The Man Who Made the West Wild
James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was born on this day in 1837, 184 years ago.
By the late 1850s, Hickok was working for the Russell, Waddell, and Majors freight company. When this company started the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company to deliver mail and news from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, Hickok was engaged as a wagon driver, and it was during his time with the company that he met the young Bill Cody when he saved the eleven-year-old from being beaten by some older men in a camp.
When Hickok was injured in a close encounter with a cinnamon bear, the company sent him to their outpost at Rock Creek Station in Nebraska to recover while working some light duty in the station’s stables. There, the injured Hickok walked slowly and with a pronounced limp, his left arm damaged by the bear to point of being useless. In an event that has been much recorded and extremely exaggerated, Hickok, who had been left in charge of the station, went out to meet Dave McCanles, a local rough who had sold the property to the Express company and was angry about a late payment.
When McCanles, expecting to press the older and smaller station master for money was greeted at the door by the tall, quiet, and reserved Hickok, he demanded to see the other man.
“What in the hell, Hickok, have you got to do with this? My business is with Wellman, not you, and if you want to take a hand in it, come out here and we will settle it like men.”
Hickok stood for a moment before speaking, and then slowly replied,
“Perhaps ’tis, or ‘taint.”
Hickok stepped back inside to talk to Wellman when he saw McCanles move to raise a shotgun. Bill fired his own gun from inside the house, killing the man. In the subsequent moments, Hickok and the others at the station killed two more men who were with McCanles. A subsequent trial determined that Hickok was not guilty of murder based on self-defense, and Hickok left the state before friends of Dave McCanles could catch up to him. Versions of this story later appeared in newspapers and magazines after the Civil War, claiming that in the encounter Hickok had shot down a dozen members of the infamous M’Kandlas Gang. While all of the court documents refer to Hickok, whose given name was James, as William, they attach two other nicknames, Duck Bill or Dutch Bill. Some historians have theorized that he was called Duck Bill because of his thin lips. The nickname prompted Hickok to grow a mustache covering his mouth, but it wasn’t until after the war that Jim Hickok was known by only one moniker, Wild Bill.
During the Civil War, Hickok joined the Union initially as a scout and later as a wagon master in Sedalia, Missouri. When Confederate troops captured one of the wagon trains he was assigned to, he escaped to Independence, Missouri to rejoin his unit. While there, he chanced upon a saloon with a large crowd outside, and a mob that demanded the bartender’s blood. Hickok stepped in front of the saloon’s door and drew his twin pistols, demanding that the angry men walk away. When one of the men began to step forward, Hickok fired above his head, as well as the man standing next to him, the bullets passing close enough that both men could feel their hair move. Drawing back the hammers on his revolvers, Hickok had warned the crowd that he would shoot the first man to move forward. As the men dispersed a woman in the crowd had shouted, “My God, ain’t he wild!” and the name stuck.
When the war ended, Wild Bill returned to Springfield. Also in the city was a man named Dave Tutt, who Hickok had encountered several times during the war. Initially, the two gamblers were friendly, but soon their relationship soured. Tutt may have started a relationship with a woman that Hickok had once courted. Hickok returned the favor by spending considerable time with one of Tutt’s sisters, prompting Dave to tell Wild Bill to leave her alone. There were rumors around Springfield that Tutt's sister was now pregnant with Hickok's illegitimate child.
Hickok refused to play cards with the man, so one night Tutt proceeded to fund every player that lost to Hickok, ensuring that they wouldn’t have to leave the table. Hickok again won, taking the money that Tutt had provided to keep the men in the game. Dave stood up to remind Wild Bill of a forty-dollar debt he owed on a horse trade. Hickok peeled the money from his winnings and handed it to Tutt. Tutt angrily continued that Hickok owed him thirty-five dollars more from a previous card game. Hickok said that he remembered that particular game’s debt being twenty-five dollars, and began to count out more bills.
Tutt reached for Bill’s Waltham repeater watch on the table and Hickok shot to his feet.
“I don’t want to make a row in this house,” spat Hickok to the other man. “It’s a decent house and I don’t want to injure the keeper. You’d better put that watch back on that table.”
