Wikimedia CommonsWild Bill Hickok.
In the Wild West, the only thing more degenerate than a gunslinger was the lies they spun, and nobody spun bigger lies than Wild Bill Hickok. He’s lay claim to the deaths of hundreds of men – but the facts behind the legend tell a different story.
Indeed, the legend of Wild Bill is just that — legend, folklore — and it all started with an 1867 issue of Harper’s Weekly:
“Wild Bill with his own hands has killed hundreds of men,” the article read. “Of that I have not a doubt. He shoots to kill.”
The article turned Wild Bill into a household name and he became a symbol of the Wild West; a man so feared that people shook when he came into town. There was just one problem — Wild Bill was not as fearsome as many believed.
Young James Hickok
Wikimedia CommonsJames “Wild Bill” Hickok before he became a gunslinger, circa 1860.
James Butler Hickok was born on May 27, 1837, in Troy Grove, Ill. His parents, William Alonzo and Polly Butler Hickok, were Quaker-based abolitionists.
His father participated in the Underground Railroad and used his family’s home as a station stop. His father died when Hickok was just 15, and to provide for his large family the teenager hunted.
He was a meticulous shot and developed a reputation even as an early teen.
It’s believed that because of his pacifist roots, and his quick hand on the pistol, Hickok was able to mold himself into a sort of defender of the bullied, a champion of the oppressed.
At 18, Hickok left home for Kansas territory where he joined up with a group of anti-slavery vigilantes known as “Jayhawkers”, and it’s believed that here Hickok met 12-year-old William Cody who later become the infamous Buffalo Bill. As a member, Hickok became a bodyguard for General James Henry Lane, a senator from Kansas and also a leader of the abolitionist militia.
When the Civil War broke out, Hickok eventually joined up with the Union and acted as a teamster and spy, but not before he could be mauled by a bear while on a hunting expedition and forced to sit some of the conflict out.
While healing, Hickok was employed briefly with the Pony Express and cared for the stock at a facility in Rock Creek Nebraska. It was here, in 1861, where the legend of Wild Bill Hickok took off.
Notorious bully David McCanles had demanded funds from the station manager that he simply did not have. It’s rumored that at some point in the confrontation, McCanles referred to Hickok as “Duck Bill” because of his pointy nose and protruding lips.
The argument escalated into violence, shots were fired, and at the end, McCanles and two of his men lay dead. Hickok was brought to trial but quickly acquitted of all charges. Shortly after, “Wild Bill Hickok” was born.
The Birth of Wild Bill Hickok
Wikimedia CommonsAn illustration from the Harper’s article that made Wild Bill a household name. February, 1867.
To the people of Rock Creek, Nebraska, there was no Wild Bill but rather a soft-voiced, sweet boy named James Hickok. It’s believed that David McCanles was the first man Wild Bill had killed and it had been in self-defense. Wild Bill even felt so awful about the affair that he gave every penny he had on him to McCanles’s widow after apologizing profusely.
But the Hickok Rock Creek thought they knew was dead and his stead there became, as one of his neighbors put it, “a drunken, swaggering fellow, who delighted when ‘on a spree’ to frighten nervous men and timid women.”
Wild Bill served his time alongside the Jayhawkers in the Union army until the war ended, at which point, the restless marksman picked up a nasty habit for gambling — and one that landed him in a duel at the center of town in Springfield, Mo. Wild Bill had gotten mad at a man named Davis Tutt for flaunting the gold watch he’d won off of him in a game of cards and challenged him to what is believed to be history’s first quick-draw duel.
The marksman, a deadly shot, had killed again.
When the reporters came rolling into town, though, Wild Bill resolved to make a new identity for himself as the toughest gunfighter in the Wild West.
A man named George Ward Nichols had caught wind of the quick-draw duel and its fast-fingered champion and so resolved to interview the legend in Springfield. Wild Bill had just been set free by a jury of his peers after the Missouri town ruled the duel “a fair fight”.
