American Legend Wild Bill Hickok was an honorable man who was a war hero, scout, gambler, and lawman who spend most of his life protecting others from crime and injustice.
James Butler Hickok was born on May 27th in the year 1837 in Homer, Illinois. He learned his sense of fair-play and justice from his father who allowed runaway slaves to hide on his farm and the Hickok farm became one of the stops on the Underground Railroad which was a network of safe houses to help escaped slaves.
James became proficient with the use of firearms and he learned to be a crack shot by helping his father to ward off slave hunters, who were essentially bounty hunters hired by slave owners to retrieve their missing property.
Hickok Joins The Red Legs and Meets Buffalo Bill
At the age of eighteen, James left home for the Kansas Territory after a fight in which he believed he had killed a man. He joined General Jim Lane’s “Red Legs” who were a vigilante group whose purpose was to abolish slavery in the south and they had many deadly clashes with pro-slavery militia.
It was during his service with the Kansas abolitionists that he made the acquaintance of a twelve year old scout that would be a life-long friend and who would also become a legend of the old west himself . The man of whom I refer to is William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Both Cody and Hickok were later scouts together during the Civil War and would continue their friendship for decades.
The Civil War Years
By the time the Civil War broke out James had earned his nickname ‘Wild Bill” through his duck billed shaped nose and wild nature. He served as a scout and became renowned for his skills at tracking and his remarkable marksmanship. He became acquainted with George Armstrong Custer while serving for a time with Custer’s 7th Calvary.
Custer proclaimed Hickok had no equal in skill with pistol or rifle and that his scouting abilities and strength of character set him apart from other men. Hickok forever would favor his military colt revolvers and although many pistol fighters favored other brands, his weapon of choice was Colt.
Buffalo Hunting and Town-Taming
After the war ended Hickok joined his friends Robert Denbow and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody in Buffalo hunting across the western plains. This was a sad time in American history when over-hunting nearly forced the great American Bison into extinction.
Wild Bill had dabbled at several roles as Constable in the past and served as sheriff in Hays Kansas in 1870 for a short period of time. He never stayed in one place for very long and was involved in his first famous and confirmed gunfight fatality in Springfield, Missouri on July of 1865 when he killed fellow gambler Davis Tutt Jr. over a gambling dispute.
He had been one of the prime suspects in the deaths of three men in an 1861 dispute involving his employer and the former owner of the property being used as a freight company depot. It’s unclear who fired the fatal shots and Hickok and all the parties involved were cleared of all charges on the basis of self defense.
Wild Bill served in the capacity as a lawman many times and although reputed to have killed 100’s of men in quick-draw gunfights, the believed and estimated number is probably closer to six or seven, although that’s not counting his war years.
Newspapers such as “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” and “The St. Lewis Weekly” sensationalized the exploits and reputation of Wild Bill by publishing exaggerated body counts and fictionalizing many parts of his life to entertain the multitudes with exciting stories of the west.
Wild Bills Career as a Lawman Ends
Wild Bill Hickok became a legend in his own time and spend much of the last part of his life gambling and moving from place to place. One of the few regrets he had was his accidental shooting of friend and fellow lawman Mike Williams in 1871 during a gunfight with Texas ruffians.
That incident ended his career in law enforcement and later he developed eye problems and was diagnosed with glaucoma in 1876. In August of that same year in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory the extraordinary life and times of one of the American west’s most recognizable hero’s would come to a tragic end.
While playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood, while holding a hand of two aces and two eights, a hand that would forever be known in poker as the “Dead Man’s Hand.” A craven coward named Jack McCall shot Hickok in the back of the head. McCall’s eventual reward for his callous deeds was a stretched neck at the end of a stout rope. Wild Bill Hickok was dead at the age of thirty-nine.