James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok - Lawman
James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok 1837-1876
Wild Bill was born in Troy Grove, Illinois. His father William Alonzo established the first general store there, then turned to farming. His mother Polly lived there after the father was killed.
The incident at Rock Creek Station, Nebraska was what began his legend. The station was an important stop for overland stages and as Pony Express station. It had been owned by David McCanles before he sold it to Russell, Waddell, and Majors, of the Pony Express. After that, the station was operated by Horace Wellman and his common-law wife, Wild Bill, a stock tender, and J.W. "Dock," Brink, a stable hand. That summer the station was almost bankrupt and could not pay McCanles. Wild Bill had just arrived when an altercation took pl ace. It happened on July 12, 1861.
McCanles, cousin James wood, and hand James Gordon showed up at the station to collect money owed him. After a short argument, Wild Bill shot and killed McCanles from inside the house. He also wounded Woods and Gordon. Wellman finished Woods off by beating him with a hoe. They both ran after Gordon and killed him with a shotgun blast. A trial was held but it was a farce. 12 year old Monroe McCanles, who witnessed the shootings, was not allowed to testify, nor was he even allowed in the court room. Wild Bill and Wellman were allowed to put forth a defense of self-defense. Since they were employees of the Overland Stage Company, the most powerful corporation west of the Mississippi, they had a lot of friends.
Four years later, writer Colonel George Ward Nichols wrote about the event, and he didn't much care if he got the details right. Wild Bill didn't seem to care either. This was the start of his gunfighter legend. Nichols wrote that there was a "McCanles gang" of terrorists. He write that Wild Bill held off and killed ten men, in a bloody one-sided fight. He also said Wild Bill was gravely wounded himself and later had eleven bullets removed. None of it was true, but it made Wild Bill's reputation.
In August 1861, Wild Bill enlisted as a civilian scout at Fort Leavenworth. He fought in the Battle of Wilson's Creek in August, 1861, where Union General Nathaniel Lyon was killed and his troops slaughtered. In the fall, he worked as a wagon master at Sedalia, Kansas. In 1864, he was employed as a scout. In 1865, he went on a spying mission for the Union.
From there, he went on to Springfield, Missouri, where he killed his next man. On July 21, 1865, he shot and killed Davis K. (Dave) Tutt, an Arkansas gambler, in a street shootout. Again he was arrested and again he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
From 1867 to 1869 he was a deputy U.S. Marshall at Fort Riley and an army scout. His duties included recovering stolen government property, mostly livestock, arresting thieves, returning deserters to the army, escorting prisoners to Topeka. Buffalo Bill Cody worked with him. In 1867, Wild Bill and other scouts led Custer's 7th Cavalry and other units on the war path against the hostile Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho, who had been harassing the Overland Stage. Writers also exaggerated this story, contributing to Wild Bill's legend. Wild Bill contributed to his own legend by purposely telling lies that nobody questioned. The writers were too willing to believe because they liked the wild west image.
In 1868, he was scouting for the 10th Cavalry when he was attacked by a Cheyenne war party. He returned home to Troy Hills to recuperate from a nasty thigh wound. He was 32 at the time. After that he guided the Wilson party for a five week tour of the plains. Senator Wilson gave him $500 and a pair of ivory handled Colts that Wild Bill always wore from then on.
In August 1869, he was appointed sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas. He killed two men there, both seeking to enhance their own reputations by killing Wild Bill. Wild Bill was soon voted out of office.
In April 1871 he was appointed marshal of Abilene. He did not hesitate to use his knife and guns to keep the peace. He had confrontations with bad guys Ben Thompson and John Wesley Hardin. After leaving there, he drifted for awhile making a living as a gambler or a lawman. For a year he played for Buffalo Bill's "Scout of the Plains" show, but hated acting. He also guided Englishmen on hunting trips in the west.
While in Cheyenne, he married Agnes Lake Thatcher, owner of a circus, in 1876. They honeymooned in Cincinnati. From there he went on to Deadwood, South Dakota in the summer of 1876.
It was a gold rush boom town then. There were 25,000 people, one of which was Calamity Jane. On August 2, 1876, Wild Bill sat down for a poker game at Nuttall & Mann's No. 10 saloon. At the table were Carl Mann, owner of the saloon, Captain William R. Massic, a former Missouri River pilot, and Charles Rich, a gambler, gunman, and friend of Wild Bill's. For the first time, he was sitting with his back to the door instead of to a wall. Jack McCall, a 25 year old drifter, shot Wild Bill in the back of the head, to enhance his own reputation. At the time he died, Wild Bill was holding two black aces, two black eights, and the jack of diamonds, now forever called "the deadman's hand."
McCall was tried the next day, but acquired. His defense was that he was getting revenge for his brother, who Wild Bill had supposedly killed in Kansas. He was later tried again, his first trial being declared illegal since it took place in Indian territory. He was convicted and hung on March 1, 1877.
Wild Bill was buried at Deadwood. His Sharps rifle was buried with him.
Copyright 2000 by Beth Gibson