They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok

They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok

by Joseph G. Rosa



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806112176
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 01/01/1974
Pages: 377

About the Author

Joseph G. Rosa, (1932–2015), is the author of the definitive biography of Wild Bill Hickok, They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok, as well as The Gunfighter: Man or Myth? And (with Waldo E. Koop) Rowdy Joe Lowe: Gambler with a Gun, all published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Read an Excerpt

They Called Him Wild Bill

The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok

By Joseph G. Rosa


Copyright © 1974 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8862-1


The Boy and the Man

He was born in Homer, La Salle County, Illinois, on May 27, 1837, and baptized James Butler Hickok after his mother's father. His first home was a small frame house in a remote frontier village, but for all this he came from sterling stock. It was believed originally that his ancestors came from Ireland, but probably they were descended from the Hiccox family of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. The family name of Hiccox, Hiccocks, Hitchcock, and other variant spellings was common in the Stratford area during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some members of the Hiccox family were tenants of William Shakespeare, for it is recorded that Thomas and Lewis Hiccox farmed on 107 acres of land in Old Stratford bought by William Shakespeare from a John Combe in 1602.

An illustration of a coat of arms in the possession of the Hickok family which bears the name Hiccox has been traced to an "Edward Hiccox, Esq.," of Stratford, but research at the College of Arms in London has revealed that the arms were never officially registered. However, on November 30, 1707, arms were granted to John Hiccocks, Esq., of Lincoln's Inn, County of Middlesex, one of the masters of the High Court of Chancery. The son of William Hiccocks of South Lambeth, Surrey, John Hiccocks was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1683, was admitted to the Bar in 1690, and was called to Bench in 1709. He served as master of the High Court of Chancery from 1703 to 1723. He died on April 5, 1726, and was buried in the Temple graveyard. The design of both arms bear certain similarities which suggests that there was a family link.

No connection has yet been established between the Stratford branch of the family and that in London, yet some members of the Stratford family may have moved to London about 1567.

A branch of the family is believed to have taken root in America when William Hitchcock embarked on the Plaine Joan which sailed from London for the northern continent on May 15, 1635. When he settled down, he chose Farmington, Connecticut. After a hard life as a farmer he died about 1645, leaving a widow Elizabeth and two sons Samuel and Joseph, both born in Farmington. Elizabeth later remarried to a William Adams in 1648. Joseph died at Woodbury, Connecticut, in 1687, and Samuel died about 1694. Many of their descendants remained in Connecticut, but they were prolific and lusty, and soon spread all over New England.

Perhaps the most interesting of all the early members of the family was Aaron Hickok, great-grandfather of Wild Bill. He was born at Woodbury, Connecticut, in 1742. When he was eighteen years of age the family moved to Lanesborough, Massachusetts, and then to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he made his home during the Revolutionary War. During the uneasy period which led up to the Declaration of Independence, Aaron fell afoul of a local Tory landowner who wanted his property, and by devious means obtained it. Although the injured party, Aaron was found in the wrong "and his body taken to the Gaol House!"

Aaron was a colorful character and from his physical description his great-grandson must have borne some resemblance in looks as well as in characteristics: five feet eleven inches in height, of light complexion and sandy hair. When the Revolutionary War started, Aaron and his brother Ichabod enlisted and thereby started a tradition: there has been a Hickok present in each of America's wars, from those patriotic minutemen of 1775 even to those engaged in the Vietnam conflict of the present generation. Aaron served as a private in Captain Asa Barn's company of Colonel Patterson's Regiment of minutemen, which marched on April 22, 1775, in response to the Lexington Alarm when Paul Revere made his famous ride. Aaron is believed to have been present at Bunker Hill but may not have engaged in the actual fighting. Ichabod joined the cause a little later as a member of the contingent from Pittsfield which joined the Continental Army in 1777.

Aaron Hickok married twice and had nineteen children. He was a farmer, and also owned and operated a sawmill and an iron forge. His third son of the first marriage, Oliver, was born about 1774, and he married sometime before 1801, but the record of the marriage has not yet been found. When America went to war with Great Britain in 1812, Oliver answered the call to arms. Oliver, only thirty-eight years of age, died at Sackett's Harbor, New York, on October 3, 1813, from wounds received in battle. His father Aaron died the following year.

