Wild Bill

Old West StoriesJames Butler Hickok

Born 1837, May 27 – died 1876, August 2.

James is much better known as Wild Bill Hickok, one of the best remembered and most enigmatic figures in Old West Stories.  He is probably the most famous person ever to be a resident of Deadwood, which is saying something.  He was also referred to during his early years as “Duck Bill”, a reference to his protruding nose and upper lip.

He was born in Homer, Illinois.  If you decide to look  up more information about that you need to know that his birthplace had a name change and is now called Troy Grove.  The present day town of Homer is a different place altogether.  His birthplace is now known as the Wild Bill Hickok Memorial and more information is available on the site of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

It is difficult to separate historical truth from the fiction that has arisen from the life of this man.  His appearances as a hero in novels, newspapers, television, movies and even comic books has clouded the matter to a significant degree,  Check the Youtube link here about Hickok that graphically demonstrates just how much has been created about this man.

He sits alongside a group of people from the Old West Stories era that share the distinction of being genuine wild west characters but having a legend created around them that is  bigger than their reality.  These characters include Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Davey Crockett and Jim Bowie.

Wild Bill Hickok has been credited with many accomplishments.  This list highlights a few of them:-

  • Gun fighter;
  • Lawman in Kansas and Nebraska;
  • Army Scout;
  • Stagecoach driver;
  • Marksman;
  • Union Army officer;
  • Gambler;
  • Actor;
  • Buffulo Hunter;
  • Showman;
  • Gold Miner.

1855 – Hickok moved to Kansas.  It is believed he did so after being in a fight with one Charles Hudson and believing he had killed the man in the fight.  At the tender age of 18, no doubt the thought of a noose inspired his flight but he was wrong and Hudson was not dead.

Later that year he joined the famous “Red Legs” vigilante army led by General Jim Lane.  It was during this service that he first met William Cody (later to become known as Buffalo Bill).  Cody was only 12 years old at the time.

1857 – Hickok claimed a tract of land in Johnson County, Kansas, 160 acres.  This area is now known as Lenexa.

1858 – March 22 –  Hickok was elected as a Constable in Monticello, Kansas.

1858 – Wild Bill used several different names from time to time.  In 1858 he used the name William Hickok.  The reason for this name is not known.

1859 – Hickok joined the “Russel, Majors and Waddell Freight Company”.  This business later formed the basis of the famous “Pony Express”.

1860 – Hickok was badly injured by a bear and treated at Rock Creek Station, Nebraska.  This was part of the freight company holdings at the time and he worked there as a stable hand during his recovery period.

1861 –  Hickok was involved in a shootout with the “McCanles Gang”.  It is recorded that David McCanles arrived at Rock Creek with his 12 year old son (William), James Woods and James Gordon.  The reason for their visit is uncertain but widely rumoured to be a planned collection of an overdue payment on the property.  David was apparently threatening the station manager, Horace Wellman.  The legend of Hickok says he intervened and shot McCanles but this is by no means definite and it could well have been Wellman who was responsible.  Wellman, his wife and another (not including Hickok) were tried for murder but acquitted on the grounds of self defense.  If it is true that Wild Bill fired to fatal shot, this is the first man Hickok is reputed to have killed.

1861 – April – Hickok signed on as a teamster for the Union Army in Sedelia, Missouri and in short order, was recognised for his skill and became wagon master.

1861 – His famous moustache appeared and he began calling himself “Wild Bill”.  He also used the name William Haycock during the Civil War up to 1865.

1862 – Hickok was discharged from the Army.   There has been no recorded reason for the discharge found and he seems to have disappeared for over a year after the incident.

1863 – Hickok was a Provost Marshall toward the end of this year.  Some have said that during the unaccounted period he was a spy working in the Southern territories and this is why no record is available.

1864 – Hickok left service as a law man.  It is unclear if he was dismissed or resigned but it is known that he and other officers had not been paid for some time.  He was hired as a Scout by General John Sanborn.  He earned $5.00 a day plus a horse and equipment.  This was a handsome wage at a time when cavalry men were often joining up for $13.00 a month.

1865 – Hickok was arrested under the name William Haycock in 1865 and appears to have returned to his real name after that incident.

