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Wild Bill Hickok Gunfighter
An Account of Hickok's Gunfights
By Joseph G. Rosa
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2001 Creative Publishing Company
All rights reserved.
THE MAKING OF A GUNFIGHTER
James Butler Hickok, generally called "Wild Bill," epitomized the archetypal gunfighter, that half-man, half-myth that became the heir to the mystique of the duelist when that method of resolving differences waned. Indeed, it could be argued that the catalyst for "gunfighting" was the invention of the multiple-shot pistol and the general practice of carrying the revolver as a device of self-protection. A vast number of frontiersmen carried guns mainly because they carried everything they owned on their person and in their saddlebags. Few had homes or roots. Easy access to a gun and whiskey coupled with gambling was the cause of most gunfights—few of which bore any resemblance to the gentlemanly duel of earlier times.
This book is devoted to the analysis of the gunfights of Wild Bill Hickok, the premier gunfighter, whose name comes to mind first when historians and "Wild West" fans discuss guns and gunfighting. They also note that Hickok's gunfights were unusual in that most of them were "fair" fights, not just killings resulting from rage, jealousy over a woman, or drunkenness. And, the majority of his encounters were in his role as lawman or as an individual upholding the law.
It is small wonder that Hickok, whose skill with a pistol was described by some of his contemporaries as "miraculous" and his reflexes "phenomenal," should dominate that breed of man we call gunfighters. Understandably, such adulation arousedskepticism among some of his contemporaries, and it must be admitted that Hickok, himself, a great leg-puller, contributed to those tall tales, little realizing, perhaps, that his tongue-in-cheek claim to have killed "considerably over a hundred" men might have inspired his awesome reputation as a "man-killer."
Disregarding men he may have killed during the Civil War, several hostile Indians in 1867, and combatants in publicized gunfights, Hickok's actual "tally" was considerably less than the quoted figure—a fact ignored by most border journalists and others anxious to perpetuate the myth. It was left to Hickok himself to set the record straight. Following a widely circulated report of his death early in 1873, Wild Bill declared it premature, and reacted angrily to the claim that he was a "red-handed murderer" by stating, "If you knew what a wholesome regard I have for damn liars and rascals they would be liable to keep out of my way."
Despite the myths, lies and exaggeration of many of his contemporaries, the real James Butler Hickok did lead the kind of existence that inspired his reputation as a larger than life frontiersman.
* * *
The following is a brief chronology of the life of J.B. Hickok.
1837: He was born on May 27, at Homer, La Salle County, Illinois (in later years the name was changed to Troy Grove when it was discovered that another and earlier Homer existed in the northern part of the state). Baptized James Butler Hickok after his mother's father, he was the fifth of seven children born to William Alonzo and Polly Butler Hickok, one brother died in infancy, but four boys and two girls survived. While still in his teens, young James became aware of the antislavery feeling that prevailed in Illinois, and on occasion joined his abolitionist father and some neighbors in rescuing escaped slaves from bounty hunters.
1852: William Alonzo died on May 5, and by 1856 James was anxious to head West, as had his elder brother Oliver (to California) in 1851.
1856: In June, accompanied by his brother Lorenzo, James set off for the newly created territory of Kansas where the brothers hoped to locate some prime farming land. Lorenzo soon returned to Illinois leaving James to explore the area on his own.
1858: Unsuccessful in his search for land in the Leavenworth area, James soon established himself in Monticello township in Johnson County, where, on March 22, he was one of four constables elected to serve the local magistrates. Hickok settled on some land that he hoped to purchase, but learned that a Wyandot Indian had prior claim, so he decided to see more of the West, and he hired on as a teamster for Jones and Cartwright, with whom he remained until April 1861.
1861: Late in April or sometime in May, Hickok appeared at Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory. Two months later he was involved in the so-called "Rock Creek Massacre" that was to change the whole course of his life.
1861–65: During the Civil War, James Hickok (generally called "Bill" or "William," by which names he had been known since the mid 1850's) served the Union as a wagonmaster, courier, provost marshal's detective and as a scout. It was in this latter capacity, he was to earn the name "Wild Bill" as well as the princely sum of $5 a day (soldiers were paid $13 per month!), and his reputation as a scout and spy. General John B. Sanborn, in command of the District of Southwest Missouri, headquartered at Springfield, had personally appointed him to his staff. Sanborn was to declare in later years that Hickok was the best man he had.
1865: Wild Bill remained in Springfield when the war ended. There he and his friend Davis K. Tutt, a former Confederate soldier, fell out over a card game leading to a gunfight on July 21 that neither man wanted. Charged with murder, later reduced to manslaughter, Hickok was put on trial. His plea of self-defense was accepted by the jury and he was acquitted. Late in September following an unsuccessful attempt to become city marshal of Springfield, Hickok met and was interviewed by Colonel George Ward Nichols, a distinguished former Federal officer who was a writer for Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Nichols promised to publish some of "Wild Bill's" adventures.