Oliver Hickok's son William Alonzo was born on December 5, 1801, at North Hero, Grand Isle County, Lake Champlain, Vermont. In his youth William was inclined toward the church, and his parents worked as hard as they could to get him the necessary education. He studied for the Presbyterian ministry at Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont. Following his father's death, his mother remarried, to a man named Oliver Gibbs. When school terms were over, William would return home and spend his vacations busying himself around the property. His grandson wrote:

He was tall, well over six feet in height, had a fine physique, had dark hair, high cheek bones and a roman nose; a distinguished looking man ably suited to his chosen calling. He had worked in the forests and on the farm during his vacations, could split a chalkline with a handaxe and had considerable experience in the rough carpentry of the time. The seminary that grandfather attended was in New York state, and it was there he met pretty Polly Butler, she was an aunt of Gen. Ben Butler of Civil War fame. Polly was born in Bennington, Vt. Her father was one of the Green Mountain Boys with Ethan Allen. Her brother Lorenzo had moved to New York and it was while on a visit with Lorenzo that she met grandfather and soon after [on June 23, 1829] married him. He took her with him to North Hero....

North Hero had a typhoid fever epidemic and grandfather contracted the disease, was severely ill, and also contracted brain fever. After a lengthy convalesence he partially recovered. He had a complete amnesia and very poor health. All hopes for the ministry were lost ... the young couple turned to his mother for help and advice. She furnished [them with] enough money to start a small store in Bro[o]me County, New York.

William actually took his bride to Cornwall, Vermont, before moving to Maine, Broome County, New York, where on May 1, 1830, Oliver was born. A child born on October 9, 1831, and named Lorenzo Butler, died shortly afterwards, and when another son was born on November 23, 1832, he was also given the name Lorenzo Butler. One year later the family moved to Illinois, settling at Union Grove, or Union Center, Putnam County, but soon moved to Bailey Point, now Tonica. Horace was born on October 5, 1834, and in 1836 the family moved to Homer, Illinois, and settled down.

The scene of several Indian skirmishes during the Black Hawk War, the area had not been considered safe for some time after the treaty, but by the time William and his family arrived settlers were once more moving into the area.

Homer was laid out by members of the Wixon family. Close by was the little Vermilion River and plenty of timber. Between 1834 and 1837 there was a steady demand for town lots and farm land. William built a home and opened the first store. His friends from college days, Nahum Gould and William Dewey, organized the local church, but as time went on, William grew away from what he soon realized were fanatical beliefs and became more and more liberal in his religious thinking. Gould taught his children his religious doctrines, but William encouraged them to think for themselves and form their own conclusions.

Close by the Hickok store a man named Levi Brown built a tavern which served as a stage stop. This was the Green Mountain Inn (or House). William's aspirations to succeed in his new venture were doomed to failure, for the 1837 financial panic ruined him. He lost his store and his home just after the fourth boy, James, was born. He was left with no alternative but to go to farming, and moved to a little place north of Homer. Two more children were born, both girls—Celinda on September 3, 1839, and Lydia on October 29, 1842.

Hard years were to come, but the young Hickok children were able to receive some education along with helping out on the farm. William's health and memory were much improved and he was able to encourage his children in their many pursuits. By 1844, William had moved to a new place at the head of the grove where the timber was much heavier, but as time went on his health again began to fail. His sons assumed control of the farm, and built themselves a small cabin on the Abner Westgate farm, but made regular trips home. This was some four miles from Homer. By the late 1840's the youngsters were very independent, and with money he had earned on the surrounding farms James purchased a firearm.

Even as a small boy James was to show that trait which was to mark him for the rest of his life—an inborn fondness for handguns. Whether his first weapon was a single-shot pistol, musket, or shotgun is not known, but at every opportunity he would disappear into the woods to try it out. This desire for loneliness, this feeling of confidence in himself, and belief in walking on his own were to stay with him for the rest of his life.

Talk of the abolition of slavery, and the cruelties and injustices that went with it, made a deep impression on William Hickok. The latter part of his life was spent in fighting for their freedom. His friend Gould was a rabid Abolitionist, but William was generally sympathetic with any oppressed people. Nevertheless, he joined Gould and his Quaker friends who were engaged in the dangerous business of assisting escaped slaves.

Some of the slaves were brought to Homer from Lowell by crossing the river at Utica or La Salle, but most of them were helped by the Lowell Quaker settlement and went through Ottawa. One of the female slaves named Hannah stayed with the Hickok family for many years, and the family still owns a tintype of her. She later moved to Malden, Illinois, where she married.

The Hickok home in Homer was equipped with a hidden cellar which was used as a hiding place for the slaves. Howard Hickok first heard of it in 1906:

Grandfather built two cellars in his new home, one a false hidden cellar which was lined with hay. This was used as a station of the Underground. I lived in this house ... and was not aware of this hidden cellar. It was brought to my attention by my father, who had me remove some boards in the living room floor and under this floor was a dry earthern room, probably six foot square, and it was still lined with stems and traces of prairie hay.

Running the Underground was a serious and dangerous undertaking; besides the Provost Marshals, who were legally bound to reclaim the slaves, there were several men in the neighborhood who made the undertaking more difficult and dangerous. These were the kidnappers and bounty hunters. The kidnappers recaptured the slaves and resold them. The bounty hunters returned the slaves to their former owners for the bounty paid by them.... Gould was lame and grandfather was ill but both gave freely of their time and effort to help hundreds of slaves to their northern goal. Frequently they were fired upon by the bounty hunters. Dad told me that while riding one dark night they were fired at by a group of men, in an attempt to stop them.

