Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok
Born: May 27, 1837(1837-05-27) Troy Grove, Illinois, U.S.
Died: August 2, 1876 (aged 39)
Deadwood, Dakota Territory, U.S.
Occupation: Abolitionist, facilitator
of The Underground Railroad, Lawman, Gunfighter, Gambler
Not to be confused with William "Wild Bill" Hickok, American football
James Butler Hickok (May 27, 1837 – August 2, 1876), better
known as Wild Bill Hickok, was a legendary figure in the American
Old West. His skills as a gunfighter and scout, along with his
reputation as a lawman, provided the basis for his fame, although
some of his exploits are fictionalized. His moniker of Wild Bill
has inspired similar nicknames for men named William (even though
that was not Hickok's name) who were known for their daring in
Hickok came to the West as a stage coach driver, then became a
lawman in the frontier territories of Kansas and Nebraska. He fought
in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and gained publicity
after the war as a scout, marksman, and professional gambler. Between
his law enforcement duties and gambling, which easily overlapped,
Hickok was involved in several notable shootouts, and was ultimately
killed while playing poker in a South Dakota saloon.
James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois
on May 27, 1837. While he was growing up, his father's farm was
one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, and he learned his
shooting skills protecting the farm with his father from anti-abolitionists.
Hickok was a good shot from a very young age. Unknown to most,
he was one of the earliest champions of equal rights for blacks
during the latter days of slavery.
In 1855, he left his father's farm to become a stage coach driver
on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. An early record refers to him
as "Duck Bill" (perhaps in reference to his big nose),
but his gunfighting skills changed his nickname to "Wild Bill".
His killing of a bear with a bowie knife during a turn as a stage
driver cemented a growing reputation as a genuinely tough man who
feared nothing, and who was feared for more than carrying a fast
In 1857, Hickok claimed a 160 acre (65 ha) tract of land
in Johnson County, Kansas (in what is now the city of Lenexa) where
he became the first constable of Monticello Township, Kansas. In
1861, he became a town constable in Nebraska. He was involved in
a deadly shoot-out with the McCanles gang at Rock Creek Station,
an event still under much debate. On several other occasions, Hickok
confronted and killed several men while fighting alone.
Hickok invented the practice of "posting" men out of
town. He would put a list on what was called the "dead man's
tree" (so called because men had been lynched on it) while
constable of Monticello Township. Hickok proclaimed he would shoot
them on sight the following day. Few stayed around to find out
if he was serious.
Civil War and scouting
When the Civil War began, Hickok joined
the Union forces and served in the west, mostly in Kansas and Missouri.
He earned a reputation as a skilled scout. After the war, Hickok
became a scout for the U. S. Army and later was a professional
gambler. He served for a time as a United States Marshal. In 1867,
his fame increased from an interview by Henry Morton Stanley.
During the civil war "Buffalo Bill Cody" served as a
scout with Robert Denbow, David L. Payne, and Hickok. The men formed
a friendship that would last decades. After the war the four men,
Payne, Cody, Hickok, and Denbow engaged in buffalo hunting. When
Payne moved to Wichita, Kansas in 1870, Denbow joined him there
while Hickok served as sheriff of Hays, Kansas. Hickok was rumored
to have appeared in a stage play put on in 1873 by Bill Cody entitled "Scouts
of the plains." When Bill Cody started the Buffalo Bill shows,
Denbow travelled with Cody all over Iowa with the Buffalo Bill
Lawman and gunfighter
On July 21, 1865, in the town square of Springfield,
Missouri, Hickok killed Davis Tutt, Jr. in a "quick draw" duel.
Fiction later typified this kind of gunfight, but Hickok's is in
fact the only one on record that fits the portrayal.  The incident
was precipitated by a dispute over a gambling debt incurred at
a local saloon.
Hickok was working as sheriff and city marshal of Hays, Kansas
when, on July 17, 1870, he was involved in a gunfight with disorderly
soldiers of the 7th US Cavalry, wounding one and mortally wounding
another. In 1871, Hickok became marshal of Abilene, Kansas, taking
over for former marshal Thomas J. Smith. Hickok's encounter
in Abilene with outlaw John Wesley Hardin resulted in the latter
fleeing the town after Hickok managed to disarm him.
While working in Abilene, Hickok and Phil Coe, a saloon owner,
had an ongoing dispute that later resulted in a shootout. Coe had
been the business partner of known gunman Ben Thompson, with whom
he co-owned the Bulls Head Saloon. On October 5, 1871, Hickok was
standing off a crowd during a street brawl, during which time Coe
fired two shots at Hickok. Hickok returned fire and killed Coe.
Hickok, whose eyesight was poor by that time in his life from early
stages of glaucoma, caught the glimpse of movement of someone running
toward him. He quickly fired one shot in reaction, accidentally
shooting and killing Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams,
who was coming to his aid, an event that affected him for the remainder
of his life.
Hickok's retort to Coe, who supposedly stated he could "kill
a crow on the wing", is one of the West's most famous sayings
(though possibly apocryphal): "Did the crow have a pistol?
Was he shooting back? I will be."
