It was no accident that so many American folk heroes came to prominence in the years following the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). After four years of grueling hardship on both sides of the battle, by the end of the war thousands of men and women were ready to start new lives out west. Many who had served as scouts, spies, and snipers during wartime now put those skills to use in the Frontier Army and the ongoing Indian Wars on the Great Plains and the Southwest. Others took the leadership skills they had learned and attempted to bring the law to the new communities sprouting up west of the Ohio River Valley. James Butler Hickok, a.k.a., “Wild Bill,” was one who saw his opportunities in the relative wilderness of the west.
How Wild Was Wild Bill Hickok?
James Butler Hickok was born 27 May 1837 in a house in Homer, Illinois that was known by reputation to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. His parents were farmers and abolitionists. Even as a young man Hickok’s skills as a sharpshooter were recognized and he put them to use at age 18 when he moved to Kansas and became a Jayhawker. This anti-slavery guerrilla force fought to make Kansas a “free” state in the 1850s in skirmishes that became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” It was around this time that Hickok first met William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846 – 1917), who was only a boy of twelve at the time, but already working full time to support his family. Like Hickok, Cody came from an abolitionist family and the two formed a bond of friendship that would last the rest of their lives.
With the outbreak of Civil War, the Jayhawkers became obvious recruits for the war against slavery. Hickok had a variety of jobs during the war, from driving wagon teams in Missouri to working as a marshall for the Springfield, Missouri detective force, to serving as a member of “Lane’s Brigade,” the notorious Union Army force that in 1861 raided the pro-slavery communities of Morristown and Osceola, leaving dozens of citizens dead and buildings burned to the ground.
During the Civil War, Hickok served as a teamster and wagon driver in support of the Union as well as working as a detective policeman and provost marshal for the city of Springfield, Missouri.
Shortly after the end of the war, Hickok was living in Springfield, Missouri, where a gambling dispute with his former friend Davis Tutt led to what many consider the very first quick-draw shooting duel on 21 July 1865. After arguing about unpaid gambling debts and Tutt’s claim to Hickok’s gold watch, the two men appeared in the town square around 6 P.M., standing approximately 75 feet from each other. “Dave, here I am,” Hickok reportedly said (the shootout was witnessed by several bystanders). Tutt raised his gun and Hickok did the same, both firing simultaneously. Tutt’s shot missed its target; Hickok’s hit Tutt near his heart. “Boys, I’m killed,” Tutt cried, and died within minutes.
Hickok regretted the incident. He was found by a court to have acted in self-defense, and acquitted of murder. Within weeks George Ward Nichols, a reporter for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, sought an interview with Hickok about the shootout and his exploits up to this point (the Tutt shootout was the second time Hickok had killed a man in self defense and been acquitted for it). Upon the publication of Nichols’ article, “Wild Bill Hickok” became a national celebrity; Nichols claimed Hickok had killed “hundreds” of men, an exaggeration that dogged Hickok wherever he traveled.
After coming in second place in the Springfield, Missouri mayoral race in 1865 Hickok opted to move to Fort Riley, Kansas, where he became a deputy federal marshal and occasionally assisted General George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry as a scout. During this time he began to actively promote his folk hero persona, hiring several cowboys and Native Americans to perform in a show he called, “The Daring Buffalo Chasers of the Plains” and performed at Niagara Falls. The cast also included a monkey..
Over the next few years Hickok’s reputation as an “Indian-hater” grew, along with his professional relationships with many Native Americans, whom he continued to hire as performers for tourists. He also pursued his career in law enforcement, becoming the city marshal of Hays City and sheriff of Ellis County, Kansas in 1869.
The region was notorious for outlaws and there were few lawmen on the ground, but Hickok set a precedent by killing two men with shots to the head within his first month as sheriff. Both men were found by investigators to have been harassing innocent citizens as well as Hickok himself, before they were shot by Hickok in self-defense. This was a good way to make enemies. In 1870 Hickok was attacked by two soldiers who tried to shoot him through the temple, but when their gun misfired, Hickock killed them both.
Hickok became marshal of Abilene, Kansas in 1871 where, in his final shootout, he killed not only the man shooting at him, Phil Coe, but also a man Hickok mistook for his accomplice, Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams. Williams died and Hickok never forgave himself.