Grandfather pushed dad and uncle Jim from the wagon seat into the bed of the wagon with the negroes. The speed of the team and grandfather's knowledge of the country, enabled him to turn into a side road and return home while the disgruntled hunters went on toward Wedron.

With the death of William Hickok on May 5, 1852, the running of the farm was left in the hands of James and his brothers Horace and Lorenzo. Oliver had left home in 1851 and gone to California in the wake of the gold rush. He became a teamster on the rough trails around Placerville and Folson. Following a fall from a wagon he lost an arm, but was still able to handle horses. Horace and Lorenzo took over the mundane chores. Providing the food supply fell to James, and he spent the greater part of his time out in the woods and fields shooting squirrels, rabbits, deer, and prairie chickens, which must have been welcome additions to a hard diet.

When Oliver left for California, James took his place working on the farm of a neighbor named Carr. It was there that he first showed the mettle and spirit that was to mark him for life. Howard describes it:

He and his brothers had spent many hours swimming in the little river near their home [the cabin on the Westgate farm]. He was a fine swimmer. Few were the days in summer that did not find him in the water. The following was told to me by James Wylie in 1897. Another small stream, the Tomahawk creek ran through the Carr property. One day after a hard rain Jim and the boys of the neighborhood were swimming in the then swollen stream. One of the young men from the party was from Peru, Ilinois. He was a good swimmer, and amused himself by bullying the younger boys, and ducking them under the water. Wylie, the son of a Scotch [sic] immigrant, could not swim, but amused himself by wading and splashing in the shallower puddles. The Peru joker shoved him into deeper water, and Wylie promptly went under. The bully frightened, left the water, and started dressing. Uncle Jim jumped in and rescued Wylie, brought him safely to shore, and then walked over to Mr. Bully picked him up clothes and all and threw him into the stream.

When William Hickok died, the family moved back to Homer. Lorenzo and Horace pooled their resources and bought a home in the village (it is not certain if this was the one where James had been born or if the re-purchase of that came later). For James, life in the village was dull. His avid interest in all sorts of adventure (as a boy he had read stories about Daniel Boone and Kit Carson) had left him with a yearning to follow Oliver's move and head west. But his other brothers persuaded him to wait a year or so until they had provided for their mother and sisters. James agreed and meantime sought employment away from home. In 1854 he went to Utica, Illinois, where he spent some time as a driver on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The job came to an end when he threw his employer into the canal for mistreating his team. This incident later gave rise to the legend that Hickok fought a man named Charles Hudson on the canal bank and ended by almost drowning the man. It is alleged that James ran away from home in a panic, but it is now believed that this story was a Buel invention.

By 1855, James's dreams and ambitions were centered upon the new Kansas Territory. With the opening of Kansas Territory in 1854, the question of slavery was uppermost in the minds of the people who planned to settle there, for they would have to decide whether Kansas would be a free or a slave state. Missourians who supported slavery crossed the border by the hundreds to claim land, believing that if Kansas became a free state the slaveowners in Western Missouri would lose many slaves, who would then flee to Kansas. So began the struggle between the Kansas "Free Staters" and the Missouri "Border Ruffians."

The new land appealed to the Hickoks because of its farming potential, and from an examination of family documents it is evident that this was the reason James and Lorenzo left for Kansas. Family recollections gave the year as 1855 and the 1859 territorial census states that James had been in the state since 1855, but on September 28, 1856, James wrote to his mother and stated that he had been away from home a little over three months. Therefore, it is probable that James and Lorenzo left home in June, 1856.

News of the departure of the Hickok brothers was a blow to their many friends in the neighborhood. The McLaughlin family who lived near by had two daughters, Sarah and Josephine. Although it was Sarah who was to receive mention in James's letters home, it was Josephine who, as a very old lady, claimed to be his childhood sweetheart and constant companion.


Excerpted from They Called Him Wild Bill by Joseph G. Rosa. Copyright © 1974 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The Boy and the Man,
2. Incident at Rock Creek,
3. Civil War Adventures,
4. Springfield and a Date with Destiny,
5. Deputy United States Marshal,
6. Scouting for the Cavalry,
7. A Visit Home and Back to the Plains,
8. Peace Officer in Hays,
9. A Wild West Show,
10. Marshal of Abilene,
11. The Murder of Chief Whistler,
12. The Women,
13. A Stage Career with Buffalo Bill,
14. A Man about Cheyenne,
15. A Man Died in Deadwood,
16. A Fitting Death for an Assassin,
17. A Prince among Pistoleers,
A Chronology of Wild Bill,

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