On August 2, 1876, while playing poker at Nuttal & Mann's
Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, in the Black Hills, Dakota Territory,
Hickok could not find an empty seat in the corner, where he always
sat in order to protect himself against sneak attacks from behind,
and instead sat with his back to one door and facing another. His
paranoia was prescient: he was shot in the back of the head with
a .45-caliber revolver by Jack McCall. Legend has it that Hickok,
playing poker when he was shot, was holding a pair of aces and
a pair of eights. The fifth card was either unknown, or some say
that it had not yet been dealt. This famous hand of cards is known
as the "Dead Man's Hand".
The motive for the killing is still debated. McCall may have been
paid for the deed, or it may have been the result of a recent dispute
between the two. Most likely McCall became enraged over what he
perceived as a condescending offer from Hickok to let him have
enough money for breakfast after he had lost all his money playing
poker the previous day. McCall claimed at the resulting two-hour
trial, by a miners jury, an ad hoc local group of assembled miners
and businessmen, that he was avenging Hickok's earlier slaying
of his brother which was later found untrue. McCall was acquitted
of the murder, resulting in the Black Hills Pioneer editorializing:
"Should it ever be our misfortune to kill
a man ... we would simply ask that our trial may take place in
some of the mining camps of these hills"
McCall was subsequently rearrested after bragging about his deed,
and a new trial was held. The authorities did not consider this
to be double jeopardy because at the time Deadwood was not recognized
by the U.S. as a legitimately incorporated town because it was
in Indian Country and the jury was irregular. The new trial was
held in Yankton, capital of the territory. Hickok's brother, Lorenzo
Butler Hickok, traveled from Illinois to attend the retrial. This
time McCall was found guilty and hanged. After his execution it
was determined that McCall had never had a brother.
Charlie Utter, Hickok's friend and companion, claimed Hickok's
body and placed a notice in the local newspaper, the Black Hills
Pioneer, which read:
"Died in Deadwood, Black Hills, August
2, 1876, from the effects of a pistol shot, J. B. Hickok (Wild
Bill) formerly of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Funeral services will be
held at Charlie Utter's Camp, on Thursday afternoon, August 3,
1876, at 3 o'clock P. M. All are respectfully invited to attend."
Almost the entire town attended the funeral, and Utter had Hickok
buried with a wooden grave marker reading:
"Wild Bill, J. B. Hickok killed by the
assassin Jack McCall in Deadwood, Black Hills, August 2nd, 1876.
Pard, we will meet again in the happy hunting ground to part
no more. Good bye, Colorado Charlie, C. H. Utter."
In 1879, at the urging of Calamity Jane, Utter had Hickok reinterred
in a ten-foot (3 m) square plot at the Mount Moriah Cemetery, surrounded
by a cast-iron fence with a U.S. flag flying nearby. A monument
has since been built there. In accordance with her dying wish,
Calamity Jane was buried next to him.
Shortly before Hickok's death, he wrote a letter to his new wife,
Agnes Lake Thatcher, which reads in part: "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" and "My dearly beloved if
I am to die today and never see the sweet face of you I want you
to know that I am no great man and am lucky to have such a woman
Some accounts report that Hickok took part in Buffalo
Bill's Wild West Show. However, that production was not in existence
prior to 1882, well after Hickok's death. Nonetheless, Hickok was
reported by some to have appeared with Buffalo Bill in 1873 in
a stage play titled "Scouts of the plains".
"Dime novel" fame
It is difficult to separate the truth
from fiction about Hickok, the first "dime novel" hero
of the western era, in many ways one of the first comic book heroes,
keeping company with another who achieved part of his fame in such
a way, frontiersman Davey Crockett. In the dimestore novels, exploits
of Hickok were presented in heroic form, making him seem larger
than life. In truth, most of the stories were greatly exaggerated
Hickok told the writers that he had killed over 100 men. This
number is doubtful, and it is more likely that his total killings
were about 20 or a few more. Hickok was a fearless and deadly fighting
man, versatile with a rifle, revolver, or knife. His story of fighting
a grizzly bear, which he claims mistook him for food because of
his greasy buckskins, personified a man who feared nothing. According
to Wild Bill, he killed the bear with a Bowie knife after emptying
his pistols into the bear. That story is also thought to be an
Matheson, Richard (1996). The Memoirs of
Wild Bill Hickok. Jove. ISBN 0-515-11780-3.
Rosa, Joseph G. (1979). They Called Him Wild
Bill. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1538-6.
Rosa, Joseph G. (1994). The West of Wild
Bill Hickok. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2680-9.
Rosa, Joseph G. (1996). Wild Bill Hickok:
The Man and His Myth. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-0773-0.
Rosa, Joseph G. (2003). Wild Bill Hickok
Gunfighter: An Account of Hickok's Gunfights. University of Oklahoma
Press. ISBN 0-8061-3535-2.
Turner, Thadd M. (2001). Wild Bill Hickok:
Deadwood City - End of Trail. Universal Publishers. ISBN 1-58112-689-1.
Wilstach, Frank Jenners (1926). Wild Bill
Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers. Doubleday, Page & company.