Tutt laughed and walked out with Hickok’s watch. Taking the watch as collateral on the supposed $35 debt signaled that Tutt believed Hickok a man unable to pay his debts. To accept the insult would be to admit this as truth, which would have ruined Hickok as a gambler in Springfield, his sole source of income. Several days later, some friends of Tutt’s tried to cajole Bill into a fight, telling him that Tutt planned on wearing the watch when he crossed the town square the next day. Hickok told the men to warn Tutt that this was inadvisable, warning "He shouldn't come across that square unless dead men can walk." Hickok was in the square the next day when Tutt approached holding the watch. As he began to walk across the street, he pulled his pistol, and Hickok responded by drawing his pair and firing a shot from each simultaneously into Dave Tutt’s heart. Once again, a trial ensued and Hickok was found not guilty.
This gunfight was the source of the famous “shootout at high noon” trope that has pervaded western literature and drama ever since. There are conflicting accounts that state that Hickok had actually pawned the watch at Tutt’s saloon, but warned him not to wear it as he planned on returning to pay for it. Though Hickok had been cleared of murder by a jury, many citizens of Springfield remained convinced that he was a thug. When he was summoned to Fort Riley, Kansas for an appointment as a deputy US marshal, he gladly accepted.
It was while scouting for General George Armstrong Custer that Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published an article by George Ward Nichols that presented the stylized version of the encounters with Coe and Tutt that precipitated the Wild Bill legend that was accepted by the American people, if not the James Hickok that was known to his friends. Overnight, Hickok became a kind of frontier celebrity, and it was this celebrity and this article that would send Ned Buntline west to look for gunslingers and Indian fighters and buffalo hunters to fill his own works for Eastern audiences now clamoring for this kind of tale. Indeed, this story’s success led directly to the publication of the dime novel Wild Bill, the Indian Slayer, the first of many fictionalized stories about Hickok.
In early April of 1871, Wild Bill was offered a position as marshal of Abilene. The town’s mayor was Joseph McCoy, the man who had built the stockyard and turned Abilene into the cow capital of the west. He wrote of making the choice for marshal, “For my preserver of the Peace, I had ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, and he was the squarest man I ever saw. He broke up all unfair gambling, made professional gamblers move their tables into the light, and when they became drunk stopped the game.”
After his fight with Phil Coe in Abilene and the accidental shooting of Deputy Mike Williams, the Texas cowboys now afraid of the consequences of bad behavior and the citizens of Abilene, weary of the gamblers, prostitutes, and rowdies that descended on their town each year determined to seek out another destination for their herds. Newton, Wichita, and Dodge City all became king of the cowtowns, and Wild Bill walked away from law enforcement in Kansas. He participated in Colonel Barnett’s buffalo hunt in Niagara and then went to Boston. He traveled to Colorado to visit Charlie Utter, a friend from his days in Hays. He traveled to Kansas City where he spent time as a professional gambler. He was at the Kansas City Fair along with thirty-thousand other visitors when a number of men from Texas asked the band to play Dixie. When some locals protested, the Texans took out their revolvers. Hickok stepped forward and stopped the music, to the anger of the Texans. Despite the overwhelming numbers, none of the men were willing to fire at Wild Bill.
Several years later, an article in several newspapers throughout the country reported that Hickok had been shot and killed, perhaps by a friend or relative of Phil Coe. One paper reported that William Hickok had been corralled by Texans he had angered during his time as marshal of Abilene. Growing tired of reading of his demise, Hickok wrote to the St. Louis Missouri Democrat:
To the Editor of the Democrat,
Wishing to correct an error in your paper of the 12th, I will state that no Texan has, nor ever will “corral William.” I wish you to correct your statement, on account of my people.
Yours as ever,
In a second letter, sent to the same newspaper on March 26th, 1873, Hickok wrote that “Ned Buntline of the New York Weekly has been trying to murder me with his pen for years; having failed he is now, so I am told, trying to have it done by some Texans, but he has signally failed so far.” With Buntline no longer a factor in joining Cody and Omohundro in their stage venture, and a lack of prospects on the western plains, Hickok agreed to give acting a shot. That fall, Wild Bill Hickok stepped off the train in New York City to join his old friends Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro in a new play, The Scouts of the Plains.