1866: Late in January or early February, Hickok was ordered to Fort Riley, Kansas, by his former quartermaster Richard Bentley Owen, who had recently been promoted to Assistant Post Quartermaster. On his arrival Hickok was appointed a "special detective" and paid $125 per month to "hunt up" stolen government property. In May, he was detached from Fort Riley to guide General Sherman and party to Fort Kearny, Nebraska. General John S. Pope then employed him to act as guide on a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
1867: Colonel Nichols honored his promise, and the February issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine carried an article on the exploits of "Wild Bill" which amused, amazed and in some instances infuriated people who knew Hickok intimately. We do not really know what Hickok himself thought of it; but his family recall that he was not pleased. Nevertheless, that story served to publicize "Wild Bill" both nationwide and internationally, especially in England where Harper's enjoyed a limited readership.
1867–69: During that period, Wild Bill was employed as a wagonmaster and later as a scout and courier for the Seventh and Tenth Cavalry regiments. And from August 1867 until early in 1871, he also served intermittently as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in Kansas.
1869: In August Hickok was elected acting sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas, headquartered at Hays City, where his particular method of law enforcement was welcomed. In the November election, however, his deputy, Peter Lanihan, a Democrat in a largely Democratic community won, and Hickok left office in January 1870.
1870: In March Wild Bill visited old friends in parts of Missouri then resumed his duties as a deputy U.S. Marshal. Perhaps in this capacity he went to Hays City in July where he became involved in a shoot-out with two, possibly more, Seventh Cavalry troopers, killing one and wounding the other.
1871: In early April, Hickok was persuaded to go to Abilene, then the premier shipping point for Texas cattle. On the 15th he accepted the job of marshal or Chief of Police. His predecessor, Thomas James Smith, had been murdered in November of 1870. Known as "Bear River" Tom Smith (a name he earned as a troubleshooter for the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming Territory), Smith had proved himself an excellent marshal and was much mourned.
Hickok served as marshal of Abilene for eight months and managed, with the help of several deputies, to keep the Texas cowboys under control. For their part, most of the Texans preferred to keep clear of Wild Bill for his "man-killer" reputation was well known. Rather, they preferred to face the local gamblers and prostitutes who eagerly fleeced them. By September, however, the council had decided that enough was enough, and ordered Hickok to close down many of the "houses of ill fame" and gambling "hells." By early October few of them remained open, with most of the Texans preparing to return home until the next season.
On October 5, Hickok and Phil Coe, a Texas gambler, clashed and in the ensuing gunfight Coe was fatally wounded and Hickok shot dead another man who ran between them, gun in hand. This man was Hickok's friend Mike Williams who, during the summer, had been one of the city's jailers.
An attempt upon Hickok's life late in November on a train to Topeka (he successfully foiled it) and a growing animosity toward the cattle trade, prompted the council to meet early in December. Hickok was dismissed as they had no longer any need for his services, and within three months they had also banned the cattle trade.
1872: Wild Bill left Abilene and moved to Kansas City and remained there off and on through 1875. He eked out an existence as a gambler, with occasional trips as a guide, and the master of ceremonies at a "Grand Buffalo Hunt" at Niagara Falls in August 1872.
1873: In February, it was reported that Wild Bill had been murdered by Texans, which he denied in letters to the press. Starting in September Hickok played himself on stage as a member of Buffalo Bill Cody's theatrical Combination then touring the Eastern states.
1874: By March, however, Hickok, bored with acting, returned West to Kansas City. From there he moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, but later moved back to Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri, where he continued gambling for a living.
1875–76: Wild Bill was no longer interested in law enforcement or scouting for the cavalry, but was still interested in seeing what lay over the hill. In this instance the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. It is clear from the St. Louis press that prior to his trip to Deadwood, Hickok had already spent some time in the Hills.
1876: On March 5, at Cheyenne, he married Agnes Lake Thatcher, the widow of a circus owner and herself an intrepid performer on the high wire and on horseback. It was the culmination of a five year courtship which began when she and her circus arrived at Abilene in 1871. After a brief honeymoon at St Louis and the bride's home at Cincinnati, Ohio, he left her with relatives, promising to send for her, and returned to Cheyenne.
In April, it was announced that he was organizing an expedition to visit the gold fields; but it was abandoned. Instead, he joined Colorado Charley Utter's expedition to the Black Hills. The party reached Deadwood early in July, where Hickok, by his own account, interspersed prospecting with gambling. It was during one of his gambling bouts that he met his end on August 2, shot in the back of the head by John ("Jack") McCall as he played poker in Number 10 Saloon.
