Hush! Talk low! There are listening ears everywhere, Sam! I don't know why, but there is a chill at my heart, and I know my time has about run out. I've been on East with Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, trying to show people what our plains life is. But I wasn't at home there. There were crowds on crowds that came to see us, and I couldn't stir on the streets of their big cities without having an army at my heels, and I got sick of it.
Wild Bill’s Last Trail
The Illinois that James Butler Hickok was born into in May of 1837 was one of rampant lawlessness and vigilantism characterized by an informal group of outlaw gangs calling themselves the “Banditti of the Prairie.” The Banditti arose just as Hickok was born in the mid 1830s. Illinois Governor Thomas Ford would later write that Hickok’s birth county:
Was not destitute of its organized bands of rogues engaged in murders, robberies, horse stealing, and in making and passing counterfeit money. These rogues were scattered all over the north: but the most of them were located in the counties of Ogle, Winnebago, Lee and DeKalb. In the county of Ogle they were so numerous, strong, and organized that they could not be convicted for their crimes.
This area, known as the Rock River Valley, had seen a constant stream of immigrants arriving and seeking jobs after the state’s last Indian conflict, the Black Hawk War, had ended in 1832. Black Hawk, a member of the Sauk tribe, had crossed the Mississippi from Iowa with his “British Band” of Sauks, Kickapoos, and Meskwakis. Black Hawk’s group didn’t make any overtly aggressive movements, but US officials believed he planned to resettle some tribal lands that had been ceded to the federal government in the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis. Many settlers fled to Chicago, a small town that quickly bulged with both hungry refugees afraid of being attacked by natives as well as Potawatomi tribesmen who were increasingly worried they would be mistaken for hostiles.
In the brief series of conflicts that followed, the British Band were joined by a group of Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi warriors. Local Dakota and Menominee tribesmen sided with the US and against their long time foes. In the battles of Wisconsin Heights and Bad Axe, the US soldiers handily defeated Black Hawk’s hungry, tired, and depleted troops. Black Hawk himself escaped but was captured and imprisoned within a year.
The Black Hawk War was the deciding factor in determining the federal government’s policy towards the various native tribes in years to come. It also shaped the military views of two young soldiers who were on the same side of this conflict and on opposite sides of a later one, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Davis was charged with escorting the captured Black Hawk back to Jefferson Barracks via steamboat. Lincoln was elected captain of his militia, later calling it, "a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since."
A drive through the Rock River Valley today affords views of many historical markers, commemorating pitched confrontations between the outlaw Banditti and their vigilante counterpart, the Regulators. One such marker points to the spot where “200 yards north of here, a granite boulder bears this inscription; ‘JOHN AND WILLIAM DRISCOLL were executed here June 29, 1841.’ These two men, father and son, were tried by 500 aroused citizens and then executed by a firing squad of one hundred eleven men. Doctors and scholars, ministers and deacons regarded this terrible example of lynch law as a public necessity.”
The Regulators were organized earlier that year after six Banditti outlaws who had been scheduled to stand trial escaped justice when their fellow Banditti burned down the New Oregon Courthouse on the day before the trial was scheduled. The Regulators suspected the so-called Driscoll Gang. Patriarch John Driscoll and one of his four sons, Taylor, had been convicted of arson in Ohio before emigrating to Illinois. When John Campbell rose as captain of the Regulators, John Driscoll sent him a letter offering to kill him. Campbell rejected this offer and made a counter proposal of killing Driscoll. Acting as postal service for his own letter, Campbell lead two hundred Regulators to Driscoll’s home.
It was in this atmosphere that James Butler Hickok was born on May 27, 1837. His father, a strong abolitionist, used their home in Homer, Illinois, as a station on the Underground Railroad. One of Wild Bill’s nephews, talking about the family home years later, would recall:
Grandfather built two cellars in his new home, one a false hidden cellar which was lined with hay. This was used as a station of the Underground. I lived in this house . . . and was not aware of this hidden cellar. It was brought to my attention by my father, who had me remove some boards in the living room floor and under this floor was a dry earthen room, probably six-foot square, and it was still lined with stems and traces of prairie hay.
William Alonzo Hickok died when his son was fifteen years old, leaving the younger Hickok mostly to his own devices. A fight with a sometimes friend named Charles Hudson ended in a canal, with both men believing they had murdered the other. To avoid the repercussions of the murder he assumed he had committed, James fled to Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory, where he found work as a stagecoach driver. At Leavenworth, Hickok joined the Jayhawkers, an abolitionist militant group that was willing to rob, fight, and kill to drive pro-slavery settlers out of Kansas.
