“… Wild Bill had his faults, grievous ones, perhaps … He would get drunk, gamble, and indulge in the general licentiousness characteristic of the border in the early days, yet even when full of the vile libel of the name of whiskey which was dealt over the bars at exorbitant prices, he was gentle as a child, unless aroused to anger by intended insults. … He was loyal in his friendship, generous to a fault, and invariably espoused the cause of the weaker against the stronger one in a quarrel.”
James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois on May 27, 1837, to William Alonzo Hickok and Polly Butler Hickok. Bill had four brothers and two sisters and his parents were God-fearing Baptists who expected Bill to keep up his chores on the farm and to attend church every Sunday.
His parents also operated a station along the Underground Railroad, where they smuggled slaves out of the South. It was during this time that the lean and wiry young man got his first taste of hostile gunfire when he and his father were chased by law officers who suspected them of carrying more than just hay in their wagon. Bill became enamored with guns and began target practice on small wildlife around the farm. His romantic notions of the Wild West never sat very well with his father, but despite the protests, Bill became locally recognized as an outstanding marksman even in his youth.
At the age of 14, Bill’s father was killed because of his stand on abolition. Three years later, when Bill was 17, he went to work as a towpath driver on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. However, a year later he headed to Kansas getting a job in Monticello driving a stagecoach on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. One of the first people he was to meet in Kansas was Bill Cody, who would later claim fame with in his Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.
In 1855, stagecoaches were often subject to the threats of bandits and Indians along the trail, and Bill quickly put his marksmanship to work, as well as developing a ready belligerence to the frequent attacks. On one such overland trip, the stage broke down near Wetmore, Colorado. As Wild Bill slept under some bushes outside, the customers stayed within the coach until they were awakened by a disturbance. One of the travelers lit a kerosene lantern to find Bill being attacked by a cinnamon bear. When the struggle between man and bear was over, Bill was severely wounded, but the bear lay dead on the ground from Hickok’s six-inch knife.
After recovering from the almost lethal attack, Wild Bill headed back to Monticello, Kansas where he accepted a position as a peace officer on March 22, 1858. Sometime after that he worked for the Pony Express and Overland Express station in Rock Creek, Nebraska, where he met David McCanles. McCanles teased Hickok unmercifully about his girlish build and feminine features. Perhaps in retaliation, Hickok began courting a woman by the name of Sarah Shull who McCanles had his eye on.
On July 12, 1861, McCanles, along with his young son and two friends by the names of James Woods and James Gordon came to the station, supposedly to collect a debt. However, profanities were exchanged which resulted in gunfire. McCanles was killed and both James Woods and James Gordon, who were seriously wounded, later died of their wounds. No charges were made against Hickok on the grounds of self-defense. Later, when Hickok’s fame began to spread, writers looked back and began to call this gunfight the “McCanles Massacre”, embellishing the story to the point that Wild Bill had polished off a dozen of the West’s most dangerous desperados.
Hickok moved on again, landing in Sedalia, Missouri where he signed on with the Union Army as a wagon master and scout on October 30, 1861. The military records of his service give very little information regarding his services, but we do know that Hickok received the nickname “Wild Bill” while he was serving in the Union Army. As the story goes, he was in Independence, Missouri when he encountered a drunken mob with intentions of hanging a bartender who had shot a hoodlum in a brawl. Hickok fired two shots over the heads of the men, staring them down with an angry glare until the mob dispersed. A grateful woman was allegedly heard to shout from the sidelines, “Good for you, Wild Bill!” She may have mistaken Hickok for someone else, but the name stuck.
In July of 1865, Hickok met up with a twenty-six-year-old gambler in Springfield, Missouri, to whom Hickok lost at the gaming table. When Bill couldn’t pay up, Dave Tutt took his pocket watch for security. Hickok growled that if Tutt so much as used the timepiece, he would kill him.
On July 21, 1865, the two met in the public square, Tutt proudly wearing the watch for all to see. Moments later, Tutt lay on the ground dead. Hickok was acquitted of any wrongdoing.
During his time in the Army, Hickok became good friends with General George Custer, working as one of his principal scouts. Custer was said to have admired Hickok, played poker with him, and would have known him better had it not been for the disaster at Little Big Horn.
Shortly after the war, in 1867, Hickok was tracked down by Henry M. Stanley, a correspondent for the New York Herald who later went to Africa and “found” Dr. Livingstone. Hickok blithely told the gullible Stanley that he had personally slain over 100 men. Stanley immediately reported this claim as gospel fact and Wild Bill became a national legend.
On November 5, 1867, Wild Bill ran for sheriff of Ellsworth County, Kansas but lost. He returned to the army where he was lanced in the foot during a skirmish with an Indian in eastern Colorado. Returning to Kansas, he became the sheriff of Hays City, Kansas in 1869. On August 24, 1869, he shot and killed a man named Bill Mulrey. Just a month later on September 27, 1869, he killed a ruffian named Strawhan when he and several others were causing a disturbance in a local saloon.
On July 17, 1870, real trouble started for Hickok when several members of the 7th U.S. Cavalry caught him off guard in Drum’s Saloon, knocked him to the floor and began kicking him. Hickok drew his pistols, killing one private and seriously wounding another. After this skirmish, Bill resigned his position in Hays City, landing back in Ellsworth, Kansas for a time, then on to Abilene, Kansas.
On April 15, 1871, Hickok was appointed city marshal in Abilene, for $150 per month, plus one-fourth of all fines assessed against the persons he arrested. At first Wild Bill tended to routine business.