Nichols wasn’t planning on writing anything more than a short piece on a strange jury ruling, but as he sat down with Wild Bill and listened to him spin his stories, killings of tens he became enthralled. Wild Bill, he knew, was going to be a sensation — regardless of fact or fiction.
Indeed, when the article came out, the people of Rock Creek were shocked. “The first article in Harper for February,” one frontier paper read after the article was published, “should have had its place in the ‘Editor’s Drawer,’ with the other fabricated more or less funnyisms.”
Sheriff of Ellis County
Wikimedia CommonsA cabinet card of Wild Bill. 1873.
After the duel with Tutt, Hickok met up with his friend Buffalo Bill on tour with General William Tecumseh Sherman. He became a guide for General Hancock’s 1867 campaign against the Cheyenne, and while there, he met Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who described Hickok reverently as “one of the most perfect types of physical manhood that I ever saw.”
For a time Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill put on outdoor gunslinging demonstrations that featured Native Americans, buffalos, and sometimes monkeys. The shows were ultimately a failure, but they helped to contribute to Wild Bill’s growing reputation.
Ever-traveling, Wild Bill made his way to Hays, Kan. where he was elected county sheriff of Ellis County. But Wild Bill killed two men within his first month alone as sheriff. The first, town drunk Bill Mulvey, caused a raucous about Wild Bill’s move to the County. Wild Bill consequently shot a bullet into the back of his brain.
A second man was gunned down by the quick-handed sheriff for talking trash, too. It’s said that in his ten months as sheriff, Wild Bill killed four people before he was finally asked to leave.
Wild Bill Hickok In Abilene
Wikimedia CommonsJohn Wesley Hardin.
Wild Bill fired his gun in anger for the last time in Abilene, Kan., while serving as the town’s Marshal. Abilene had a reputation as a, particularly tough town and the town had a legendary gunfighter of its own already, one John Wesley Hardin.
Local saloon owner, Phil Coe, had upset the town by drawing a bull with a massive, erect penis on the wall of his saloon. Wild Bill made him take it down, and Coe swore revenge. Coe and his friends tried to hire Hardin to take out Wild Bill, but he wasn’t too interested.
Hardin went along with the scheme though long enough to pull a gun on Wild Bill. He made a commotion in the middle of town and, when Wild Bill came along and told him to hand over his pistols, Hardin pretended to surrender and instead, got Wild Bill at gunpoint.
Wild Bill, though, just laughed. “You are the gamest and quickest boy I ever saw,” he told Hardin and invited him out for a drink. Hardin was charmed. Instead of killing him, he ended up his friend.
The Last Bullet
Wikimedia CommonsWild Bill. Circa 1868-1870.
Wild Bill Hickok
NameWild Bill HickokOccupationLaw Enforcement, Folk HeroBirth DateMay 27, 1837Death DateAugust 2, 1876Place of BirthTroy Grove, IllinoisPlace of DeathDeadwood, South DakotaOriginallyJames Butler HickokFull NameWild Bill Hickok
- Early Years
- Cite This Page
Wild Bill Hickok was an American frontiersman, army scout and lawman who helped bring order to the frontier West.
Wild Bill Hickok is remembered for his services in Kansas as sheriff of Hays City and marshal of Abilene, where his ironhanded rule helped to tame two of the most lawless towns on the frontier. He is also remembered for the cards he was holding when he was shot dead — a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights — since known as the dead man's hand.
A legend during his life and considered one of the American west's premier gunfighters, James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok was born May 27, 1837, in Troy Grove, Illinois. The son of William Alonzo and Polly Butler Hickok, he was by all accounts a master marksman from an early age.
Hickok moved west in 1855 to farm and joined General James Lane's Free State (antislavery) forces in Kansas. He was later elected constable of Monticello Township in Johnson County, Kansas.
For the next several years, Hickok worked as a stagecoach driver. During the Civil War he found employment as a teamster and spy for the Union Army.
Birth of a Legend
Wild Bill Hickok's iconic status is rooted in a shootout in July 1861 in what came to be known as the McCanles Massacre in Rock Creek, Nebraska.
