Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

From simple beginnings in Illinois, the legendary gunfighter, Army scout, lawman, and gambler would become a legend and folk hero synonymous with the Wild West.

There are few people in America, or overseas for that matter, who do not recognize immediately the sobriquet of “Wild Bill.” But in truth, James Butler Hickok — quiet, deliberate, and deadly — was anything but wild. Born into a large family in Homer, Illinois (later Troy Grove), on May 27, 1837, he came from pacifist-activist stock: His father William had joined a Quaker-based antislavery group, and the family was actively involved in supporting abolition work. After his father died and his older brothers took on the job of managing the farmstead, James found himself asked to supplement the family diet by providing wild game. Even in his teens he had developed a reputation as a crack shot.

“In a February 1867 interview, Harper’s Monthly writer Colonel George Ward Nichols recounts how Hickok drew a letter ‘O’ on a sign-board against a wall, ‘no bigger than a man’s heart,’ wrote Nichols,” a Smithsonian article states. “And then from 50 yards away without even ‘sighting the pistol,’ Hickok fired six shots from his Colt revolver into the center.

Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

His skill as a marksman found a sense of purpose in his conviction: The one thing Hickok could not abide was bullies, and he was quick to defend those who he determined were being victimized.

By his 20s, he was ready to make his own way in the world, working first as a drover on the Michigan and Illinois Canal and then heading westward in search of greater opportunities. He found one to his liking almost immediately in the town of Leavenworth, Kansas. As fate would have it, Hickok arrived on the frontier just as tensions were reaching a boil over the slave-versus-“free soil” issue. With his imposing frame, cool demeanor, and a reputation for marksmanship, he was soon asked to serve as a bodyguard for Gen. James Henry Lane, the senator from Kansas who was an ardent abolitionist and leader of the antislavery militia known as the “Jayhawkers.” It would not be long before tensions on the border would reach a climax as the entire nation plunged headlong into civil war.

Hickok missed the initial phases of the conflict, having been mauled badly by a bear while guiding a hunting party. Convalescing slowly, he found gainful employment working for Russell, Majors, and Waddell’s fledgling Pony Express. Far too large and mature to meet the requirements for riders, he instead worked for the company caring for stock and maintaining the facilities at Rock Creek Station in nearby Nebraska. It was here that Hickok’s legend was born.

What actually transpired at the Rock Creek Station remains a matter of some debate among aficionados of Western lore. David McCanles, a former sheriff who held the lease on the Pony Express Station/stagecoach stop where Hickok had been employed, arrived on July 12, 1861. McCanles, a notorious bully, was there along with his supporters to collect a delinquent lease payment. The station manager did not have the money McCanles demanded and hot words were exchanged. At some point, one of the antagonists referred to Hickok as “Duck Bill” alluding to the fact that the young man’s upper lip tended to push out when he was flustered. Whatever the reason, a violent argument ensued and shots were fired. When the smoke cleared, McCanles and two of his men lay dead. Hickok, station manager Horace Wellman, and employee J.W. Brink were brought to trial but quickly acquitted of all charges. The result, of course, was that Hickok was no longer referred to as “Duck Bill,” but “Wild Bill.”

Soon afterward Hickok found employment as a teamster and wagon master with the Union army, a position that would put him back in touch with a young scout who had previously ridden for the Pony Express — William Frederick Cody. Hickok only kept this position until September of 1862, at which point he was discharged and took up a position as a scout, and some say spy, for James Lane’s Jayhawkers. There he met up again with a young Bill Cody, now working as a scout for Lane's organization.

While these two got along well, Hickok was more restless than his friend and by 1863 had moved on again, this time taking a job with the provost marshal of southwest Missouri working as a detective. It was not an especially glamorous position: Most of his time was spent keeping drunken Union soldiers in line and checking hotel liquor licenses. This job, too, would prove a very temporary sojourn, and Hickok was soon back working as a scout for the Union army in the Springfield, Missouri, area.

He remained in this position until June of 1865, but, the war having ended, he found himself unemployed and at loose ends. This was likely a bad combination for Hickok, who had become a serious gambler. The immediate result of this predilection was a confrontation with an old friend named Davis Tutt. Tutt and Hickok apparently had a complicated relationship, which included money that the former had loaned to the latter. The situation came to a head over a poker game as Tutt snatched Hickok’s watch as partial payment for a loan. The following day, Tutt flaunted the watch in front of Hickok in such a manner that the two wound up drawing pistols in a now-stereotypical gunfight. Tutt’s shot went wide, but Hickok’s aim was deadly. Hickok wound up arrested and on trial for murder but, once again, was acquitted by the jury. However, public opinion in Springfield was such that Hickok understood that a change of scene was advisable.

From left: Wild Bill Hickok, Texas Jack Omhundro, and Buffalo Bill Cody

Following the Tutt affair, Hickok moved farther west, where his old friend Cody asked for his assistance guiding a tour for Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. His skills as a guide well-established, Hickok was then employed for Gen. Hancock’s 1867 – 68 campaign against the Cheyenne. It was during this campaign that he made the acquaintance of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Custer became very fond of Hickok, noting that the tall frontiersman was “one of the most perfect types of physical manhood that I ever saw.”

