For a time, he was known as “Duck Bill” because of his sweeping nose and protruding upper lip (covered with a mustache later in life). He was also nicknamed “Wild Bill” for his daring fighting in the Union army during the Civil War, which included service as a spy, a scout, and a sharpshooter.
James Butler Hickok was born May 27, 1837 at Homer (now Troy Grove), Illinois. His family emigrated from England in 1635 to Massachusetts, where his great-grandfather responded to the British march on Lexington and Concord at the beginning of the American Revolution.
Hickok’s father moved his family from Vermont to Maine to Illinois. There the family’s small farm served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. (Britannica)
William A Hickok, father of “Wild Bill,” constructed a hidden trap door in the floor of his house that led to a secret room between the first floor and the cellar. Runaway slaves would hide in this secret room before continuing on to Canada and freedom.
William Hickok and other residents of Troy Grove would hide the runaway slaves during the day, but then at night, cover the slaves with hay in the bottom of William Hickok’s wagon and travel under the cover of darkness to the next Underground Railroad station. (LaSalle County Historical Society Museum)
Hickok left home at age 17 and worked as a canal boat pilot in Utica, Illinois, before heading west in 1856 to Bleeding Kansas, which was embroiled in a violent conflict over whether slavery should be permitted there.
During this period Hickok prevented a man from beating an 11-year-old boy, who grew up to become Buffalo Bill Cody, Hickok’s longtime friend. (Britannica)
Buffalo Bill later wrote in his memoirs that he first met Wild Bill when Hickok saved him from a serious beating by an irate teamster while they were all working for a freighting company.
Cody had recently been hired as an “extra”, the term generally used at that time for a young boy too small to drive the teams or load freight, but who was able to perform various camp duties for the crew as an extra hand. When the teamster chose to pick on Cody, Hickok intervened. (Center of the West)
Hickok later joined the antislavery Free State Army of Jayhawkers and, having already become skilled with a gun as a youth, served as a bodyguard for Union General James H Lanes.
Hickok’s growing reputation for fairness and courage earned him, in 1858, a position as a constable in Monticello, Kansas. Later that year he became a teamster with the great freighting enterprise Russell, Majors and Waddell, creators of the Pony Express, for which he was too tall and heavy to be a rider.
It was at this time that Hickok came across a bear blocking a road, an encounter that would become part of the lore surrounding him: Hickok shot the bear, which only angered it, and a struggle ensued, during which Hickok used a knife to slit the bear’s throat, but not before he was nearly crushed to death.
Hickok was bedridden for months before he went to southern Nebraska in the summer of 1861 to work at the Pony Express station at Rock Creek. (Britannica)
There are many versions of the shootout that occurred at Rock Creek on July 12, 1861, shortly after the start of the Civil War, and all, in one way or another, contributed to Hickok’s legend.
David McCanles acted as the Pony Express’s Rock Creek station manager and had reputedly ridiculed Hickok during his convalescence from his injuries.
The first major description of the incident appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in February 1867. In quick succession, Hickok was said to have then killed five members of McCanles’s gang and knocked out another before three more gang members threw him down on a bed, only to be bested in hand-to-hand combat by the knife-wielding Hickok.
Later historians, however, have presented a radically different portrayal of the events at Rock Creek. Hickok was charged with murder but found not guilty.
After the fact, there was much speculation as to whether romantic rivalry had had a role in the incident: Hickok was apparently involved with a woman who had also been involved with the married McCanles. (Britannica)
On July 21, 1865, in a shootout in Springfield, Missouri, he killed David Tutt, a skillful gunfighter who had been flaunting the watch he won from Hickok in a poker game.
Hickok was arrested for murder, tried, and acquitted. This incident added to his fame as a gunslinger, which skyrocketed when journalist and later explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley reported as fact in the New York Herald in 1867 Hickok’s exaggerated claim that he had killed 100 men. (Britannia)
Hickok was a favorite of George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Libbie, who described him “as a delight to look upon.” Hickok’s physical appearance was by many accounts arresting.
One account of him, written in the late 1860s, described Hickok as “six feet tall, lithe, active, sinewy, [a] daring rider, [a] dead shot with pistol and rifle, [with] long locks, fine features and mustache, buckskin leggings, red shirt, broad-brim hat, twin pistols in belt, rifle in hand.”
Despite his rough-and-ready ways, Hickok was also said to have been genteel and courteous and to have enjoyed dressing with panache in the latest styles of the day.
In 1869 Hickok became sheriff of Hays City, Kansas, where he killed several men in shootouts. In 1871 he took over as the marshal of the tough cow town of Abilene, Kansas. There, again, he killed several men, including his deputy marshal, whose death – the result of an accidental shooting – led to Hickok’s dismissal.
Hickok tried acting in Wild West shows, which were growing in popularity. His own show, The Daring Buffalo Chase of the Plains, did not fare well, but in 1873 he joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s The Scouts of the Prairie, which was based in Rochester, New York.
Although the show brought Hickok some much-needed income, he was unhappy, began drinking heavily, and returned to the West in March 1874.
In 1876 in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, Hickok married Agnes Lake Thatcher, a former circus performer. A month or so later, he left their honeymoon in Cincinnati for the goldfields of the Black Hills in the Dakota Territory, where he hoped to make enough money to send for her.
He traveled west to Deadwood, South Dakota, in a wagon train that included Martha Jane Cannary (“Calamity Jane”), who later claimed she had secretly married him.
Deadwood was overrun with miners, gunmen, and gamblers when Hickok became a peace officer there in July 1876, relying as much on his reputation as on his diminishing gun skills, which were compromised by failing eyesight.
Throughout his lifetime, Hickok would work as a wagon-master for the Union Army during the Civil War, serve as a sheriff and city marshal, and kill at least six men in gunfights.
Hickok is widely regarded as the greatest gunfighter who ever lived, is the winner of the first recorded quick-draw duel, and was posthumously inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979. (Denver Library)
On August 2, 1876, during a poker game in a saloon that found him with his back uncharacteristically to the door, Hickok was shot in the back of his head by Jack McCall, who may have been hired to kill him. (Initially acquitted, McCall was retried in Laramie, Wyoming Territory, found guilty, and hanged on March 1, 1877.) (Britannica)
The cards Hickok had been holding when he was shot and killed – a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights plus an unknown fifth card – became known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.”