Welcome to the Old West of Wild Bill Hickok!

A Legend in His Own Time

Long before that fatal shot rang out in Saloon Number 10 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876, the notoriety of Wild Bill Hickok had already achieved legendary proportions. Born as James Butler Hickok and raised on a farm in rural Illinois, he went west at the age of 18 as a fugitive from justice, first working as a stagecoach driver, then as a lawman in the frontier territories of Kansas and Nebraska. He fought (and spied) for the Union Army during the American Civil War, and gained publicity after the war as a scout, marksman, actor, and professional gambler. Hickok was involved in several notable shootouts. He was shot from behind and killed while playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota) by an unsuccessful gambler. The card hand he held at the time of his death has come to be known today as poker's "Dead Man's Hand".

This page represents an ongoing exploration into the life and legend of one of the Old West's most celebrated gunfighters and lawmen - James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok. I hope you enjoy your visit.

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Books about Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and His Myth
by Joseph G. Rosa
      Eulogized and ostracized, James Butler Hickok was alternately labeled courageous, affable, and self confident; cowardly, cold-blooded, and drunken; a fine specimen of physical manhood; an overdressed dandy with perfumed hair; an unequaled marksman; a poor shot. Born in Illinois in 1837, he was shot dead in Deadwood only 39 years later. By then both famous and infamous, he was widely known as "Wild Bill."
      Excavating the reality behind the myth, Joseph Rosa delves into the exploits and ego that defined Hickok and shows how the man was overtaken by his own legend. Rosa exposes a controversial and charismatic man--army and Indian scout, wagon master, courier, frontiersman, gunfighter, lawman, prospector, addicted gambler, and short-time actor--who was elevated from regional fame to national notoriety by inadvertently being in the right place at the right time.
      Aggrandized in an 1867 Harper's New Monthly Magazine article, Hickok reluctantly embraced his exaggerated role in a far-fetched but exciting story that has inspired writers, folklorists, and movie moguls. Dime novelists sensationalized him. Biographers praised and criticized. Gary Cooper portrayed him sensitively, Douglas Kennedy villainously, and Charles Bronson laconically. Howard Keel played him romantically (albeit historically incorrectly) against Doris Day's Calamity Jane.
      Culminating four decades of research by one of the top authorities on Wild West legends, Wild Bill Hickok is a highly readable, fun, and accurate account of the larger-than-life character whose reported accomplishments--both real and imaginary--in Kansas, Missouri, and the surrounding territory frequently brought him unwanted publicity. Setting the record straight, Rosa exposes some of the deliberate lies that vested Hickok with a "man-killer" reputation he didn't deserve. In fact, Rosa shows, the number of men he killed is probably a lot closer to ten than to the more than 100 he is often credited with.
      Establishing the role an overzealous press and fortune-seeking dime novelists played in immortalizing Wild Bill, Rosa reveals a great deal about how myths were initiated and perpetuated to glorify the nineteenth-century frontier. He also illuminates why imaginative accounts of unorthodox heroes continue to skew our understanding of this important era in American history.
300 pages, University Press of Kansas; 1st edition, 1996.

They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok
by Joseph G. Rosa
      His contemporaries called him Wild Bill, and newspapermen and others made him a legend in his own time. Among western characters only General George Armstrong Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody are as readily recognized by the general public. In writing this biography, Joseph G. Rosa has expressed the hope that "Hickok emerges as a man and not a legend."
      For this comprehensive revision of his earlier biography of Wild Bill the author was allowed to work from newly available materials in the possession of the Hickok family. He also discovered new material pertaining to Wild Bill’s Civil War exploits and his service as a marshal and found the pardon file of his murderer, John McCall. Additional, rare photographs of Wild Bill are published here for the first time. The results of Rosa’s additional research make this second edition the best biography of Wild Bill likely to be written for years to come.
399 pages, University of Oklahoma Press; 2nd Revised & Enlarged edition, 1974.

