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When one hears the word “gunfighter” in the context of the Old West, many think of Doc Holiday or Wyatt Earp; however, Wild Bill Hickok should be near the top of your list. Hickok’s skill with a gun was legendary, not so much for his speed but rather his coolness in a gun fight and his deadly accuracy. For example, just after serving in the Union Army, Wild Bill was confronted by Davis Tutt in the square of Springfield, Missouri, over some bad blood between the two. They were on opposing sides during the Civil War and a gambling debt the night before had brought the once friends to the point of a life or death match. The two men with vengeance in their eyes faced off at 75 yards apart in the town square and fired nearly simultaneously at each other. Tutt’s bullet went high while Bill’s was dead on, literally, dropping Tutt in his tracks. If you have ever shot a pistol, you know that hitting a man sized target at 75 yards is quite an accomplishment, even more so if you are in the middle of a gunfight. But Hickok wasn’t a rogue killer like John Wesley Hardin; most of his fights were “fair” and not just killings resulting from rage, jealousy over a woman, or too much whisky. Nearly all of Wild Bill’s deadly encounters were during his role as a lawman or as an individual upholding the law.
James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois, on May 27, 1837. He was the fifth child of seven children born to William Alonzo and Polly Butler Hickok. Young James joined his abolitionist father and some neighbors in rescuing escaped slaves from bounty hunters. The Hickok home was part of the Underground Railroad and they were responsible for helping save dozens, if not hundreds, of runaway slaves. When he was still a teenager, he rode with the antislavery militia, known as the Jayhawkers, fighting in the Kansas Territory. His height and slim frame earned him the nickname Shanghai Bill, but it didn’t stick.
It was during this time that he would meet his lifelong friend, “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Cody described an incident involving Hickok where Cody was the victim of one of the teamsters who was a notorious bully. The ruffian slapped young Cody (barely a teenager) in the face so hard it knocked him off the ox yoke he was sitting on. Cody retaliated by throwing hot coffee in the teamster’s face. As the bully was ready to tear Cody limb-from-limb, Hickok stepped in and knocked the man down. Hickok declared, “If you ever again lay a hand on that boy—little Billy there—I’ll give such a pounding you won’t get over it for a month of Sundays.” As Cody said, this would cement a friendship that would last until Hickok’s death.
At eighteen, Hickok ran away from home, believing he had killed a fellow teamster in a fist fight. When he stopped running, he ended up in Johnson County, Kansas Territory, where he worked as a farm laborer. Hickok was a firm abolitionist and fought in the border war between the Free-Soil Kansans and the pro-slavery Missourians during the years leading up to the Civil War. In 1858, James ended up in Monticello Township in the northeastern corner of the state of Kansas and landed a job as one of four constables who served the local magistrate.
During the summer of 1861, Hickok was driving freight wagons along the Santa Fe Trail for the parent company of the Pony Express. While on the trail, Hickok got in a fracas with a bear and was nearly killed. Seriously wounded, he recuperated at the Rock Creek, Nebraska, station and did odd jobs for the station manager, Horace Wellman. One day, an ill-tempered rancher named David McCanles showed up at the station with his son and two gang members. McCanles was demanding his land back because Wellman was late on the payments. McCanles and his crew stood outside the cabin and began haranguing Hickok and Mr. and Mrs. Wellman. Exactly what happened next is still left to speculation, but by the end of the encounter, McCanles and two his men lay dead.
Three dead men, even by frontier justice, demanded a hearing before a judge. Four days later, Hickok and Mr. Wellman were on trial. The pair claimed they had been defending company property, and the circuit judge agreed. After the verdict was rendered, Hickok packed up and left Red Rock for the war.
When the Civil War broke out, Hickok joined the Union army as a teamster and rose to the level of wagon master. Later in the war, he served as a spy and scout, which paid the princely sum of five dollars a day. It compared nicely to soldiers who were paid $13 per week. “Wild Bill,” as he had come to be known, distinguished himself by roving behind the enemy lines disguised as a Confederate soldier as he gathered information about the movement of the troops. He served until the end of the war as one of Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s most reliable spies. He also scouted for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. In Custer’s book, My Life on the Plains, he wrote about Hickok, “Of his courage there could be no question. His skill in use of the rifle and pistol was unerring. His deportment was entirely free of bravado… His influence among frontiersmen was unbounded, his word was law, and many are the personal quarrels and disturbances which he had checked among his comrades… I have a personal knowledge of at least half a dozen men who he has at various times killed, others have been seriously wounded—yet he always escaped unhurt in every encounter.”
