Wild Bill Hickok is likely well-known to anyone who enjoys tales of the Old West. He was a legendary figure of his time, renowned for his gunfighting and poker talents. His daring lifestyle has been portrayed in a number of well-known books and films.
Please read this complete biography to learn more about Wild Bill Hickok and why he is still talked about nearly 150 years after his death.
The date of James Butler Hickok’s birth is May 27, 1837. Hickok was the fourth eldest of seven siblings, with four brothers and two sisters. The family resided on a vast estate in the charming Illinois community of Homer. Legend has it that the family used their home as a station on the Underground Railroad, although this has never been substantiated.
In light of the Hickok family’s fervor for the abolition of slavery, we cannot deny the possibility.
When James Butler Hickok was small, his father taught him how to fire a pistol. Hickok was an outstanding marksman from the outset, rarely missing his target. These talents would serve him well in the future.
Unknown causes claimed the life of Hickok’s father when he was 15 years old.
His father’s passing caused him to reconsider how he wanted to spend the remainder of his life. He had originally intended to stay at home and manage the family farm. A few years later, he relocated to Kansas to drive stagecoaches on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. During his tenure there, he met William Cody, also known as “Buffalo Bill,” who became one of his closest friends.
Wild Bill Hickok, an American Legend
On the trails, David McCanles and his two accomplices encountered Hickok and attempted to rob him. Infuriated, Hickok drew his firearm and managed to murder all three men within minutes. This event would become known as the McCanles Massacre, and it marks the beginning of the legend of Wild Bill Hickok. (Hickok chose the name William in remembrance of his deceased father.)
His story made the front page of numerous newspapers and periodicals, the majority of which exaggerated the severity of the massacre. One article stated that he murdered more than ten individuals on that day. As soon as that narrative was published, a second one emerged. Recently, Hickok had come into contact with a bear. Instead of fleeing from the bear, as most rational individuals would have done, he took out a small 6-inch weapon and killed it. The legend persisted; neither man nor beast could compare to Hickok.
By the time he enlisted in the Civil War in 1961, Hickok was already well-known. In the Union Army, he began as a civilian patrol before rising to the rank of provost marshal. During his military tenure, he served as an agent for the Union in the Confederate Army. Hickok was able to send advance notice of multiple Confederate assaults, enabling the Union to be better prepared for battle.
Upon the conclusion of the conflict, he relocated to Abilene, Kansas, to assume the position of city marshal. He earned $1800 per year plus 25 percent of all the sanctions he issued, which was a respectable salary for the era. Hickok was notorious for maintaining order in his city at any cost. When one of the town’s saloon proprietors, Phil Coe, aimed his pistol at a belligerent patron, Wild Bill Hickok stepped in and began firing. The violent confrontation claimed the life of one of Hickok’s deputies. This tragic event compelled Hickok to resign from his position and pursue a new career path.