1865 – July 21 – Hickok was involved in an incident in Springfield, Missouri during which he killed Davis Tutt in a classic quick draw duel.  Whilst movie fiction portrays this as typical of Old West Stories from much earlier, this incident may well be the first such actual incident that fits the movie description.

Hickok and Tutt had met over the gambling table earlier in the year and became friends.  It appears they fell out over a woman and that Hickok had an affair with Tutt’s sister.  They became rivals and the matter came to a head when Tutt was coaching a rival during a card game against Hickok and a dispute arose about money owed.  Tutt took possession of Hickok’s watch and left.

The following day events ebbed and flowed until they were both on the street with Tutt wearing the watch.  He was warned not to approach Hickok wearing the watch.  Both men ended up facing each other in the classic duelling position (facing sideways but looking at each other).  Witnesses stated that both men fired at the same time but Tutt’s shot missed while Hickok’s shot struck him the side.  Tutt ran a short way, collapsed on the steps of the local court and died.

Hickok was arrested for murder and had the charge reduced to manslaughter.  He stood trial on August 3.  The verdict of the jury was to acquit and was not a popular outcome.

Later that year an account of his life appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.  It recounted a list of many deaths at the hands of Hickok and also greatly exaggerated other events in his life.

1865 – September – Hickok ran for the position of City Marshall in Springfield but failed to secure the position.

1867 – May 11 – It has been reported that Hickok killed two Indians after being attacked by a what is described as a large group.

1867 – July – Hickok recounted to a newspaper reporter he had led soldiers to pursue indians that had killed four men.  He is said to have killed ten of them and taken five more prisoner.  Witness accounts however, suggested that he had returned without a single body or prisoner and didn’t actually sight one.

1867 – Hickok left the ground where Old West Stories have their home in the midwest and travelled to Niagara Falls where he was in a stage play called “The Daring Buffulo Chases of the Plains”.  He does seem to have been received as a great actor.

1867 – November 5 – Having returned to the Kansas he ran for the position of Sheriff in Ellsworth County but again, failed to secure the position.

1867 – December – Hickok is recorded as having arrived in Hay, Kansas.

1867 – March 12 – Hickok on this day was working as a Deputy U.S. Marshall and was collecting 11 Union Army deserters.  He was provided with a military escort consisting of 5 private soldiers and a Sergeant.  That Sergeant was William Cody.  The arrived to successfully deliver the prisoners on April 2.

1868 –  September 1 – Hickok worked as a scout for the 10th Cavalry in Lincoln County, serving with a segregated African-American unit.  He was wounded on the 4th, being shot in the foot during the rescue of several cattlemen who had been attacked by indians.


Old West Stories1869 – Wild Bill was one of the first to actually appears with this form of frontier wear as shown in the picture at left.  It is unlikely he ever wore a knife in the manner shown however and it is likely to be on show just for the photograph and would be kept sheafed at other times.

Hickok shortly after became a Deputy United States Marshall at Fort Riley, Kansas.  At this time the Indian wars war also playing out and he served from time to time as a Scout for the 7th Cavalry (commanded at that time by General George Custer).

1869 – July – Hickok tried again to become Sheriff in Hays and this time he was elected.  On August 23 he was also elected City Marshall of Ellis County, Kansas.  The area was having a lot of trouble getting law men to stay on at that time having several resign mid term.  During this time he earned high praise from the Commander of Fort Hays following the apprehension of deserters.

1869 – November 2 – Following issues with the legality of the election to City Marshall, Hickok lost a subsequent election on this day.   Legal ramifications over the new election continued and by December 9, local newspapers recorded that Hickok was still in charge of law enforcement in the area.

1869 – September 24 – Hickok killed Bill Mulvey, who apparently got the drop on him.  Hickok reportedly used the ruse of telling a nonexistent man not to shoot him in the back.  Mulvey looked and this gave Hickok the advantage; the encounter ended with Mulvey’s death.

1869 – November 27 – In the early hours of the morning, Hickock and Deputy Sheriff Lanihan attended a disturbance at a saloon.  Samuel Strawhun apparently made disparaging remarks and was promptly shot in the head.   Regardless of hugely contradictory evidence being given at a subsequent inquest, the death was determined to be justifieable.