The incident began when David McCanles, his brother William and several farmhands came to the station demanding payment for a property that had been bought from him.
Hickok, just a stable-hand at the time, killed the three men, despite being severely injured.
The story quickly became newspaper and magazine fodder. Perhaps most famously, Harper's New Monthly Magazine printed an account of the story in 1867, claiming Hickok had killed 10 men. Overall, it was reported that Hickok had killed over 100 men during his lifetime.
During the Civil War, Wild Bill Hickok served in the Union Army as a civilian scout and later a provost marshal. Though no solid record exists, he is believed to have served as a Union spy in the Confederate Army before his discharge in 1865.
In July, 1865, in Springfield, Missouri's town square, Hickok killed Davis Tutt, an old friend who — after personal grudges escalated — became an enemy. The two men faced each other sideways for a duel. Tutt reached for his pistol but Hickok was the first to draw his weapon, and shot Tutt instantly, from approximately 75 yards.
Wild Bill Hickok’s legend only grew further when other stories about his fighting prowess surfaced. One story claimed he killed a bear with his bare hands and a bowie knife.
The Harper's piece also told the story of how Hickok had pointed to a letter “O” that was “no bigger than a man's heart.
” Standing some 50 yards away from his subject, Hickok “without sighting his pistol and with his eye” rang off six shots, each of them hitting the direct center of the letter.
Following his Civil War service, Wild Bill Hickok moved to Kansas where he was appointed sheriff in Hays City and marshal of Abilene. Both towns had become outposts for lawless men before Hickok arrived and turned things around.
In an 1871 account that changed his life, Hickok was reportedly involved in a shootout with saloon owner Phil Coe. In the melee, Hickok caught a glimpse of someone moving towards him and responded with two shots killing his deputy Mike Williams. The event haunted Hickok for the rest of his life.
After in inquest where other incidents of Hickok’s brand of “frontier justice” was revealed, he was relieved of his duties.
Hickok never fought in another gun battle. During the next several years he appeared in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, living off his fame as the consummate gunfighter.
In 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was suffering from glaucoma. Relegated to making a living through other means than law enforcement, he traveled from one town to another as a gambler. Several times he was arrested for vagrancy.
On March 5, 1876, he married Agnes Thatcher Lake, an owner of a circus in Cheyenne, Wyoming territory. He left his wife a few months later to seek his fortune in the goldfields of South Dakota.
It was here that he supposedly became romantically linked to Martha Jane Canary, also known as “Calamity Jane,” but most historians discount any such amorous relationship between the two.
While in Deadwood, South Dakota, Wild Bill Hickok became a regular poker player at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon. On the afternoon of August 2, 1876, he was playing cards with his back to the door, something he seldom did.
A young drifter named Jack McCall walked in and approached Hickok from behind. Not wasting a second, he quietly drew his revolver and shot Hickok in the back of the head, instantly killing him. Even in death Hickok's legend grew.
The cards he was holding at the time — a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights — became known as “the dead man's hand.”
McCall was brought to trial the next day. He was found not guilty by a “miners’ court” after telling judges that Hickok killed his brother, though later accounts showed McCall had no brothers. After his release, McCall had lingered in Deadwood for a short while before heading to Wyoming.
Less than a month after Hickok's death, the trial was found to have no legal status because Deadwood was located in Indian Territory – McCall's acquittal was deemed invalid. Still, feeling he had escaped punishment, McCall began to brag to anyone that would listen that he had killed Wild Bill Hickok.
But the U.S. marshals were on his trail and McCall was arrested on August 29, 1876 in Laramie, where he was held before he was extradited to Yankton, South Dakota. The trial began on December 4 and it only took two days for the jury to find McCall guilty.
He was sentenced to death on January 3, 1877 and on March 1, 1877 he was executed by hanging.
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Wild Bill Hickok
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James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois, in 1837. His father, Bill Hickok, played an active role in the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape from the Deep South.
Hickok moved to Kansas in 1855 and at the age of 20 was elected constable of Monticello. In 1861 he was working as a wagon master in Montana. On 12th July, 1861, Hickok opened fire on three unarmed men.
