James Butler Hickok

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James Butler Hickok

James Butler Hickok (1837-1876), American gun-fighter, scout, and spy, brought law to the untamed West. In his lifetime he became the symbolic western hero.

James Hickok was born on May 27, 1837, in Troy Grove, III. The Hickok family was abolitionist and evidently schooled him in the "genteel tradition." In 1855 he left home for Kansas. He filed land claims in Johnson County and apparently wanted to become a farmer.

By 1858, after serving briefly as constable, Hickok was working for the famous express company Russell, Majors and Waddell. Early in 1861 the firm stationed him at their Rock Creek, Nebr., station as assistant stock tender. There Hickok and fellow employees killed David McCanles and his two companions, who had come—unarmed—to collect the delinquent payments on the Rock Creek station land. Tried for murder, Hickok and the express company workers pleaded self-defense and were acquitted.

During the Civil War, Hickok served the Union forces creditably as wagon master, scout, and spy. Just after the war, while gambling, Hickok killed David Tutt, a former Confederate, in the prototype setting for later stories and movies—an iron-nerved shoot-out in the public square of Springfield, Mo. Tried for murder, he was again acquitted. Shortly afterward an inflated story about Hickok was published in Harper's Magazine, and from this grew the legend of "Wild Bill, " the western hero.

Early in 1866, as deputy U.S. marshal at Fort Riley, Kans., Wild Bill was told to establish order. Conditions were close to chaos, with growing enmity between emigrant train scouts and discontented soldiers. Hickok quieted the fort. When the ordinarily reticent and soft-spoken marshal shouted, "This has gone far enough, " it usually intimidated even the most unruly. If not, his fist or pistol barrel reinforced his voice. Later he rounded up deserters, horse thieves, and illegal timber cutters. He also gambled and drank.

In late 1869 Hickok became sheriff of Hays City, Kans., where drinking, gambling, and prostitution often led to violence. In 4 months as sheriff there Hickok helped establish law and order, although in doing so he killed two men. The lawless element understandably resented Hickok, and several attempts were made on his life. Thus he developed a habit of standing or sitting with his back to a wall.

Hickok appeared briefly in a Wild West show before becoming city marshal of Abilene, Kans., in 1871. Abilene was a railhead, and many cowboys ended their trail drives with pistol shots and uninhibited drinking. Once again Hickok used weapons and threats to keep order. In October one man was killed by Hickok's bullet during a group "spree." A policeman was also killed by running into the cross fire. Citizens supported Hickok's actions, but he was discharged in December.

Hickok was about 6 feet tall, with a good physique and pale blue eyes. He often wore fancy shirts, a red vest, the latest design in trousers, and a flat, wide-brimmed hat. Many thought him handsome, and women found him attractive. In manner he reflected the genteel tradition of quiet courtesy.

During 1872 and 1873 Wild Bill drifted around Kansas and Missouri gambling. Once he wrote to a St. Louis newspaper denying he had been killed by some Texans. He next appeared in Cheyenne and stayed nearby during 1874 and 1875. Here Wild Bill probably met "Calamity Jane" Cannary. He married a widowed circus owner in Cheyenne in 1876. He also gambled considerably and was several times dubbed a vagrant and ordered out of town.

Hickok left Cheyenne for the Black Hills soon after his marriage, arriving at Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in July with "Colorado Charlie" Utter and Calamity Jane. He looked briefly for a mining claim and gambled in various saloons. On Aug. 2, 1876, while playing cards, he was shot in the back of the head; Hickok had forgotten to keep his back to the wall. His hand—two aces, two eights, and a jack—became known as the "dead man's hand."

Further Reading

Frank J. Wilstach, Wild Bill Hickok: The Prince of Pistoleers (1926), is interesting and fairly accurate. Well researched and factually correct is Joseph G. Rosa, They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok (1964). Another reliable work is William Elsey Connelley, Wild Bill and His Era (1933). A useful biography is Richard O'Connor, Wild Bill Hickok (1959). Kent Ladd Steckmesser, The Western Hero in History and Legend (1965), is a study of the folklore that created myths about the West and its rugged heroes. □

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