The Life and Death of Wild Bill Hickok

The story of Wild Bill Hickok, a legendary gunslinger from the American Frontier, has been largely untold in modern history. 

Tom Clavin
7-minute read
Episode #73

Their names are legends on the American frontier: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Wild Bill Hickok. We probably know the least about Wild Bill Hickok. Why is that? During his lifetime, no one’s fame burned brighter than his, yet today, Wild Bill’s life and times are a mystery to many. In Wild Bill, my new book about Wild Bill Hickok, the largely untold story of the greatest gunfighter of them all is finally revealed.

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James Butler Hickok was born in May 1837 in Illinois. The Hickok family originally hailed from New England and were fierce abolitionists. On their Illinois farm, Hickok’s father not only sheltered runaway slaves but in daring nighttime rides transported them via the Underground Railroad to safety further north. Young James and his brothers went on many of these rides to fool bounty hunters and were sometimes shot at while making a desperate escape. Ironically, when the Civil War began, James would be the only Hickok family member to serve in the Union Army.

Before the war, though, James left the farm for Missouri and Kansas and points west. “I am a pilgrim and a stranger and I am going to wander til I am twenty-one and then I will tarry a little while” the young James Hickok wrote to his mother Polly.  He became a wagon driver, a teamster, and occasional scout with the U.S. Army. On one of the wagon trains west Hickok met a boy named Billy Cody. As the trek progressed, Cody met one of the drivers, who identified himself as James B. Hickok, “a tall, handsome, magnificently built and powerful young fellow, who could out-run, out-jump and out-fight any man in the train.” One evening, Cody ran afoul of “a surly, overbearing” teamster twice his size, who knocked the boy down with one swat. Cody got up holding a pot of coffee, and he threw the scalding contents in the face of the man, who in turn “sprang at me with the ferocity of a tiger, and undoubtedly would have torn me to pieces.”

What prevented this was the appearance of Hickok, who knocked the teamster down. He warned, “If you ever again lay a hand on that boy—little Billy there—I’ll give you such a pounding that you won’t get over it for a month of Sundays.” Hickok may have saved Cody’s life—an act that would be reciprocated a decade later.

When the Civil War broke out, the anti-slavery Hickok signed up with the Union Army. His activities included scouting and being a member of a unit of sharpshooters. But his most effective role was as Union spy disguised behind enemy lines. Time and again Hickok risked his neck to glean important information about the Confederate Army. One time, while dressed as a Confederate officer with General Marmaduke’s rebel division:

For a time during his spying activities, Hickok reunited with Cody. The latter was seventeen when his mother died in November 1863. Up to that point in the war, Cody had worked as a freight hauler and ridden with the Red Legs as they attacked settlements in Missouri. The reasoning of his unit, commanded by a man named Chandler, was that this pursuit was justified; since “the government was waging war against the South, it was perfectly square and honest, and we had a good right to do it,” Cody recalled. “So we didn’t let our consciences trouble us very much.” His military status changed after his mother’s death. He “continued my dissipation about two months,” and then “one day, after having been under the influence of bad whisky, I awoke to find myself a soldier in the Seventh Kansas.” Apparently, in a blackout, he had enlisted in the regiment—also known as Jennison’s Jayhawkers—and he went off to war.

The story spread across the frontier like a prairie fire that there was a man named Wild Bill Hickok in Missouri who might well be the fastest gunslinger on the American frontier.

Cody recalled in his first autobiography, “Judge my surprise when I recognized in the stranger my old friend and partner, Wild Bill, disguised as a Confederate officer.” Hickok informed him that he was disguised as an officer from Texas attached to General Marmaduke’s division of Price’s army. He gave to Cody what information he had collected in recent weeks and letters to bring back to Union commanders. Cody hoped he would return with him, but Hickok said, “I am getting so much valuable information that I propose to stay a little while longer in this disguise.”

It was after the war that the man now known, because of his hair-raising exploits, as Wild Bill Hickok became the first true gunfighter on the American frontier. The event that made his reputation took place in Springfield, Missouri in July 1865. A man from Arkansas, Davis Tutt, was unhappy about losing money to Hickok in a poker game and walked away with his gold watch, telling everyone he would display it as he walked across the town square. Sure enough, late that afternoon, Tutt was back in the Springfield town square, brandishing the pocket watch. Witnesses noted that a few minutes before six o’clock, Hickok was observed entering the town square from the south. In his right hand was one of his Colt Navy pistols. By the time he had drawn to within a hundred feet of Tutt, the latter was alone in one corner of the square, as townsfolk had rushed for cover in surrounding buildings. Dozens of pairs of eyes watched the scene unfold. “Dave, here I am,” Hickok said.

In one last attempt to avoid a fight, he holstered the pistol and advised, “Don’t you come across here with that watch.”

Did Tutt underestimate Hickok, or, with all those witnesses, he could not possibly hand over the watch? He may have been debating his options as his right hand came to rest on his holstered gun. He turned sideways, and Hickok did the same. This was a maneuver associated with a traditional duel, but this wouldn’t be the old-fashioned Alexander Hamilton versus Aaron Burr kind of challenge, where the two men pace off, turn to each other, and each formally takes a shot, perhaps deliberately missing his opponent because just showing up and going through the motions was enough to have honor satisfied.