David McCanles was killed and James Woods and James Gordon were seriously wounded and later died of their injuries. Hickok was also employed as a guide on the Santa Fe Trail.
Later he worked on the Oregon Trail.
During the American Civil War Hickok was employed as a scout for the Union Army. After the war came to an end Hickok became a professional gambler in Springfield, Missouri. Also, for a brief time he served under General George A. Custer in his 7th Cavalry.
Hickok's reputation as a gunfighter began when he killed David Tutt in the public square of Springfield on 21st July, 1865. The two men had quarrelled over cards and decided to have a gunfight. At 6pm Hickok and Tutt arranged to walk towards each other.
When they were about 50 yards apart both men drew his gun. Tutt fired first but missed. Hickok's shot hit Tutt in the heart. This was the first recorded example of two men taking part in a quick-draw duel.
The following month Hickok was acquitted after pleading self-defence.
Hickok returned to his life as a gambler and in 1866 gave an interview to a journalist, George Ward Nichols about his exploits as a gunfighter. The article appeared in the February, 1867, edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
Newspapers such as the Leavenworth Daily Conservative, Kansas Daily Commonwealth, Springfield Patriot and the Atchison Daily Champion quickly pointed out that the article was full of inaccuracies and that Hickok was lying when he claimed he had killed “hundreds of men”.
Hickok responded to these articles by giving an interview to another journalist, Henry M. Stanley. The article appeared in the St. Louis Missouri Democrat in April 1867. It included the following dialogue: “I say, Mr.
Hickok, how many white men have you killed to your certain knowledge?” After a little deliberation, he replied, “I suppose I have killed considerably over a hundred.
” “What made you kill all those men? Did you kill them without cause or provocation?” “No, by heaven I never killed one man without good cause.”
In 1868 Hickok became sheriff of Hays City in Kansas. It was a rough city and Hickok was determined to use violence to keep the men under control. In August, 1869, Hickok killed Bill Mulvey in a gunfight.
The following month he shot Samuel Strawhun dead after he caused trouble in a saloon. The people of Hays City became concerned by Hickok's behaviour and he was replaced by his deputy, Peter Lanihan.
In April 1871, Hickok was employed as marshal of Abilene. He was paid $150 a month plus a percentage of the fines. Hickok also received 50 cents for every unlicensed dog he shot.
Hickok did not take his duties seriously and spent most of his time playing poker. In October 1871 he shot and killed two men, Phil Coe and a fellow officer, Mike Williams.
This incident upset the city council and two months later Hickok lost his job.
Hickok now toured with Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show (1872-73) before teaming up with Calamity Jane in Deadwood, Dakota. He also married Agnes Lake and for a time tried gold mining. Hickok also spent a lot of time with John Wesley Hardin.
On 2nd August, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was playing cards in Deadwood. Jack McCall, seeking revenge for the death of his brother, shot Hickok in the back of the head. At the time of his death, Hickok was holding a pair of black aces and a pair of eights, and this became known as “A Dead Man's Hand”.
Wild Bill Hickok and Dave Tutt before their gunfight,Harper's New Monthly Magazine
Wild Bill Hickok is murdered
“Wild Bill” Hickok, one of the greatest gunfighters of the American West, is murdered in Deadwood, South Dakota.
Born in Illinois in 1837, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok first gained notoriety as a gunfighter in 1861 when he coolly shot three men who were trying to kill him.
A highly sensationalized account of the gunfight appeared six years later in the popular periodical Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, sparking Hickok’s rise to national fame.
Other articles and books followed, and though his prowess was often exaggerated, Hickok did earn his reputation with a string of impressive gunfights.
After accidentally killing his deputy during an 1871 shootout in Abilene, Kansas, Hickok never fought another gun battle. For the next several years he lived off his famous reputation.
Occasionally, he worked as guide for wealthy hunters. His renowned eyesight began to fail, and for a time he was reduced to wandering the West trying to make a living as a gambler.
Several times he was arrested for vagrancy.