The West of Wild Bill Hickok
by Joseph G. Rosa
Of all the Old West figures whose images eventually found their way into our popular culture, none was better known than Wild Bill Hickok. This book, a companion volume to Joseph Rosa’s exhaustive biography, They Called Him Wild Bill, reproduces in one volume nearly all the known portraits of Wild Bill, together with photographs of his family, his friends, his foes, and the places that knew him.
202 pages, University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Wild Bill Hickok, Gunfighter: An Account of Hickok's Gunfights
by Joseph G. Rosa
      “James Butler Hickok, generally called ‘Wild Bill,’ epitomized the archetypal gunfighter, that half-man, half-myth that became the heir to the mystique of the duelist when that method of resolving differences waned. . . . Easy access to a gun and whiskey coupled with gambling was the cause of most gunfights--few of which bore any resemblance to the gentlemanly duel of earlier times. . . . Hickok’s gunfights were unusual in that most of them were ‘fair’ fights, not just killings resulting from rage, jealousy over a woman, or drunkenness. And, the majority of his encounters were in his role as lawman or as an individual upholding the law.”--from Wild Bill Hickok, Gunfighter
      Wild Bill Hickok (1837–1876) was a Civil War spy and scout, Indian fighter, gambler, and peace officer. He was also one of the greatest gunfighters in the West. His peers referred to his reflexes as “phenomenal” and to his skill with a pistol as “miraculous.” In Wild Bill Hickok, Gunfighter, Joseph G. Rosa, the world’s foremost authority on Hickok, provides an informative examination of Hickok’s many gunfights.
      Rosa describes the types of guns used by Hickok and illustrates his use of the plains’ style of “quick draw,” as well as examining other elements of the Hickok legend. He even reconsiders the infamous “dead man’s hand” allegedly held by Hickok when he was shot to death at age thirty-nine while playing poker. Numerous photographs and drawings accompany Rosa’s down-to-earth text.
216 pages, University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.

LINKS

Wild Bill Hickok (From Wikipedia)
James Butler Hickok (May 27, 1837 – August 2, 1876)—known as "Wild Bill" Hickok—was a folk character of the American Old West. Although some of his exploits as reported at the time were fictionalized, his skills as a gunfighter and gambler, along with his reputation as a lawman, provided the basis for his enduring fame.
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Chronology on Life of James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok
James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois, on May 27, 1837. Troy Grove was then, and is now a small clean agricultural community. Mr. Hickok was assassinated in Deadwood, South Dakota on August 2, 1876. Deadwood was then, and is now, a town with basically one main street running through it.
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The McCanles Gang incident
The legend of "Wild Bill" Hickok began, as reported in Harper's Monthly, at Rock Creek Station, a stagecoach and Pony Express station in southern Nebraska, near present-day Fairbury, NE. According to the story, Hickok single-handedly killed the nine members of "desperados, horse-thieves, murderers, and regular cutthroats" known as the McCanles Gang "in the greatest one man gunfight in history".
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Wild Bill Hickok – Davis Tutt shootout
The Wild Bill Hickok – Davis Tutt shootout was a gunfight that occurred on July 21, 1865 in the town square of Springfield, Missouri between Wild Bill Hickok and cowboy Davis Tutt. It is one of the few recorded instances in the Old West of a one-on-one pistol quick-draw duel in a public place, in the manner later made iconic by countless dime novels, radio operas, and Western films such as High Noon. The first story of the shootout was detailed in an article in Harper's Magazine in 1867, making Hickok a household name and folk hero.
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Deadwood - Where Wild Bill Hickok Was Shot
Deadwood has enjoyed a surge in popularity thanks to a successful HBO series (2004-6) that featured the 19th century Wild West town and its skanky yet colorful characters. Although the series was filmed in California, its outdoor set in Santa Clarita (Gorn Battle country) was inspired by historic photos of the original Deadwood. The real town of Deadwood even had plans to construct an Old West town facade partly inspired by the series, but its cancellation put an end to that.
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Wild Bill Hickok
by Joseph J. Di Certo

