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Wild Bill Hickok: A Gunslinging Legend of the Wild West

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Born almost 2 centuries ago, Wild Bill Hickok is still remembered as a great lawman and a feared gunslinger, sometimes with either foot firmly planted on opposite sides of the law. Pine Bluff even served as the setting for some of his colorful exploits.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

James Butler Hickok was born on May 2, 1837, to William Alonzo Hickok and Polly Butler in Homer, Illinois (now Troy Grove, Illinois). He was the fourth of their six children. The family’s small farm served as a stop on the Underground Railroad until William died in 1852 when James was only fifteen. At seventeen, Hickok left home and headed west to Bleeding, Kansas. There he followed in his father's footsteps, fighting against slavery by using his skill as a marksman to join the antislavery Free State Army (also known as the Jayhawkers). In the Free State Army, he served as a bodyguard to General James H. Lanes. During this time, Hickok saved an 11-year-old boy named William Cody, who went on to become showman Buffalo Bill Cody, from a beating. The two would become lifelong friends.

Hickok’s good reputation preceded him, and in 1858 he became one of the first constables elected in Monticello, Kansas. Later that year, he joined the Russell, Majors, and Waddell freight company which later became the Pony Express, an express mail service that used relays of horse-mounted riders to transport mail back and forth between Missouri and California. While driving the freight team from Missouri to New Mexico, Hickok wrestled and killed a black bear. The encounter left him bedridden for the next few months. After recovering, he moved to Rock Creek, Nebraska to work at the Pony Express. In Rock Creek, the owners of the Pony Express had set up a stagecoach station on land purchased on credit from David McCanles.

On July 12, 1861, McCanles, his 12-year-old son Monroe, his cousin James Woods, and his employee James Gordon, went to the Rock Creek station to collect the overdue property payments from the station manager, Horace Wellman. Wellman, his wife, J.W. “Doc” Brink, and Hickok were present at the station when McCanles and his people arrived demanding payment and brandishing a shotgun. Wellman not only didn’t have the payment, but he also refused to turn the property back over to McCanles. This angered McCanles, who entered the station and was shot from behind the curtain by either Wellman or Hickok. In the skirmish that ensued, Hickok shot Woods, who was then killed with a hoe by Mrs. Wellman. Hickok wounded Gordon as he fled, and Brink killed him. Hickok and Brink were charged with murder but found not guilty by the jury who deemed the murders self-defense. Even so, Hickok visited McCanles' widow, apologized for killing her husband, and offered her $35 in restitution. There are many different accounts of this encounter, but an article written in the Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in February 1867 by Colonel George Ward Nichols would cement the public's opinion of Hickok as a legendary gunfighter. There were even dime novels written about him.

It wasn’t until the Civil War that Hickok became known as Wild Bill for his daring exploits as a spy, a scout, and a sharpshooter for the Union Army. He served under General Samuel R. Curtis, who made great use of Hickok’s talents at securing sensitive military information from the Confederate Army. Hickok was so skilled at disguising his appearance and gaining the confidence of important enemy generals that on numerous occasions he assumed fake names and changed his appearance to join the Confederate Army. On one such occasion biographer, Frank Wilstach, wrote that Hickok made his way through Pine Bluff, Arkansas to gain information about the plans of Confederate Generals Price and Van Dorn, who had laid waste to much of Missouri and were threatening to take over the Kansas Territory. Hickok posed as a backwoods country hick marching into Pine Bluff to join the Confederate Army. Not long after he convinced officials that he was serious, his cover was blown as someone recognized him. Consequently, he was placed under armed guard and sentenced to death, but escaped a day before his execution due to good fortune.

After the war, Hickok continued his adventures, sometimes landing on the wrong side of the law. On July 21, 1865, he killed David Tutt in a gunfight over a watch Tutt won from him in a poker game. Hickok was again arrested for murder and acquitted as the killing was ruled an act of self-defense. This incident only added to his fame as a gunslinger, especially after a journalist, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, wrote in the New York Herald, that Hickok had estimated the number of men he had killed at approximately 100. In 1871, while serving as the town’s sheriff in Abilene, Hickok got into a shootout where he killed several men. In the shootout, he accidentally killed his deputy and was dismissed from his post as the town’s sheriff. Hickok was haunted by this accident for the rest of his life. Subsequently, he took a break from law enforcement and tried acting in Wild West shows. He even joined his old friend Buffalo Bill Cody’s show The Scouts of the Prairie, but he hated it and began drinking heavily as a result. He returned to the comfort of the West in 1874.

In 1876, he married Agnes Lake Thatcher, a former circus performer, in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, and honeymooned with her in Cincinnati. After just two months, though, he left for the goldfields of the Black Hills in the Dakota Territory. Hickok moved to Deadwood, Dakota where he hoped to make enough money to send for Agnes. In Deadwood, Hickok became a peace officer even though his gun skills were diminishing due to a glaucoma diagnosis earlier that year.

On August 2, 1876, Hickok was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall during a poker game at a local saloon. At his death, Hickok was holding a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights plus an unknown fifth card which became known as the Dead Man’s Hand. McCall was initially tried and acquitted of murder after claiming he was avenging his brother whom he believed Hickok killed in Abilene. Later though, McCall was retried, found guilty, and hung after bragging about murdering Hickok.

Hickok is now buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Illinois. His birthplace is now the Wild Bill Hickok Memorial and is a listed historic site by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The town of Deadwood, South Dakota, re-enacts Hickok's murder and McCall's capture every summer evening. Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979, and several movies and television shows have been made depicting his life.

Jenners, Frank. (1926). Wild Bill Hickok: The Plainsman. Garden City Publishing Company.

Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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