In the spring of 1876, Hickok arrived in the Black Hills mining town of Deadwood, South Dakota. There he became a regular at the poker tables of the No. 10 Saloon, eking out a meager existence as a card player. On this day in 1876, Hickok was playing cards with his back to the saloon door.
At 4:15 in the afternoon, a young gunslinger named Jack McCall walked into the saloon, approached Hickok from behind, and shot him in the back of the head. Hickok died immediately. McCall tried to shoot others in the crowd, but amazingly, all of the remaining cartridges in his pistol were duds.
McCall was later tried, convicted, and hanged.
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2019 Festival Author Reveals the ‘True’ Wild Bill Hickok | South Dakota Humanities Council
By South Dakota Magazine & South Dakota Humanities CouncilEditor's Note: A version of this feature story appears in our 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books Guide produced by South Dakota Magazine. Download a free copy of the Festival Guide below!
Tom Clavin's aim in his new biography of Wild Bill Hickok is to find the true story of the man who famously met his demise at the hands of assassin Jack McCall inside Deadwood's Saloon No. 10. Clavin will lead audiences through the gunman's adventures in the very same town where Hickok was shot: Deadwood.
The legendary Wild West town in the Black Hills will host more than 60 presenters, including Clavin, during the 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books Oct. 4-6.
As South Dakota's premier annual literary event, held each fall, the Festival draws more than 4,000 attendees and showcases more than 50 distinguished authors, scholars and publishers.
Attendees and speakers participate in panels, workshops and readings.
As Clavin acknowledges in the beginning of his new book, Hickok is remembered mostly through the legends that overshadowed him. But the man readers meet in “Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter” is much more than a vagabond with a quick trigger finger.
Wild Bill is Clavin's third foray into Western history, following “The Heart of Everything That Is” (with Bob Drury) and “Dodge City.” Clavin says a study of Hickok came naturally after his work on Dodge City and its equally legendary characters Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.
“Most people are aware that Wild Bill is some kind of a mythical figure of the West and know him as a gunfighter. But I didn't really know too much else about him,” he says.
“I think that was an advantage because when I started researching, I discovered there were so many more aspects to the guy. He packed several different lives into a relatively short one of 39 years.
It was such a revelation to me to find out that he was more of a complex and real person than I had anticipated. It was just one surprise after another.”
Legendary Lawman's Reputation Instilled Fear
Take, for instance, his time as a Civil War spy. Hickok often donned Confederate gray and infiltrated rebel lines to gain intelligence for Union forces. His reputation as a lawman in Hays City and Abilene in Kansas both fed the Hickok myth and instilled legitimate fear in outlaws.
Life and death of Wild Bill Hickok
POKER players will know the card hand of two aces and two eights as the ‘Dead Man’s Hand’. It was the hand that Wild Bill Hickok was playing in a saloon in Deadwood City, South Dakota, when he was shot in the back by a man named Jack McCall. There is no mention of what the fifth card was.
Will Bill, even in his own lifetime, had been a Wild West legend. When Dime Novels started, Hickok became one of the very early heroes. He was the equivalent of the modern Batman or Superman and similarly many of his exploits were greatly exaggerated or even totally invented. He had been a stage coach driver, hunter, army scout, gunfighter and marshall.
James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois in 1837. From an early age, he was an outstanding marksman and his life was defined by a gun. Each episode ended with some incident that caused Hickok to move on.
It is said that he killed more than 30 men during his life.
At 18, he got into a fight with a neighbour and, thinking he had killed him, Hickok moved to Kansas where he met up with another young man, an army scout, William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill.
One of his early jobs was with a freight company, an early version of the pony express. While with them, he is reputed to have killed a bear but was seriously injured. While recovering, he looked after one of their stations in Nebraska.
Evidently, this had not been fully paid for and when the owner, David Mc Canles, arrived looking for full payment, he was shot by Hickok. He became Hickok’s very first victim. One of his more famous fights was in Missouri over gambling debts with a man named Tutt.
As with McCanles, Hickok was charged with murder but again acquitted.