Introduction

Wild Bill Hickok, byname of James Butler Hickok (Born May 27, 1837, Homer [now Troy Grove], Illinois, U.S.—died August 2, 1876, Deadwood, Dakota Territory [now in South Dakota, U.S.]), American frontiersman, army scout, and lawman who helped bring order to the frontier West. His reputation as a gunfighter gave rise to legends and tales about his life. He was one of the early “heroes of the West” popularized in the dime novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Early years

Hickok’s family emigrated from England in 1635 to Massachusetts, where his great-grandfather responded to the British march on Lexington and Concord at the beginning of the American Revolution. Hickok’s father moved his family from Vermont to Maine to Homer (now Troy Grove), Illinois. There the family’s small farm served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Hickok left home at age 17 and worked as a canal boat pilot in Utica, Illinois, before heading west in 1856 to Bleeding Kansas, which was embroiled in a violent conflict over whether slavery should be permitted there. Hickok joined the antislavery Free State Army of Jayhawkers and, having already become skilled with a gun as a youth, served as a bodyguard for Gen. James H. Lanes. During this period Hickok prevented a man from beating an 11-year-old boy, who grew up to become Buffalo Bill Cody, Hickok’s longtime friend.

Hickok’s growing reputation for fairness and courage earned him, in 1858, a position as a constable in Monticello, Kansas. Later that year he became a teamster with the great freighting enterprise Russell, Majors and Waddell, creators of the Pony Express, for which he was too tall and heavy to be a rider. It was at this time that Hickok came across a bear blocking a road, an encounter that would become part of the lore surrounding him: Hickok shot the bear, which only angered it, and a struggle ensued, during which Hickok used a knife to slit the bear’s throat, but not before he was nearly crushed to death. Hickok was bedridden for months before he went to southern Nebraska in the summer of 1861 to work at the Pony Express station at Rock Creek.

The McCanles Massacre

There are many versions of the shootout that occurred at Rock Creek on July 12, 1861, shortly after the start of the Civil War, and all, in one way or another, contributed to Hickok’s legend. At the time of the so-called McCanles Massacre, Hickok was known as “Duck Bill” because of his sweeping nose and protruding upper lip (covered with a mustache later in life). That derisive nickname may have been given to him by David McCanles, who had sold the buildings that became the Pony Express’s Rock Creek station, on credit, to Russell, Majors and Waddell. McCanles also acted as the station’s manager before the company replaced him with Horace Wellman, and McCanles had reputedly ridiculed Hickok during his convalescence from his injuries.

The first major description of the incident appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in February 1867, six years after the fact, written by Col. George Ward Nichols, who claimed to have been told the story by Hickok in 1865. According to the Harper’s account, Hickok, while guiding a detachment of Union cavalry through southern Nebraska, decided to stop and visit an old friend, Wellman’s wife, at Rock Creek Station. Upon Hickok’s arrival, she told him that a Confederate gang led by McCanles was pursuing him, and almost immediately they were set upon by the Confederates. The story continued that McCanles invaded the Wellmans’ cabin and prepared to shoot Hickok, who acted faster and shot McCanles in the chest. In quick succession, Hickok was said to have then killed five members of McCanles’s gang and knocked out another before three more gang members threw him down on a bed, only to be bested in hand-to-hand combat by the knife-wielding Hickok.

Nichols’s version of the shootout in Harper’s grabbed the public’s attention, making Hickok an instant legend whose gunfighting prowess became fodder for dime novels. Later historians, however, have presented a radically different portrayal of the events at Rock Creek. According to their account, the shootout took place not inside the Wellmans’ cabin but inside the Rock Creek station itself, and Hickok’s defense was far from single-handed. It is believed that McCanles arrived at the station with his son, Monroe; his cousin, James Woods; and James Gordon, a man in his service. Russell, Majors and Waddell had not kept up with their payments for the station, and the gun-brandishing McCanles had come to demand his money from Wellman, who insisted that he did not have it and refused to relinquish the property to McCanles, as did his wife. As the scene unfolded, McCanles entered the station, and, from behind the curtain that divided it in two, either Hickok or Wellman shot McCanles. In the melee that followed, Hickok shot Woods, who, most historians agree, was then attacked and ultimately killed with a hoe by Mrs. Wellman. Hickok chased and wounded the fleeing Gordon, who was then fatally shot by someone else (according to some by “Doc” Brinks, another Pony Express employee).