In his memoirs, Custer went on to say: “His skill in the use of the rifle and pistol was unerring; while his deportment was exactly the opposite of what might be expected from a man of his surroundings. It was entirely free from all bluster or bravado. He seldom spoke of himself unless requested to do so. His influence was unbounded, his word was law.”

When this campaign had drawn to a close, Hickok made his way to Abilene, Kansas, where he served as the marshal in this notoriously tough cow town. Here he made the acquaintance of the infamous gunfighter John Wesley Hardin, who idolized Hickok although it is doubtful that the marshal even knew who Hardin was

While Hickok was able to make great strides in taming Abilene, a nasty encounter with saloon owner Phil Coe marked a turning point for the lawman. When shots were fired during a street brawl, Hickok rushed to the scene and found Coe holding a pistol. Hickok demanded that the man put down the gun. Instead Coe pointed it at the marshal and fired. He missed, but Hickok didn’t, a single shot killing Coe instantly. Then a sudden movement in the crowd spooked the marshal, who instinctively fired at a man moving toward him. Again Hickok killed his man, but it was a terrible error: The dead man was Mike Williams, one of Hickok’s deputies and a good friend who had been rushing to help.

Wild Bill was devastated. Within weeks, Hickok, who was haunted by the incident, was once again out of a job. Thus, in 1873, when his old friend Cody offered him a job back East, he took it. The job that “Buffalo Bill” had in mind for him was a starring role in his stage play on the Wild West called Scouts of the Plains. The drawback to the plan was discovered on stage in Buffalo, New York, when Hickok froze. In a note of supreme irony, the man who had coolly faced off an enraged bear, Confederate battalions, hostile Indians, angry mobs, and murderous pistoleers was undone by a debilitating case of stage fright. Showmanship was not his forte. Hickok headed back to the West.

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Despite his reputation as a soldier, a scout, and a lawman, these callings were no longer open to Hickok, for, as he found on a visit to a specialist in Kansas City, his eyesight was failing. Heading farther west, he looked to find his fortune in and around the newly opened goldfields in the Dakota Territory. There he worked with his friend Charley Utter, spending his free evenings playing cards in a Deadwood saloon. It was there, in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon (sometimes referred to as the “Saloon No. 10) on August 2, 1876, that a young thug named Jack McCall found him with his back uncharacteristically to the room.

McCall drew his pistol and shot Hickok in the back of the head, the bullet emerging through his right cheek. The cards Hickok was holding — a pair of aces and a pair of eights — would become known as “The Dead Man’s Hand.”

There has always been some debate over why McCall shot Hickok. While some have alluded to an old blood feud, intimating that McCall was out to avenge the death of his brother at Hickok’s hands, McCall never had a brother — only three sisters, and there is no indication that any of them ever left Kentucky. Another unsubstantiated tale has McCall seeking notoriety by gunning Hickok down.

The likely explanation is more prosaic: McCall was an alcoholic who drifted into a card game and lost badly, running out of money. Hickok had advised him to quit and had actually given him money to buy himself breakfast. The next day, Hickok was back in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon playing cards when an inebriated and angry McCall wandered in. Shouting “Damn you! Take that!” he shot Hickok with an 1873 Colt’s Peacemaker Single Action Army .45 caliber.

McCall’s first trial was a rather impromptu affair held at the McDaniel Theater in Deadwood the day after he shot Hickok. In “court,” McCall claimed that Hickok had killed his brother in Abilene, Kansas. As history has shown, McCall didn’t have a brother, but the jury didn’t know that, and the ploy worked: McCall was acquitted. The local newspaper, the Black Hills Pioneer, looked somewhat askance at the verdict, opining on August 5, 1876, “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.”

Despite his acquittal, McCall quickly determined to leave town “for health reasons” and headed for Wyoming Territory. There, his tendency to run his mouth landed him in the soup when, drunk once again, he started bragging that he had shot Hickok in a fair fight. The Wyoming authorities didn’t buy it and determined that since Deadwood did not have a legally appointed law enforcement or court system, the double jeopardy rule did not apply and McCall could be put on trial a second time for Hickok’s murder. Thus McCall was retried, found guilty of murder, and hanged.

Our story ends not where McCall was buried, the noose still around his neck, but at the final resting place of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota. For all of his reputation as a lawman and his notoriety — courtesy of the newspapers and dime novels of the day and his own exaggerated claims that he had killed hundreds — the truth behind the legend is that in his role as a peace officer, Hickok probably killed no more than nine men, including his hapless deputy in Abilene. The plaque below the bronze bust marking his grave skirts the discrepancy: “J B HICKOK/ DIED aug 2, 1876 / BY PISTOL SHOT / AGED 39 years / CUSTER WAS LONELY WITHOUT HIM.”