Wild Bill Hickok

Gunfighter of the Wild West

Black and white engraving of a Wild Bill Hickok fight
An engraving of Wild Bill Hickok (right) confronting saloon owner Phil Coe and lawman Mike Williams.

American Stock/Getty Images

James Butler Hickok (May 27, 1837 - August 2, 1876), also known as "Wild Bill" Hickok was a legendary figure in the old west. He was known as a gunfighter and gambler who fought in the Civil War and was a scout for Custer's Cavalry. He later became a lawman before settling down in Deadwood, South Dakota where he would soon meet his death. 

Early Years 

James Hickok was born in Homer (today's Troy Grove), Illinois in 1837 to William Hickok and Polly Butler. Not much is known about his early education, though he was known as an excellent marksman. In 1855, Hickok left Illinois and the Jayhawkers, a vigilante group in Kansas. At that time, "Bleeding Kansas" was in the middle of tremendous violence as pro- and anti-slavery groups fought over control of the state. Jayhawkers were fighting for Kansas to become a 'free state,' not allowing the enslavement of African people in its borders. It was while Hickok was a Jayhawker that he first met Buffalo Bill Cody. He would work with him again in later years. 

Pony Express Incidents 

In 1859, Hickok had joined the Pony Express, a mail service that delivered letters and packages from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. While delivering freight in 1860, Hickok was injured when he was attacked by a bear. After a fierce struggle that left Hickok gravely wounded, he was finally able to slit the bear's throat. He was removed from duty and eventually sent to Rock Creek Station to work in the stables. 

On July 12, 1861, an incident occurred that would begin Hickok's claim to fame. While employed at the Rock Creek Pony Express Station in Nebraska he got into a gunfight with an employee looking to collect his pay. Wild Bill may have shot and killed McCanles and wounded two other men. He was acquitted at the trial. However, there is some question on the validity of the trial because he worked for the powerful Overland Stage Company.

Civil War Scout 

With the start of the Civil War in April, 1861, Hickok joined the Union army. His name was listed as William Haycock at this time. He fought in the Battle of Wilson's Creek on August 10, 1861, acting as a scout for General Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general to die in the war. The Union forces were slaughtered and the new general, Major Samuel Sturgis, led the retreat. He was discharged from the Union Army in September 1862. He spent the rest of war either acting as a scout, spy, or police detective in Springfield, Missouri. 

Gaining a Reputation as a Fierce Gunfighter

Hickok was part of the first recorded 'fast draw' gunfight on July 1, 1865 in Springfield, Missouri. He fought with a former friend and gambling partner who had turned into a rival named Dave Tutt. There is a belief that part of the reason behind the rift in their friendship had to do with a woman they both liked. When Tutt called in a gambling debt that he said Hickok owed him, Hickok refused to pay the full amount saying that Tutt had it wrong. Tutt took Hickok's watch as collateral against the full amount. Hickok warned Tutt that he should not wear the watch or he would be shot. The next day, Hickok saw Tutt wearing the watch in the square in Springfield. Both men fired simultaneously, but only Hickok hit, killing Tutt.

Hickok was tried and acquitted for this gunfight on the grounds of self-defense. However, his reputation in the minds of those living in the east was settled when he was interviewed for Harper's New Monthly Magazine. In the story, it was stated that he had killed hundreds of men. While newspapers out west printed corrected versions, this cemented his reputation. 

Life as a Lawman

In the old west, the move from one on trial for murder to lawman was not that far. In 1867, Hickok began his career as a U.S. Deputy Marshall at Fort Riley. He acts as a scout for Custer's 7th Calvary. His exploits are exaggerated by writers and he only adds to his own growing legend with tales of his own. In 1867, according to a story told by James WIlliam Buel in Life and Marvelous Adventures of Wild Bill, the Scout (1880), Hickok was involved in a gunfight with four men in Jefferson County, Nebraska. He killed three of them and wounded the fourth, while only receiving a wound to his own shoulder. 

In 1868, Hickok was attacked by a Cheyenne war party and injured. He was acting as a scout for the 10th Calvary. He returned to Troy Hills to recover from the wound. He then acted as a guide for Senator Wilson's tour of the plains. At the end of the job he received his famous ivory-handled pistols from the Senator.

In August 1869, Hickok was elected to be the Sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas. He wound up shooting two men while in office. They were seeking to gain fame by killing Wild Bill.

On April 15, 1871, Hickok was made the marshal of Abilene, Kansas. While Marshal, he had dealings with a saloon owner named Phil Coe. On October 5, 1871, Hickok was dealing with a violent crowd in the streets of Abilene when Coe fired two shots. Hickok tried to arrest Coe for shooting his pistols when Coe turned his gun on Hickok. Hickok was able to get his shots off first and kill Coe. However, he also saw a figure approaching from the side and shot two more times, killing a man. Unfortunately, this was Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams who was trying to help him. This led to Hickok's being relieved of his duties as Marshal. 

Wandering Lawman and Showman

From 1871 to 1876, Hickok wandered around the old west, sometimes employed as a lawman. He also spent a year with Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro in a traveling show called Scouts of the Plains

Marriage and Death

Hickok decided to settle down on March 5, 1876 when he married Agnes Thatcher Lake, who owned a circus in Wyoming. The pair decided to move to Deadwood, South Dakota. Hickok left for a time to try and earn money by mining for gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota. According to her, Martha Jane Cannary (a.k.a. Calamity Jane) became friends with Hickok around June 1876. She said that he spent the summer in Deadwood. 

On August 2, 1876, Hickok was at the Nuttal & Mann's Saloon in Deadwood where he was playing a game of poker. He was sitting with his back to the door when a gambler named Jack McCall came into the saloon and shot Hickok in the back of the head. Hickok was holding a pair of black aces, black eights, and a jack of diamonds, forever to be known as a dead man's hand.

McCall's motives are not completely clear, but Hickok might have upset him the day before. According to McCall himself at his trial, he was avenging his brother's death who he said was killed by Hickok. Calamity Jane stated in her autobiography that is was she who first captured McCall after the murder: "I at once started to look for the assassin [McCall] and found him at Shurdy's butcher shop and grabbed a meat cleaver and made him throw up his hands, because through the excitement of hearing of Bill's death having left my weapons on the post of my bed." However, he was acquitted at his initial 'miner's trial.' He was later rearrested and tried again, this being allowed because Deadwood was not a legitimate U.S. town. McCall was found guilty and hanged in March 1877.

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Kelly, Martin. "Wild Bill Hickok." ThoughtCo, Dec. 15, 2022, thoughtco.com/wild-bill-hickok-3964167. Kelly, Martin. (2022, December 15). Wild Bill Hickok. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/wild-bill-hickok-3964167 Kelly, Martin. "Wild Bill Hickok." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wild-bill-hickok-3964167 (accessed June 8, 2023).