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How Wild Bill Hickok Became an American Legend

Wild Bill Hickok
Wild Bill Hickok served as a soldier and spy for the Union Army in the Civil War before becoming the quintessential Wild West gambling gentleman gunfighter. Wikimedia Commons/HowStuffWorks

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Some six decades after the button-down duel between gentlemen Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, and 16 years before the blazing gunfight between lawmen and a gang called the Cowboys on a dusty lot near Arizona's O.K. Corral, a former Confederate soldier named Davis Tutt, an itinerant gambler with a score to settle, stepped into the town square in Springfield, Missouri, and fell, literally, into history.

On the other side of the square that day — it was July 21, 1865, — was a 6-foot-1-inch-tall drink of a dude, with auburn hair curling to his shoulders, a distinctively long mustache underneath an aquiline nose and a rakishly-worn sombrero topping it all off. James Butler Hickok was a former Union soldier, and a gambler, too, both by nature and profession. He also was good with a gun.

At about 6 p.m. that afternoon, with a gold watch, a gambling debt, perhaps the affections of a woman, and certainly a good dollop of pride on the line, the two men became the stars in what is now recognized as the Wild West's first quick-draw shootout.

Things didn't go well for young Mr. Tutt that afternoon. As for J.B. Hickok — many knew him even then as Wild Bill — the gunfight in Springfield became the stuff of legend.

"It was sort of inevitable as they approached each other, to the point where they saw that one could hit the other ... and then it was who drew first. So it was kind of improvised," says Tom Clavin, the author of "Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter." "But the story spread like a prairie fire. It sort of set the template, the choreography, for these gunfights that would take place over the next few decades."

Becoming Wild Bill

Hickok was born in Illinois in 1837 and made his way west as a young man. He toiled as a free-state army soldier in Kansas and a driver for a Kansas stagecoach company. In 1861, the 24-year-old Hickok got into his first big trouble with the law, charged with murder for gunning down David McCanles in a dispute at a Pony Express station in Rock Creek Station, Kansas.

As with much of Hickok's life and legend, it's hard to tell now, more than 150 years later, exactly what spurred him to shoot McCanles. But McCanles, most agree, probably was the first man Wild Bill ever killed.

"From all accounts of killings in which Hickok subsequently took part, I have been unable to find one single authentic instance in which he fought a fair fight," George W. Hansen wrote in Nebraska History Magazine in 1968. "To him no human life was sacred. He was a cold-blooded killer without heart or conscience."

Hickok was acquitted of the McCanles murder, and afterward banged around as a scout, stable hand, wagon master, marshal, and, maybe, a Union spy during the Civil War. Along the way, he gambled a lot, befriended another Wild West legend, William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, picked up the nickname "Wild Bill" (which he sometimes called himself), and impressed a few women, including the wife of ill-famed Indian fighter George Armstrong Custer, for whom Hickok scouted.

Elizabeth "Libbie" Bacon Custer had an entirely different view of Wild Bill than his detractors. From her book, "Following the Guidon:"

I do not recall anything finer in the way of physical perfection than Wild Bill when he swung himself lightly from his saddle, and with graceful, swaying step, squarely set shoulders and well poised head, approached our tent for orders. He was rather fantastically clad, of course, but all seemed perfectly in keeping with the time and place.

By the mid-1860s, Wild Bill's reputation was widespread, if not entirely agreed upon or particularly believable. In her book, Mrs. Custer relates the secondhand story of a time five men with ill intent broke in on a sleeping Hickok.

"Some one hearing the noise of the contest burst open the door," she wrote, "and found four of the assailants dead on the floor, and Wild Bill stretched fainting on the bed across the body of the fifth assassin." She wrote, too, of Hickok being jumped in town by three assassins, only to free one of his hands, grab an ever-present Colt pistol from his belt and fire blindly behind him to kill one of the assailants. According to Mrs. Custer, with all these ruffians gunning for him, Wild Bill had to leave town.

Trouble, inevitably, followed.

Wild Bill was in Springfield in the summer of 1865, doing what he liked to do most: gamble. He lost his gold watch to Tutt, or Tutt simply took it, and the many accounts of the day have Wild Bill warning Tutt about carrying the watch in public. Tutt, who at one time may have considered Wild Bill a friend, wore the watch defiantly.

Wild Bill Hickok
Wild Bill's ivory handled Colt pistols were raffled off after his death in Deadwood to pay his funeral expenses.
Pete Zarria/Flickr

The Springfield Shootout

In the end, the two squinted at each other from about 75 yards (69 meters) apart across the Springfield square and drew their pistols. If it wasn't exactly the stuff of thousands of movies and TV shows — quick pulls from a leather holster in the middle of a street at high noon — it certainly wasn't a proper Burr-Hamilton duel, either. The shootout at Springfield is now considered the first time in America that two people faced off in a public setting to settle a dispute via handguns.

