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  • Matthew Kerns

William the Wild

182 years ago, on May 27, 1837, James Butler Hickok was born in Homer, Illinois. When he met Texas Jack Omohundro in Hays City, Kansas in 1868 or so, the men couldn't have been more seemingly different. Hickok was a former Union spy, while Omohundro had provided the same service for the Confederacy. Hickok was a lawman, charged with keeping the peace in an unruly cowtown, while Omohundro was one of the cowboys at the end of the trail who so often disturbed that peace. Hickok's father had been an abolitionist in Illinois, while Omohundro's father owned a plantation with as many as twenty-five slaves before the Civil War. Hickok had fought for some of the generals that Omohundro had fought against.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok

And yet, according to Hickok's friend and fellow scout California Joe Milner, soon after meeting in Hays, the two men became fast friends, with Hickok calling his new friend "Happy Jack," in reference to his ever-present smile and jovial attitude. Hickok was ten years older than the younger man, and already a frontier celebrity because of a piece about him featured in Harper's magazine and penned by George Ward Nichols. The story had made Hickok famous, and painted a target on his back. Anyone wanting to prove that they were the toughest man or the fastest shot had to prove it by facing down Wild Bill, and though he never failed to face each challenge, the stress of having to constantly watch his back and look for a threat in every dark corner or shadowed doorway wore on Hickok.

Wild Bill Hickok

The advice that Hickok gave to his new friend proved to be life changing. Jack had confided in Wild Bill that he was being offered a chance to lead several thousand head of Texas cattle north on the first drive into Nebraska to provide the army with their own stock and to sell to would-be ranchers on the Nebraska frontier. Hickok told Jack that he should take the opportunity, and while he was in Nebraska, to look for another one of Hickok's friends, the hunter and Army scout William F. Cody, soon to be known as Buffalo Bill.


Left to Right: Wild Bill Hickok, Texas Jack Omohundro, Buffalo Bill Cody

It was only natural that when Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill took to the stage, they should remember their old friend. Having ended a successful season with Ned Buntline, the pair went on a long hunt with Hickok, convincing him to head east with them for a season and make some real money. Hickok never really warmed to the idea of playacting, and seems to have viewed the whole thing as a farce...but he was glad to be with his friends Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, and they were glad to have the older scout with them, both as a friend and as a considerable draw.


Left to right: Elisha Green, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, John B. "Texas Jack" Omohundro, and Eugene Overton.

Hickok was with the production "The Scouts of the Plains" for only one season, and even that was full of drama, both on and off stage. Wild Bill lived up to his sobriquet on stage, occasionally firing his weapons at the legs of extras dressed as Indians, singing them with the gunpowder used to fire blanks. He was asked to stop by his partners, who both knew that the show was no good without the stage Indians who now threatened to quit, and Hickok would promise to refrain only to inevitably grow bored and do the same thing a few shows later. And yet when Wild Bill eventually grew bored of life on the stage and tired of feuding with Bill Cody and Jack Omohundro about proper stage etiquette, the men parted as friends. Before Hickok stepped on a train in Rochester after his last show with his friends, the pair handed him $1000 and a matched pair of Smith & Wesson revolvers.


A broadside advertisement for The Scouts of the Plains, starring Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, Wild Bill, and the Peerless Morlacchi.

Only three short years later, Wild Bill Hickok met his end at the hands of assassin Jack McCall as he played poker at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. He was 39 years old. And yet despite the prominence of other western men, including his friends Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, fellow lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and shootists and gamblers like Doc Holliday and John Wesley Hardin, no shadow looms over the popular perception of the Wild West like that of Wild Bill Hickok.

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