suggestion. After the incident Hickok was arrested, but later acquitted when the court ruled that he had acted in self-defense. This was the first historically recorded example of two men taking part in classical western shootout. Future books, movies, and TV shows would replay this scene in one fashion or another.
1866 - Sometime after Hickok left Springfield he arrived at Fort McPherson, in the Nebraska territory, to act as scout for the famous General William T. Sherman. When his duties with Sherman were concluded Hickok returned to Fort Riley where the famous 7th Cavalry, led by the equally famous Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer was being formed. Hickok and Custer, became good friends. Hickok also became friends with another famous individual at Fort Riley, Custer’s chief scout at that time, William Cody later known as "Buffalo Bill".
1867 - Records show that Wild Bill Hickok was in Hays City Kansas, working as a deputy U.S. Marshal and, apparently, no longer working for the Army. In September Hickok was involved in a gunfight with a man named Samuel Strawhun, a well known thug. A drunken Strawhun was shooting up one of the local saloons and as city marshal Hickok was obliged in to stop the trouble. Facing Strawhun, Hickok warned the dangerous man to cease causing trouble, whereupon Strawhun made a move for his gun and was promptly shot through the head. Three months later Hickok had to shoot another town troublemaker, named Bill Mulvey, in performance of his duties. Mulvey was drunk and threatening to shoot anyone who moved when Hickok arrived on the scene and ordered him to disarm. Mulvey pointed his pistol at Hickok who then drew his own pistol and shot him dead before he could pull the trigger. Blame for the death of neither of these individuals was ever laid upon Hickok. To the contrary, he was applauded by the local newspaper, which wrote, "Hays city is under the guardian care of Wild Bill Hickok and doing well". Bill’s fame increased when an interview with Henry Stanley was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
1870 - Hickok's term as city Marshal of Hays was ended when he lost the November election to his deputy, Peter Lanahan.
1871 - Hickok moved on to Abilene, Kansas where he accepted the position of city Marshal at a salary of $150 dollars a month. The desperados and rowdies of Abilene would soon learn, that Marshal Hickok was an expert with guns, and fearless in the performance of his duties. The good citizens of Abilene no longer had to fear the trail herd cowboys, criminals, and ruffians with Wild Bill on the job. He enforced the law as he saw fit. He thought nothing of running a man out of town, rather than locking him up in jail. There is even a record of John Wesley Hardin leaving town in a hurry after shooting a man because he knew Hickok would be coming to arrest him. One gambling establishment in particular caused Hickok much trouble. The owners were the gunfighter Ben Thompson, and a rowdy Texan named Phil Coe. Things came to a head when Hickok, patrolling the streets with his deputy Mike Williams, heard a shot. When he rushed into the building that the shot came from, Bill found himself facing more than 50 armed and drunken men led by Coe who claimed that he had fired at a stray dog. Hickok informed him of the ordinance concerning the discharge of firearms, and said that they would have to give up their guns and leave town. This of course, incensed the mob, whereupon Coe then fired twice at Hickok, one shot hitting the floor and the other passing through the marshal's coat. Hickok quickly drew his pistols and fired two bullets back at Coe, striking him in the abdomen. At this same instant someone else charged into the room with a gun drawn. Hickok fired instantly, not realizing, until too late that it was his deputy and good friend Mike Williams. To his horror Hickok saw that he had shot Williams, who was running to his aid. An enraged Hickok turned on the mob of drunken cow hands. He told them to get on their horses and ride out of town. They could see the rage in the marshal’s eyes and fearful of what he might do next, they immediately sobered up and uttering not a word, quickly left town. Later Hickok explained to William’s grief-stricken widow how things had happened, and paid for the funeral. In December of that year the town officials decided the cattle trade was not worth the trouble it was creating for their town and got rid of it. They now had no further use for a highly paid marshal, so Wild Bill Hickok was released. This brought to an end to his career as a law officer.
1872 - Hickok soon ran into his old friend Buffalo Bill Cody who convinced him to perform in his “Combination Theatrical Troupe.” Hickok just never felt comfortable with all the "make believe". Nor did he fit in living in the East. Eventually, he tired of show business and returned to the frontier.
1876 - Back when was still marshal of Abilene, Hickok met his only true love Agnes Thatcher Lake. She had come there with her traveling circus show. Agnes was a truly remarkable woman. She was a world renowned horsewoman, tightrope walker, dancer, sometime actress, lion tamer, and could speak several languages. Agnes fell deeply in love with Hickok on sight. At that time Hickok felt that his profession as a law officer to precarious. However they continued to correspond. Wild Bill Hickok caught up with Agnes again in Cheyenne, and on March 5th of 1876 they where married. After a honeymoon back east Bill left Agnes with friends in Cincinnati and headed for the gold strikes in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. It was his intention to send for Agnes as soon as he “established” himself. However history was to have another cruel fate in store for their romance. On August 2, three weeks after his arrival in Deadwood, Hickok was playing cards at the Nuttall & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 when a cowardly drifter by the name of Jack McCall entered and circled his way around to Bill’s back. He then swiftly drew a pistol and shouted “Damn you, take that!”, as he shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the neck, killing him instantly. At the time of his death, Hickok held a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights, which has forever since been known as a “dead man's hand.”. The fifth card has been held up for speculation but was probably either the queen or jack of diamonds. Hickok was buried in the Ingleside Cemetery and three years later was moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery.
1877 - Jack McCall was hanged in Custer City for the murder of James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok.
1907 - Agnes never remarried and on August 21st Agnes Lake died. She had a letter, written to her by Hickok just prior to his death in Deadwood. In the letter Hickok reveals a premonition of his death. He wrote, "Agnes darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife, Agnes, and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore." These eloquent words give us another glimpse into the character of a true man among men, a real life hero, and legend in his own time.
Some facts you should know about Wild Bill Hickok
- George Bush, the 43rd President of the United States and his father the 41st President are direct descendents of Hickok's mother.
- At the time of his death Bill was going blind from glaucoma.
- Some interesting history concerning Jack McCall, Hickok’s murderer. He was immediately caught and tried by a miner’s court but set loose because of his claim that Bill had killed his brother. McCall left Deadwood without delay. It was later discovered that Jack didn't have a brother. He was later captured and hung in Custer City, SD. His motive for the murder was never really known. Some speculate that the criminal element in Deadwood feared the famous lawman and paid McCall to eliminate him. Whatever the truth was it died with Jack McCall on the gallows.
- Another myth that has plagued Wild Bill Hickok's memory is his involvement with Calamity Jane. History records, and personal memoirs have completely debunked all such stories. The closest thing that Hickok ever had to do with her was to share the same area of the country for a brief time. The claim that Calamity Jane’s last wish was to be buried next to Wild Bill has also been debunked. In August of 1903 Calamity died from alcoholism. Before her burial some of her "friends" conceived the plan to bury her next to Wild Bill. She had never voiced such a desire.
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