The Wild West of Yester-Year

Wild Bill Hickock

By Rachel Kovaciny


When I was a kid, I used to get Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody confused. My dad liked to throw real Wild West figures from history into our games of posse-and-robbers, including them. I found their colorful names fascinating, but I could never remember which Bill was which. Eventually, I read junior biographies of them both, and then I could tell them apart because Buffalo Bill Cody was a buffalo hunter, and his name made sense to me. But I always wondered, why was Wild Bill Hickok not only called “Wild,” but also called “Bill” when his actual name was James Butler Hickok?


It turns out that, like so much about his legendary life, even Wild Bill Hickok’s name is more a matter of legend than of fact.


In reality, James Hickok was born to abolitionist parents in Illinois in 1837. Reportedly, the Hickok home was a station for the Underground Railroad when he was a child. An excellent shot even as a child, Hickok was renowned locally for his marksmanship with a pistol. At eighteen, James got into a fight with another young man that ended when they fell into a canal. Each of them thought they had killed the other one, and they both fled Illinois. Hickok ended up in Kansas Territory. While riding with the Jayhawkers, an antislavery vigilante group, Hickock saved a twelve-year-old wagon driver named William Cody from a beating. The two struck up a friendship despite the difference in their ages. William Cody would become that other famous “Bill” from our posse-and-robbers games: Buffalo Bill Cody. They remained friends throughout the rest of their lives. 


While living in Kansas, James Hickok began using his father’s name of William instead, possibly to remember his father, who had died when James Hickok was fifteen. In 1860, a bear attacked him while he was driving a freight wagon along the Santa Fe Trail and severely injured Hickok. He spent four months in bed recovering, then worked as a stable hand in Nebraska Territory for a way station. While there, Hickok was involved in a shooting with a disgruntled employee. This is the first instance on record of Hickok being involved in a gunfight.


Hickok joined the Union Army during the American Civil War, and his last name was sometimes spelled Haycock or Hitchcock instead. These name discrepancies have made it difficult for biographers to sort out the facts of Hickok’s life from the many legends that sprang up around him (or were started by him). Later accounts refer to him as Wild Bill during the Civil War, but there is no clear evidence for exactly when or why he earned the nickname.

The first recorded instance of a quick-draw duel, the sort we see between gunfighters in movies, occurred between Wild Bill Hickok and a gambler named Davis Tutt in Springfield, MO, on July 21, 1865. A disagreement over a pocket watch lost in a poker game led to the two men facing off in the middle of the street. Tutt fired a single shot, but died from Hickok’s bullet to his heart.


   They arrested Bill Hickok for the murder of Davis Tutt, but the jury acquitted him. After the trial, newspaperman George Ward Nichols interviewed him about the incident for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. That interview calls Hickok “Wild Bill,” which is the first definite record of the nickname. It’s full of inaccuracies and exaggerations, including the claim that Hickok had faced down hundreds of other men in duels. This seems to have been the beginning of the mystical legend that grew up around Hickok during his lifetime.


Over the next few years, Hickok served as a scout for General Custer with the Seventh Cavalry, a deputy U. S. Marshal, and a scout for the Tenth Cavalry, which was a segregated African-American regiment of “Buffalo Soldiers.” In 1869, he got elected as both the city marshal of Hays City and the sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas. During his first month in office, he killed two men in the line of duty, and was involved in other shootings during the next few months. With every new job, the stories about Hickok grew taller and wilder.


Hickok found work as a marshal for Abilene, a notoriously rough cow town. He was a successful and popular lawman there until a tragic altercation, when Hickok accidentally shot and killed his deputy. Hickok never involved himself in another gunfight after that, and the accidental killing haunted him for the rest of his life.


Wild Bill soon left Abilene and tried his hand at running a Wild West show like his longtime friend Buffalo Bill Cody. When Hickok’s show folded, Cody offered him a spot in his, but Hickok hated acting and would sometimes hide behind scenery or refuse to come onstage at all. It’s no surprise he left Cody’s show after a few months. In1876, Bill Hickok married Agnes Lake, a widow who owned and managed a traveling circus. Only a few months later, Hickok left to seek gold in Dakota Territory. There, at a poker table in the boom town of Deadwood, Wild Bill Hickok met his legendary end.


On August 2, a man named Jack McCall entered the saloon seeking revenge. McCall had lost a great deal of money to Hickok in a poker game the previous day. He walked up to Hickok and shot him through the back of the head without warning. Almost the entire town of Deadwood attended Bill Hickok’s funeral. His legend grew larger and larger with every passing year, first thanks to all the dime novels published about him during and after his life, and then all the movies made about him.


The actor best known for Wild Bill Hickok is Guy Madison, who starred on the TV show Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which cemented Hickok in the imaginations of Americans as a heroic lawman. My dad loved that show as a boy, and it’s undoubtedly the reason he dragged Wild Bill Hickok into our games when I was a kid. Which means it’s also the reason I spent all this time researching Hickok’s nickname and writing this article! ♦