Gunfight in Springfield, Missouri
At the end of the Civil War, Hickok went to Springfield, Missouri, to gamble. Hickok was hardly a gentleman, as recorded in the 1883 History of Greene County, Missouri, which described him as “by nature a ruffian…a drunkard, swaggering fellow who delighted when ‘on a spree’ to frighten nervous men and timid women.” While in Springfield, he became involved in a gunfight over a gambling debt with noted gunman Dave Tutt. The exact reason for the fight is a bit murky, but, according to legend, the two men had met the night before at the Lyon House Hotel, where Tutt demanded Hickok settle a $35 gambling debt. Hickok insisted the debt was for only $25, but until the debt could be settled, Tutt would keep Bill’s gold watch as collateral. Hickok grudgingly gave up the watch but warned Tutt not to flaunt the gold watch in public. Bill didn’t mind paying his debt, but he didn’t want the public ridicule of Tutt showing off his watch.
On the late afternoon of July 21, 1865, Tutt stepped into the square after settling some fines at the courthouse. Hickok stood calmly in the center of the square with his Colt Navy revolvers resting easy in a red sash tied around his waist, their ivory handles turned forward, allowing them to be drawn quickly. Tutt saw Hickok and slowly pulled the gold watch from his vest pocket and casually glanced at it. Wild Bill yelled at him, “Don’t you cross the square with my watch!” Tutt slipped the watch back into his pocket and stepped into the middle of the square. Both men were the type that didn’t back down from a challenge, and they squared off with each other about 75 yards apart. At first, nothing happened, then nearly simultaneously, both men went for their guns and fired at each other so close in time that some bystanders claimed only one shot had been fired. Tutt’s bullet whizzed over Hickok’s head, but Wild Bill’s bullet was a direct hit to Tutt’s chest. Tutt shouted to bystanders, “Boys, I’m killed!” and with his last words he fell to the ground dead. As soon as Tutt’s body hit the ground, Hickok whirled to face Tutt’s men, who were standing nearby and possibly looking to avenge his death. Hickok warned, “Put up your shooting irons or there’ll be more dead men here.” Tutt’s men backed down and the fight was over.
Bill was put on trial for murder initially, but the charge was reduced to manslaughter. Bill pleaded self defense; the jury agreed, and he was acquitted of all charges.
The Legend of Wild Bill Hickok
Hickok’s legend as a character of the Old West was starting to build when he was interviewed by a former Federal officer, George Nichols, who was a writer for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Nichols promised Wild Bill he would publish some of his adventures. In 1867, Nichols made good on his promise, and in the February issue of Harper’s there was an article on the feats of Wild Bill. Nichols created a larger-than-life character, writing, “You would not believe that you were looking into the eyes that have pointed the way to death to hundreds of men.” The post-Civil War America was hungry for a hero, and Nichols helped make such a man. The article was mostly gross exaggerations, but it did bring Hickok to the attention of a national audience.
As the legend of Wild Bill grew, like a double-edged sword, it cut both ways, providing opportunity and challenges. His fame would land him jobs as a well paid lawman in the rough frontier cow towns of Kansas, but it also brought heavy contenders looking to make their name by killing Wild Bill.
Hickok continued his law career as a deputy federal marshal at Fort Riley, Kansas. There he was appointed “special detective” and paid $125 per month to hunt down stolen government property. In August 1869, Hickok was elected acting sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas, headquartered in Hays City. His time there was short as in the November election, his deputy, a Democrat in a largely Democratic community, won. In March of 1870, Hickok visited friends in parts of Missouri then resumed his duties as a deputy U.S. Marshal. In early April, 1871, Hickok went to Abilene, Kansas, which was then a cow town for cattle driven north from Texas to be shipped back East. Wild Bill served as marshal for eight months and managed, with the help of several deputies, to bring law and order to a town filled with cowboys up from Texas looking to spend their hard-earned money on drink, gambling, and women. These years solidified Hickok’s reputation as one of the greatest lawmen of the post-Civil War era. With the help of his deputies, he kept the cow town under control, walking the streets with a pair of pearl handled revolvers on his hips, a Bowie knife tucked in his sash, and a shotgun cradled in his arms. To add to his persona as “Wild Bill,” he wore his hair shoulder length and dressed in the height of frontier fashion.
By the fall of 1871, the Abilene council decided it was time for Wild Bill to clean up the town and close down many of the “houses of ill fame” and gambling halls. It was during his final days in Abilene that he was involved in a gun fight that would haunt him the rest of his days. Phil Coe, a Texas gambler, clashed with Hickok and in the ensuing gunfight, Coe was killed. During the shootout, a deputy, Mike Williams, rushed to assist Hickok. In the heat of the moment, Hickok fatally shot Williams in the crossfire. William’s body was carried into the saloon and laid on the billiard table; Hickok wept. The incident changed Hickok. He had spent his life killing men who deserved to die, but this was different, a friend and innocent man had paid the ultimate price for his mistake. He would carry the pain of this day for years to come.