During the Civil War, he was a wagon master and scout with the Union Army and then disappeared for about a year, during which time he was said to have been a spy in the Deep South.
After the war, he drifted around the West, quite often working as either marshall or sheriff and other times devoting all his time to gambling.
However, he was sometimes described as a drunkard and was arrested several times for vagrancy.
Twice he tried earning a living on the stage. His first play, The Daring Buffalo Chasers of the Plains, was a flop and he went quickly back to being sheriff. Some years later, he joined Buffalo Bill in a play, Scouts of the Plains, but did not continue on to join his Wild West Show.
He married in 1876 but a few months later, went west again following the discovery of gold in South Dakota. It was there he was dealt aces and eights.
He always sat with his back to the wall but when he entered the saloon, the only chair left was with its back to the door. Nobody would agree to change places with him.
It was there that Crooked Nose Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
Wild Bill Hickok, hero of the Wild West, played his last game of poker in Deadwood City on August 2, 1876 – 137 years ago this week.
Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok, the renowned ‘Wild Bill,’ remains perhaps the most famous of all Western gunfighters.
His exploits as a Civil War operative, frontiersman and peace officer have been celebrated often in print, in movies, and on television.
But, despite all this attention through the years, we know very little about the man himself. Vintage photographs, haunting and mysterious, span the mist of time. We wonder, who was Wild Bill Hickok?
The man who became marshal of Abilene, Kan., on April 15, 1871, was a frontier dandy. He stood 6 foot 3 in his custom-made boots. His riveting gray eyes, set off by a drooping mustache, seemed to look right through people. Beneath the black hat with the sweeping brim, blond hair tumbled to his shoulders, and a Prince Albert frock coat showed off broad shoulders and a narrow waist.
Hickok dazzled many women, including George Armstrong Custer’s wife, Libbie. There were even rumors of an affair. In any case, Libbie Custer wrote the following about him in her 1890 book Following the Guidon: ‘Physically, he was a delight to look upon.
Tall, lithe, and free in every motion, he rode and walked as if every muscle was perfection, and the careless swing of his body as he moved seemed perfectly in keeping with the man, the country, the time in which he lived.
I do not recall anything finer in the way of physical perfection than Wild Bill when he swung himself lightly from his saddle, and with graceful, swaying step, squarely set shoulders and well poised head, approached our tent for orders.
He was rather fantastically clad, of course, but all seemed perfectly in keeping with the time and place. He did not make an armory of his waist, but carried two pistols. He wore top-boots, riding breeches, and dark blue flannel shirt, with scarlet set in front.
A loose neck handkerchief left his fine firm throat free. I do not all remember his features, but the frank, manly expression of his fearless eyes and his courteous manner gave one a feeling of confidence in his word and in his undaunted courage.’
But most striking of all, at least to some people, were the two Navy Colts resting in a red sash around Hickok’s waist, their ivory handles turned forward for the underhand or ‘twist’ draw. Some Westerners may have been fooled by the fancy dress, but most understood the promise of the twin Colts. The man was deadly in a confrontation.
He moved with cat-easy grace, had lightning reflexes, and shot with great accuracy using either hand. Above all, he was absolutely cool and composed in pressure situations-fine attributes to have in 1871 Abilene, which may well have been the toughest town in the West. The famed ‘Bear River’ Tom Smith had been an exceptional marshal, but he was shot from ambush late in 1870.
So Abilene went after the man with the biggest reputation of all, J.B. Hickok.
While Hickok delighted in amusing family and friends with accounts of the ‘hundreds’ of men he had gunned down, his reputation, both real and imagined, did serve him well as a lawman.
He ruled Abilene from the card tables of the Alamo Saloon, telling his deputies to come and get him if he was needed. Despite the many hard cases in the boisterous cow town, few challenged him. Did Hickok deserve his reputation? Yes and no.
He became famous, maybe even more famous than the president, because Eastern publishers wanted to sell magazines to a public hungry for tales of the Wild West.