Hickok began a slow decline, losing his vision and at times living as a vagrant. Eventually, in 1876, he and his friend, professional sharpshooter Calamity Jane, moved to Deadwood, South Dakota. In Deadwood Hickok supported himself as a poker player. But during one game he earned an enemy by taking all his money. The next day, 2 August 1876, Hickok returned to the same saloon, Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10, to play again. This time the only open chair had its back to the door; Hickok tried to switch seats but no one took him up on it. A few minutes later the loser, Jack McCall, showed up again and shouting "Damn you! Take that!" he shot Hickok in the back of the head. Wild Bill Hickok died instantly, at the age of 39.
Like many of his fellow “Wild West” celebrities, Wild Bill Hickok’s reputation far outstripped the reality of his exploits. Although he may have killed closer to six than the dozens the media claimed, his verifiable adventures were incredible enough. When he died, he was holding two pair: black aces and black eights. It’s now known as the Dead Man’s Hand, after Wild Bill.
Stranger Than Fiction & Larger Than Life: Uncovering Stories and Details in Research
Have you ever heard the sayings “truth is stranger than fiction,” or, “you can’t make this stuff up”? Sometimes, over the course of research, we stumble across stories or details of our ancestors which raise our eyebrows in shock, amusement or the many emotions in between, and serve as a reminder that the people of the past were just as human, and also just as fallible or admirable as we are.
As genealogists, we can’t cherry-pick the stories we want to tell about our ancestors just because it will portray them in one light or another. It’s our role as family historians to be truthful with well-sourced documentation. However, we also have to be accountable in our retelling. So, what should you do when you stumble across these stories in your own family history? Here are a few things to consider.
Establish the time frame and subjects - Was this event in the recent or distant past? The answer will be a large determining factor in how you handle the retelling. Is the subject of the story still alive? Or are there any individuals who knew or were close to the subject who may have strong feelings or an altered relationship by the retelling of details. We may need to provide a preface or be careful of details when sharing family stories we’ve found. Often, we might think that this kind of consideration only applies to stories of a negative nature, but even the most admirable of actions or events can come with strong emotions. For instance, veterans of war or first responders may not want to be recognized for or recall events that may have happened as part of their job. Additionally, some people are just extremely private and may not wish to have a story or event retold to others.
Determine the veracity of the source and the informant – What was the source (or documented evidence) of the story and who was the informant (or informants) for the information given? These are actually two different considerations – some sources are considered to be more accurate than others, and the informant for any information can be both reliable and unreliable on the same document. If there’s one place our historical forebears loved to “spill the tea,” it was in the newspaper or in witness statements for a given event (such as in a pension file or court record). This can give us an incredible amount of new information, but each source and each informant has to be weighed individually while bearing in mind how accurate the information may be.
Collect accompanying documentation - Why did the event happen? Were the subjects willing participants? Who was affected? Were there extenuating circumstances or even historical context that could provide you with more information? Were there any consequences or repercussions which could provide follow up information or a conclusion? Asking these types of questions may help you to identify supporting or refuting documentation that can add to the story and refine the details into the closest iteration of the truth.
Identify your audience - Are you planning on sharing the found story with family members through social media or published on a website platform or in a book? Are you sharing the story with kids, adults or both? Keep your intended audience in mind as you choose how to frame the telling of family stories. Details for grandma, grandkids or strangers may not be the same as you’d share with siblings or your favorite aunt!
Interesting family stories are what help to make genealogy so fun and engaging. Sometimes these stories lead us to face truths that were not part of the known family history and often, they can delight us with details we never could have imagined. The positive and negative, or the thrilling or mundane can offer rich insight into our family history. Go out and find them!
Jeff Campagna, The Smithsonian Magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/ : accessed 4 August 2021), “American Wonder Wild Bill Hickok Shot and Killed From Behind on This Day in History.”
Christopher Knowlton, The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 4 August 2021), “How Wild Was Wild Bill Hickok? A Biographer Separates Life From Legend.”
Nebraska State Historical Society (https://www.nebraskahistory.org/ : accessed 4 August 2021), “James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, 1837-1876.”
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wild Bill Hickok by Rockwood 1873.jpg : 29 July 2021), digital image of original cabinet card, George G. Rockwood (1832-1911) photographer, taken, ca. 1873, ” File:Wild Bill Hickok by Rockwood 1873.jpg;” file uploaded by Scewing.
"Assassination of Wild Bill," The Black Hills Weeky Pioneer (Deadwood, South Dakota), 5 August 1876, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 4 August 2021), citing print edition, p. 4, col. 4.
“Civil War Widow’s Pensions,” database with images, Fold3.org (https://fold3.com : accessed 4 August 2021); Widow’s pension file for soldier Frank Torrey, alias Frank McCoye, Private, 11th New York Cavalry (Union), Civil War; citing "Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861 - ca. 1910"; NARA Record Group 15.