In Kansas, Hickok laid claim to a 160-acre tract to farm and was elected constable in Monticello Township in 1858, his first experience as a lawman. The following year he found work with 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 an 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. 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.
Wild Bill continued to scout and was in the service of General Samuel R. Curtis during the Battle of Pea Ridge, where he was given the task of being a Union sharpshooter. From there he became a spy for the Union, detailing for the military commanders the movements of the Confederate troops in Missouri. After killing one cavalryman and two other rebels in a gunfight, he had taken the cavalryman’s horse and named her Black Nell. By the end of the war, he was employed as a member of the military police as well as a detective.
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 appointment as a deputy US marshal, he gladly accepted.
At Fort Riley, Hickok chased down and returned stolen government property, mainly horses, mules, and livestock. When General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived at the Fort headed to Omaha, a local doctor suggested that he take Hickok as a scout, as Wild Bill had proven himself as a tracker and marksman in his capacity as deputy marshal. After scouting with Sherman, he began to offer himself as a scout for civilian parties and would entertain them with stories and sharpshooting demonstrations.
When Hickok returned from one long excursion guiding a family to Fort Kearny, Hickok returned to Fort Riley to meet the commander of the new Seventh Cavalry Regiment that was then being formed, George Armstrong Custer. When Bill Cody came west after the failure of the hotel he had sought to establish in his own city of Rome, Kansas, he met Hickok again, and the older man suggested to the commanders at Fort Ellsworth (later Fort Harker) that Cody would be a good scout for the Fort.
By 1867, Hickok was in Hays City, the town that had overcome Cody’s Rome, as deputy US Marshal. His duties included apprehending horse thieves and arresting illegal timber cutters who made the mistake of harvesting wood from government land. These duties did not occupy enough of his time, however, to keep him from scouting for Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. In his book, My Life on the Plains, Custer described his former scout:
(He was) a strange character, just the one which a novelist might gloat over. He was a Plainsman in every sense of the word, yet unlike any other of his class. In person he was about six feet one in height, straight as the straightest of the warriors whose implacable foe he was; broad shoulders, well-formed chest and limbs, and a face strikingly handsome; a sharp, clear, blue eye, which stared you straight in the face when in conversation; a finely-shaped nose, inclined to be aquiline; a well-turned mouth, with lips only partially concealed by a handsome moustache. His hair and complexion were those of the perfect blond. The former was worn in uncut ringlets falling carelessly over his powerfully formed shoulders. Add to this figure a costume blending the immaculate neatness of the dandy with the extravagant taste and style of the frontiersman, and you have Wild Bill, then as now the most famous scout on the Plains. Whether on foot or on horseback, he was one of the most perfect types of physical man I ever saw. Of his courage there could be no question; it had been brought to the test on too many occasions to admit of a doubt. 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 conversation, strange to say, never bordered either on the vulgar or blasphemous. His influence among the frontiersmen was unbounded, his word was law; and many are the personal quarrels and disturbances which he has checked among his comrades by his simple announcement that ‘this has gone far enough,’ if need lie followed by the ominous warning that when persisted in or renewed the quarreller ‘must settle it with me.’ Wild Bill is anything but a quarrelsome man; yet no one but himself can enumerate the many conflicts in which he has been engaged, and which have almost invariably resulted in the death of his adversary. I have a personal knowledge of at least half a dozen men whom he has at various times killed, one of these being at the time a member of my command. Others have been severely wounded, yet he always escapes unhurt. On the Plains every man openly carries his belt with its invariable appendages, knife and revolver, often two of the latter. Wild Bill always carried two handsome ivory-handled revolvers of the large size; he was never seen without them. Where this is the common custom, brawls or personal difficulties are seldom if ever settled by blows. The quarrel is not from a word to a blow, but from a word to the revolver, and he who can draw and fire first is the best man. No civil law reaches him; none is applied for. In fact there is no law recognized beyond the frontier but that of ‘might makes right.’ Should death result from the quarrel, as it usually does, no coroner's jury is impanelled to learn the cause of death, and the survivor is not arrested. But instead of these old-fashioned proceedings, a meeting of citizens takes place, the