The glorification of Wild Bill Hickok began in Springfield, Mo., on July 21, 1865, when he killed gunman Dave Tutt. Some said the two men fought over a card game, while others attributed the duel to competition for the attention of a woman named Susannah Moore.
Colonel Albert Barnitz, the army post commander in Springfield, reported that both men fired simultaneously and that Tutt was’shot directly through the heart.’ Another version had Hickok drawing first, but then waiting for Tutt to shoot.
After Tutt missed, Hickok rested his gun on his left arm to steady it and then shot him. Regardless of who fired when, Hickok established himself as a cool, deadly gunfighter.
And less than two months later, Colonel George Ward Nichols of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine arrived in Springfield eager to increase sales by featuring Hickok in a story. Nichols cared little for the truth, and in his exaggerations he found a willing accomplice in Hickok.
When the story finally appeared in February 1867, Hickok emerged as a superman. Nichols regaled readers with accounts of the Tutt affair and Hickok’s Civil War exploits, as well as the new hero’s role in the Rock Creek incident, or ‘McCanles Massacre.’
Rock Creek Station in Nebraska Territory had been purchased by Russell, Majors and Waddell from David C. McCanles to use on their Pony Express route to California. Their company (generally known as the Overland Stage Company) was experiencing financial difficulties at the time, however, and could not pay McCanles the full amount promised.
On July 12, 1861, McCanles, assisted by his cousin James Woods and James Gordon, tried to reclaim the station, but all three died under the guns of company employees Hickok, J.W. Brink and Horace Wellman. For many years it was believed that Hickok killed McCanles, but recent research suggests one of the others shot him.
In Nichols’ story for Harper’s Weekly, Hickok was said to have killed 10 men at Rock Creek Station all by himself.
Hickok worked for the Union during the Civil War. At various times he acted as a scout, a spy, a detective, a special policeman and a sharpshooter. He served the Union well, especially at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Ark., March 6-8, 1862, when his accurate sharpshooting from a post high above Cross Timber Hollow snuffed out several Confederates.
James Butler Hickok was called ‘Bill’ as early as the mid-1850s, and he may have picked up the nickname ‘Wild Bill’ during the Civil War period for his carefree, daring ways of living and fighting. Some people attribute the sobriquet to an early 1862 incident in Independence, Mo.
He and his brother Lorenzo apparently helped stop a lynch mob, and a woman called one or both of them ‘Wild.’ Or it might have been just J.B. Hickok stopping an angry mob outside an Independence saloon and a woman subsequently saying, ‘Good for you, Wild Bill.
’ In any case, the nickname stuck, thanks in no small part to writer Nichols. Why did Hickok help Nichols embellish his accomplishments? Again, the answer is complex. First, Hickok tended to be rather boastful.
He also found telling tales quite amusing, and may have even sensed that a big reputation might serve him well.
But some of the things Nichols wrote apparently did not please Hickok, as Joseph G. Rosa points out in the introduction to the second edition of his They Called Him Wild Bill. While the Harper’s story did establish Hickok’s reputation, this sometimes proved to be a curse.
Reporters hounded him for the rest of his life, and he had to repeat the same stories over and over. It soon became impossible to tell where truth ended and fiction began.
Furthermore, the publicity set him up as a target for every gunslinger who wanted to establish his own reputation by killing the great Wild Bill Hickok.
Hickok’s early life certainly prepared him for the pressures of fame and facing death every day. He was born in Troy Grove, Ill.
, on May 27, 1837, and baptized James Butler Hickok by his father Alonzo, a deacon in the Presbyterian Church.
The Hickoks were descendants of the Hiccocks family of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, neighbors of William Shakespeare. A branch of the family moved to America in 1635.
Alonzo Hickok was born in Vermont in 1801 and married Polly Butler in 1827. The couple had five children besides James Butler, three boys and two girls.
Alonzo and Polly Hickok moved to Illinois in 1833, finally settling in Troy Grove (known as Homer at the time), LaSalle County, along the banks of the Little Vermillion Creek.
They opened a general store in Troy Grove, the Green Mountain House, which did well at first but failed during the financial panic of 1837. The family then turned to farming.