* * *
In deciding what qualities or traits go toward the making of a gunfighter of Hickok's stature, the obvious ability to use a pistol is not by any means the first requirement. Indeed, any person with normal reflexes and either a natural aptitude or the ability to practice toward speed and accuracy in drawing and firing a pistol at a target could be called a "gunfighter."
But speed takes second place to the most important factor which determines whether he will outlive a gunfight—his state of mind. For without the killer instinct, courage and the cold-blooded nerve needed to face down someone who is similarly armed and desperate, even the best shots would find themselves outclassed. Taking one's time to blast away at a paper target with deadly accuracy is fine; but to display such cool and collected deadliness when the target is shooting back with intent to kill, is something else.
In my privileged position as a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal, I was able to talk to a number of professional marshals, and learn something of their attitude toward gunfights and gunfighters. None of them had much time for "fast draw" fanatics. Few of them, the marshals said, had ever been in a kill or be killed situation or experienced the impact of a bullet slamming into bone or vital organs, or suffered the after shock. Thus blinkered, they assume that speed is the essence in a gunfight rather than an integral part of ones reaction in a life or death confrontation. The marshals were also anxious to stress that in today's world, legal restraint and a logical assessment of the situation was essential before anyone thought of drawing a pistol. They pointed out the wide gulf between how old-time peace officers reacted and the modern approach. Old-timers' reactions depended a lot on circumstances and a reliance upon experience.
For many of them a positive reaction to someone who refused to disarm or was determined to kill, was usually backed by local ordinances or state laws. Today, however, law enforcement officers, U.S. Marshals and others, are bound by certain "procedures" that have to be followed even when faced by a potentially life-threatening situation. Sometimes this gives the "bad guys" an edge, but there are also occasions when coldblooded courage rather than a justified trigger reaction can save lives. One deputy marshal, faced by a 16 year-old youth, high on drugs and armed with a .357 Magnum revolver, could justifiably have shot him when he refused to disarm. But he hesitated when both realized that they knew each other. The youngster allowed the marshal to get close and to talk to him. The marshal's description of how they stood face-to-face, the revolver only inches from his stomach, as he distracted him long enough to slide his hand along the barrel and jam it under the hammer just as he pulled the trigger, was chilling. Seeing the look on my face, he grinned and said: "Sure, I was terrified, but I could not let him see that. My hand hurt like hell afterwards, but I was more concerned about a change of underwear!"
Back in the Old West, those who assume that the more men he killed, the greater a man's status as a "gunfighter" are mistaken. Real or imaginary "notches" on the butt of a six-shooter proved nothing. What really counted was a man's actions when the chips were down and his reason for killing another person. Wild Bill's authenticated "tally" is less than ten, whereas John Wesley Hardin's (if we believe his claims) is closer to forty—but how many of those killings were fair fights or ambushes only he would know. For when one examines available information about his killings, one is left with the impression that Mr. Hardin was more homicidal than humanitarian in his dealings with his fellow man. Hickok on the other hand, while admitting that he had killed a number of men (and ignoring his leg-pulling), was concerned about his press-inspired reputation as a "red-handed murderer." His deep regret over the killing of Mike Williams and his decision to pay for his funeral show a sense of compassion that is not normally expected of a "gunfighter."
This human side of Hickok surprised people who met him face-to-face and knew him only by reputation. In place of the "blustering bully" they found him to be a pleasant, soft-spoken, courteous and worldly individual, whose generosity to others was a byword. This trait impressed John S. Park, who later became a deputy U. S. Marshal at Hays City. In the Lawrence, Kansas State Journal of March 5, 1868, he described some of the men who had achieved fame or infamy on the frontier. Hickok he said was just the sort of man who would be expected to perform many of the "daring deeds" attributed to him for which he had won the gratitude and admiration of military commanders under whom he had worked.
Noting that Hickok was regarded in some quarters as a "desperado" Park declared: "I found the report false. I was introduced to him, and received with a hearty shake of the hand, such as does the heart good; none of your touching of two fingers, or gentle pressure of thumb and finger, but a grasping of the whole hand, a regular squeeze, and good, old-fashioned western shake of the arm. Quiet and gentlemanly in his conduct, and appearance; he is well respected by all who are really acquainted with him. While he still possesses the nerve to perform those same deeds again, if required, and the muscle to back him up, he is not quarrelsome as has been represented, but as far as I can learn, peaceably inclined, A true friend to his friends, but a bold enemy to his enemies."
Excerpted from Wild Bill Hickok Gunfighter by Joseph G. Rosa. Copyright © 2001 Creative Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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