The city council was fed up with the cattle trade and soon banned it from the city; thus, the need for Hickok’s brand of law enforcement was no longer needed.
High Plains Drifter
Wild Bill’s eyesight began to fail, and he gave up the law and became a gambler. In the year 1873 he became an actor in Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West” show. His acting skills were atrocious and he had a high voice that was often described as “girly.” Cody finally had to fire Wild Bill due to his lack of skill and his harassment of the other actors. After his stint as an actor, Hickok drifted in Missouri, South Dakota, and Wyoming as a gambler.
In 1876, Bill was starting to settle down and married Agnes Lake Thatcher, a 50-year-old widow of a circus owner. The marriage was a culmination of a five year courtship that had begun in Abilene. After a short honeymoon in St. Louis and at the bride’s home in Cincinnati, Ohio, he left her with relatives, promising to send for her once he was established in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Bill didn’t make it to Cheyenne; rather, he joined with an expedition to the Black Hills in search of gold. The party reached Deadwood in July, where Hickok spent his time gambling and prospecting.
The Life of Wild Bill Hickok
As the old saying goes, “Live by the gun, die by the gun”; so would be Wild Bill’s fate. During a poker game on August 2, 1876, at a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota, he was ambushed by a notoriety-seeing scoundrel named Jack McCall. McCall had lost heavily to Bill the day before at the poker table and had a score to settle. Bill would normally sit at a card table with his back against the wall; however, this time that chair was taken. McCall walked up behind Bill, placed a gun to the back of his head, shouted “Damn you! Take that!” and pulled the trigger. The poker hand Bill was holding as he fell dead to the floor—a pair of black aces and eights—would become known as the “dead man’s hand.” McCall was found guilty of murder and hanged.
Over the years there have been many estimates on the number of men that Wild Bill killed. A conservative estimate with some level of authentication is ten; some estimate the number as high as fifty, not including Indians or Confederate soldiers. Hickok became the prototype for the iron-clad lawman of the plains during the years before civilization and law and order reached the frontier. His gunfight in Springfield, Missouri, was the first recorded “quick draw” gunfight that would become the classic gunfight of Western legend. So, the next time you watch an old Western movie on TV where two rough cowboys step out of the saloon, guns blazing, to settle a score on the dusty streets of a long forgotten cow town, where of course the one with the white hat emerges from the cloud of gun smoke, think of Wild Bill Hickok—the real deal.
“Wild Bill” Memorial Park in His Hometown
Wild Bill Hickok has not been forgotten by history, on August 29, 1930 a crowd of over a thousand gathered to dedicate the Wild Bill Hickok Memorial located in his hometown of Troy Grove, Illinois. The memorial is a state historic site operated by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The small park feathers a plaque on the granite monument which honors Hickok as “a scout and spy in the western states to preserve the Union in the Civil War,” praising “his services on the frontier as express messenger and upholder of law and order.”
Carter, Robert A. Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend. Castle Books. 2005.
Fisher, David. Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies: The Real West. Henry Holt and Company. 2015.
Rosa, Joseph A. Wild Bill Hickok, Gunfighter: An Account of Hickok’s Gunfights. Red River Books. 2003.
Rutter, Michael. Myths and Mysteries of the Old West. TWODOT. 2005.
Wexler, Bruce. How The West Was Won: The Gunfighters. Skyhorse Publishing. 2011.
"Illionis Town, Birthplace of "Wild Bill" Dedicates Monument to Memory, Aug 29." The Weekly Pioneer-Times Deadwood, South Dakota 18 Sep 1930, Thu • Page 3
Questions & Answers
Question: What became of Wild Bill's pair of Colts after he was killed ?
Answer: Wild Bill Hickok’s gun ended up in the Adams Museum in Deadwood, South Dakota, the town where he was shot in the back of the head during a card game.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on September 18, 2019:
Thanks for the comment. I hope to go to Deadwood one day myself.
mark tate on September 17, 2019:
love old west history about will bill hope to visit deadwood s.c. one day.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on August 24, 2018:
Wonderful, Doug. I loved this article about Wild Bill. I never knew about the abolitionist views of Wild Bill. I like the way you told his story, gun fighting and all. I'm going to read your article on Buffalo Bill next. I believe he worked for the Pony Express at one point, too.
Thanks for a fun to read and informative article about the history of the U.S. and the men and women who make it.
Much respect and admiration,
Readmikenow on August 24, 2018:
Excellent article! I really enjoyed reading this fascinating bit of history.
ziyena from the United States on August 23, 2018:
Wow. I prize myself in knowing much about history but I must admit I never knew that Wild Bill came from the home of an Underground Railroad operation. Great Article! Thanks for sharing. Cheers