Frontiersman, lawman, army scout, gambler, and legendary marksman James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was born on May 27, 1837, in Troy Grove, Illinois.
As a youth, Hickok became acquainted with the risks incurred by those willing to take a stand against slavery. His father frequently assisted escaped slaves as they made their way north through Illinois, and young Hickok joined in the endeavor. Hickok left home in 1856, moved to Kansas to farm, and became involved in the Free State movement.
In July 1861, near the outset of the Civil War, Hickok crossed paths with Southern sympathizer David McCanles at Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory. In a 1938 interview conducted in Wilbur, Nebraska, the Hickok-McCanles encounter was recounted by F. J. Elliot (based on an earlier 1882 history of the event). As Elliot told the tale, McCanles “came to Wild Bill and tried to persuade him to join” a company he was raising to assist the South. He also tried to force Hickok to turn over the stock he was tending for his employer, the Ben Holiday State Company at Rock Creek station. “On [Hickok's] refusal,” Elliot continued:
McCanles threatened to kill him and take the stock. That afternoon McCanles returned with three other men and started to enter the house. Wild Bill shot him. Two of the other men were killed, one got away. At Wild Bill’s trial, which was held in Beatrice, no one appeared against him. His plea was self-defence [sic] and he was cleared.
“F. J. Elliott.” George Hartman, interviewer; Wilbur, Nebraska, November 26, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
His reputation as a marksman was assured after the McCanles incident, and Hickok remained loyal to the North, working as a teamster, scout, and spy for the Union.
Hickok next held a number of positions in law enforcement: as village constable in Monticello, Kansas; a deputy U.S. marshal; sheriff of Hays City (1869); and marshal of Abilene (1871).
“Wild Bill” Hickok was shot and killed by a drunken stranger at a poker table in Nuttall & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood on August 2, 1876. Hickok had come to the Black Hills to explore the gold fields there, leaving his wife in Cincinnati. The story of his death is recounted in the American Life Histories interview, “Ed Grantham.”
- After Abilene, Hickock travelled with William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his company from 1873-74. After Cody created his touring Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1883, other actors played Hickok in stage roles for the show. While Hickock did not live to see the dawn of the film industry, members of the show’s cast did and were recorded by Edison and Biograph Company cameramen. A search for Buffalo Bill in the Film and Video collections features elements of Bill Cody’s Wild West show including Native American Indian dancers, in scenes that constitute the American Indian’s first appearance before a motion-picture camera.
- To read more stories about the legendary Hickok, search on Wild Bill Hickok in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940.
- See the Today in History feature on author Owen Wister, whose novel The Virginian helped establish the American cowboy as a mythic and heroic figure. Search Today in History using the term cowboy for additional features.
- The collection Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945 to 1982 provides a look at U.S. cattle ranching and its traditions. See the Special Presentation Buckaroo: Views of a Western Way of Life, an essay by Howard W. Marshall, to learn more about the working life of the modern cowboy. Also, search using the terms Native American or Paiute to find more about Northern Paiute Indians from the Fort McDermitt Reservation who have worked the ranch from its earliest days.