1870 – July 17 – Hickok was involved in a gunfight with disorderly soldiers of the the 7th Cavalry.  Troopers Jeremiah Lonergan and John Kyle are reported to have set upon Hickok in a saloon.  They physically assaulted him and attempted to shoot Hickok but suffered a misfire from a hand gun.  This allowed Hickok the chance to reach his own gun and subsequently, Lonergan was shot in the knee and Kyle was killed.

Hickok lost the next election.

1871 – April 15 – Hickok was appointed to the position of Marshal for Abilene, Kansas. During this time an incident occurred that mirrored Wyatt Earp’s famous befriending of Doc Holliday.  He became friends with John Wesley Hardin, a famed outlaw of the time.  Hardin claimed to have disarmed Hickok with the “Road Agent’s Spin”, a ruse used when surrendering a weapon to an opponent.  This spin is believed to have been invented by another infamous outlaw, Wild Bill Brocius who was Wyatt Earp’s nemesis in Tombstone.  This may have been made up or exaggerated but by the time the story was told, Hickok had been dead for many years.

Records show that Hickok arranged for the escape of Hardin’s cousin (Mannen Clements) after this was requested by Hardin after Clements had been interned for the killing of two men.  Of course Hickok denied it and it is yet another matter hard to determine whether it is truth or legend.  The escape however, did happen.

1871 – October 5 – After a long standing dispute with a saloon owner in Abilene, another shoot out occured.  During a disturbance Hickok ordered the saloon owner, Phil Coe, to be arrested after he had fired two shots.  Coe is alleged to have turned his gun on Hickok during the arrest but Hickok won again, leaving Coe dead inthe street.  In the same incident Hickok fired to shots at a man running toward him and killed Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams.  It appears Williams was coming to his aid and paid the ultimate price for his good deed.  Hickok recounted many times that this incident haunted him for the rest of his life.

This incident was one of many matters that was the subject of allegations that he was unruly and unreliable.  In this way also, he mirrored the life of Wyatt Earp as they both become revered as heroes but troubled by arrests and questionable matters that besmirched their reputations.

1873 – William Cody invited Hickok to join him and Texas jack Omohundro to join them in a play called the “Scouts of the Plains”.  He accepted and worked in the role for a while before both he a Texas jack left the show.  William Cody (Buffalo Bill) later formed his famous Show “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” in 1882.

1876 – Hickok was diagnosed in Kansas City, Missouri, with glaucoma and opthalmia.  Controversy exists about whether or not he contracted these due to sexually transmitted diseases.  It seems likely he had Trachoma which was very common in those times and the precise truth is another matter subject to debate.

1876 – March 5 – Wild Bill married Agnes Thatcher Lake on this day.  She was a circus owner in Wyoming.  The marriage lasted only a short while and Hickok abandoned her to join a wagon train heading to South Dakota, ready to seek his fortune as a gold miner.  Martha James Cannary (known as Calamity Jane) claims to have been married to Hickok prior to the wedding to Thatcher but there appears no marriage record to support the claim.

1876 – July – It appears likely that Calamity Jane actually met Hickok not long before this time and travelled with him on a wagon train that arrived in Deadwood in July.  It appears that although he had left Agnes to pursue other pursuits, she remained in his thoughts.  A letter is recorded to have been sent to Agnrd by him only a short time before his death.

1876 – August 2 – Wild Bill Hickok died on this day.  During a card game, John McCall walked in unannounced.  When within a few feet on Hickok, he reported to have drawn his pistol and shooting him in the back of the head.

Old West StoreyIt is said that at the time of his death, Hickok was holding a poker hand consisting of a pair of eights and a pair of aces.  The fifth card had not yet been discarded and replaced by the dealer.  This hand has became famous, known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”.  If you are dealt this hand today, it is believed to portend disaster.

Although it seems clear that Hickok’s hand was not the first to become referred to with this title, it has become widely accepted.  In 1979, Hickok was inducted into the “Poker Hall of Fame” for this hand.

McCall was sent to trial but not convicted of murder.  He was later arrested again after bragging about the murder and sent to trial again.  Because Deadwood was not officially an incorporated town, the double jeopardy rule was able to be overlooked.  This time he was found guilty.

1877 – March 1 – McCall was hanged for the murder.

2 Responses to Wild Bill

  1. mike halls says:

    I work with a guy who bears an uncanny resemblance to Wild Bill. I mean he is a dead ringer!!,If ever there was a TV doc on Wild Bill this guy would have the part.

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