Tutt missed. But Wild Bill, steadying his gun by laying it across his opposing forearm, aimed and struck his mark, instantly killing his rival with a shot to the heart. The showdown was memorialized in an article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in February 1867, in which author George Ward Nichols quotes a bystander (via Legends of America):

"Both Tutt and Bill fired, but one discharge followed the other so quick that it's hard to say which went off first. Tutt was a famous shot, but he missed this time; the ball from his pistol went over Bill's head. The instant Bill fired, without waitin ter see ef he had hit Tutt, he wheeled on his heels and pointed his pistol at Tutt's friends, who had already drawn their weapons.

'Aren't yer satisfied, gentlemen?' cried Bill, as cool as an alligator. 'Put up your shootin-irons, or there'll be more dead men here.' And they put 'em up, and said it war a far fight."

The Harper's article has been widely panned by many historians. (In it, Nichols says Wild Bill killed "hundreds" of men, almost certainly way off the mark.) Still that article, and the dime store novels of the time, provided one of the first glimpses for many people into Wild Bill's larger-than-life persona.

"It was not only the nature of that gunfight, but Hickok's coolness under pressure and his accuracy. He killed somebody with one shot at a time when people were not that good, really, with pistols," Clavin says. "That was the beginning."

The Legend Grows

Wild Bill scouted more during the Indian Wars, became a U.S. Marshall in two different Kansas towns (Hays and Abilene), engaged in a few more shootouts and killed a few more men (including, in Abilene, his deputy, accidentally shot in the middle of a gunfight).

He took advantage of his celebrity when he could, joining his friend Buffalo Bill in a stage show in New York City's Niblo Gardens, a sort of pre-Broadway spectacle called "Scouts of the Plains." But he knew, too, that his notoriety came at a price. Wild Bill always was armed with his Colts, Clavin said, and often would walk down the middle of the street in town, where it would be harder for someone to bushwhack him from a dark doorway.

Somewhere in his travels, Wild Bill met fellow scout Martha Jane Cannary — known as Calamity Jane — and some accounts report that the two had a romantic relationship. According to Clavin, though, that never happened. Wild Bill married an older woman named Agnes Lake, a circus impresario, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in March 1876.

"Nobody knows she existed, and she was the only Mrs. Hickok," Clavin told Newsday earlier this year. "Calamity Jane is a fascinating character, but Wild Bill couldn't stand her."

After his honeymoon in Cincinnati, Wild Bill left again for the wilds of the Wild West. And that's where he was in the summer of 1876.

The Last of the Legend

Eleven years after the shootout with Tutt, shortly after his wedding to Lake, Wild Bill landed in the rowdy gold rush town of Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory, where he intended to earn some money — gambling, of course — to take home to his wife. There, on Aug. 1, 1876, he ran afoul of a drunken Kentuckian who was after his own slice of fame, Jack McCall.

Again, the records are hazy on exactly what happened or why. But in a saloon in the middle of town, McCall stepped behind Wild Bill while he was playing cards and shot him, point-blank, in the back of the head. The wound was fatal.

Wild Bill was 39.

"We have this archetype in our history of the American West of the gunfighter, the lone gunman, the man who goes his own way and is confident that he's going to set things to right," Clavin says. "Hickok was basically the prototype of that. He was the first post-Civil War gunfighter."

During his life, Wild Bill was practically mythologized, and his story has continued to grow in the more than a century after his death. He has been the subject of many biographies, notably by the British writer Joseph G. Rosa, whose book, "They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok", serves as the first major work on the man.

Wild Bill also was the subject of a 1950s television series ("The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok"). On film, he's been portrayed by Gary Cooper (1936, in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Plainsman"), Roy Rogers (1940, "Young Bill Hickok"), Charles Bronson (1977, "The White Buffalo"), Jeff Bridges (1995, "Wild Bill"), and Luke Hemsworth (2017, "Hickok"). Keith Carradine played an older version of Wild Bill in the HBO series "Deadwood".

For a man who did so much in his short life, Wild Bill probably is best known for the skill he first exhibited in public in the Springfield square in 1865. But for Clavin, that's not what Wild Bill would have preferred.

"If he were to describe himself, it would be as a gambler, because he spent more time doing that than he did anything else. And he enjoyed it. He enjoyed playing cards. He enjoyed the surroundings of the saloon life. The smell of unwashed men. Cigars. Whiskey. The girls. He really liked that life," Clavin says. "On the other hand, he also spent a lot of time out on the plains, out on the prairie, as a scout. So he was kind of like two people in one. He could spend weeks at a time on the prairie, by himself ... but when he was in town, he enjoyed it. He'd wear a Prince Albert frock. He'd really dress up. He was quite the dandy.

"I guess, maybe grudgingly, he'd say a gunfighter, too, because it was what he was. But he wasn't somebody who sought to be hurting people. He liked people and people liked him. But ... he was a gunfighter."

Learn more about Wild Bill Hickok in "Wild Bill Hickok, Gunfighter: An Account of Hickok’s Gunfights" by Joseph G. Rosa. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.

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