Hickok and Brinks were charged with murder but found not guilty. Only station employees were allowed to testify at the trial (testimony by McCanles’s son was barred), and the verdict was that the men had acted in self-defense. After the fact, there was much speculation as to whether romantic rivalry had had a role in the incident: Hickok was apparently involved with a woman who had also been involved with the married McCanles.

Soldier, scout, lawman, and legend

Hickok may have picked up the nickname “Wild Bill” for his daring fighting in the Union army during the Civil War, which included service as a spy, a scout, and a sharpshooter. After the war Hickok continued his adventurous ways, at times just skirting the right side of the law. On July 21, 1865, in a shootout in Springfield, Missouri, he killed David Tutt, a skillful gunfighter who had been flaunting the watch he won from Hickok in a poker game. Hickok was arrested for murder, tried, and acquitted. This incident added to his fame as a gunslinger, which skyrocketed when journalist and later explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley reported as fact in the New York Herald in 1867 Hickok’s exaggerated claim that he had killed 100 men.

In 1866 Hickok helped guide Gen. William T. Sherman’s tour of the West, and in 1867–68 he scouted for Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and Lieut. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Hickok was a favourite of Custer and his wife, Libbie, who described him “as a delight to look upon.” Hickok’s physical appearance was by many accounts arresting. One account of him, written in the late 1860s, described Hickok as “six feet tall, lithe, active, sinewy, [a] daring rider, [a] dead shot with pistol and rifle, [with] long locks, fine features and mustache, buckskin leggings, red shirt, broad-brim hat, twin pistols in belt, rifle in hand.” Despite his rough-and-ready ways, Hickok was also said to have been genteel and courteous and to have enjoyed dressing with panache in the latest styles of the day.

In 1869 Hickok became sheriff of Hays City, Kansas, where he killed several men in shootouts. In 1871 he took over as the marshal of the tough cow town of Abilene, Texas. There, again, he killed several men, including his deputy marshal, whose death—the result of an accidental shooting—led to Hickok’s dismissal. Hickok then tried acting in Wild West shows, which were growing in popularity. His own show, The Daring Buffalo Chase of the Plains, did not fare well, but in 1873 he joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s The Scouts of the Prairie, which was based in Rochester, New York. Although the show brought Hickok some much-needed income, he was unhappy, began drinking heavily, and returned to the West in March 1874.

Final years

In 1876 in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, Hickok married Agnes Lake Thatcher, a former circus performer. A month or so later, he left their honeymoon in Cincinnati for the goldfields of the Black Hills in the Dakota Territory, where he hoped to make enough money to send for her. He traveled west to Deadwood, South Dakota, in a wagon train that included Martha Jane Cannary (“Calamity Jane”), who later claimed she had secretly married him. Deadwood was overrun with miners, gunmen, and gamblers when Hickok became a peace officer there in July 1876, relying as much on his reputation as on his diminishing gun skills, which were compromised by failing eyesight.

On August 2, 1876, during a poker game in a saloon that found him with his back uncharacteristically to the door, Hickok was shot in the back of his head by Jack McCall, who may have been hired to kill him. McCall was tried and acquitted of murder as a result of his dubious claim that the killing was in revenge for Hickok’s murder of his brother in Abilene. Later, after bragging of his murder of Hickok, McCall was retried in Laramie, Wyoming Territory, found guilty, and hanged on March 1, 1877. The cards Hickok had been holding when he was shot and killed—a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights plus an unknown fifth card—became known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.”


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