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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Wild Bill Hickok

Updated: May 8

Wild Bill & The Deadman's Hand

If ever there was an icon that embodied the Wild West, it was Wild Bill Hickok. He lived violently and died violently and crammed ten lifetimes of adventure between the cradle and the grave (at a a shockingly young age). He was born in Homer, Illinois to a deeply religious and abolitionist family. His small family farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad!

Hickok left home at 17 to join the antislavery Free State Army of Jayhawkers in Kansas and served as a scout, sharpshooter and bodyguard for Union General James H. Lanes. During his service, Bill stopped a man from severely beating an 11-year-old boy. That boy would become his lifelong friend and another frontier legend, Buffalo Bill Cody!

Kansas locals wrote that Wild Bill could hit an oyster can at 100 yards with a .44-caliber 1858 Colt Dragoon revolver. During the war, Hickok began wearing a pair of .36-caliber Colt Navy revolvers worn butt-forward in open-top holsters so that he could draw underhand, spin forward for a reverse draw, or for a cross-body draw. Of the many guns Wild Bill was reputed to use throughout his gun fighting career, the Colt Navy remained his favorite. A couple of years after the war, Hickok purchased a pair of ivory-handled Navies that became his signature sidearm.

Many newspapers credited Wild Bill with killing hundreds of men, but seven were authenticated. His lifelong friend, Buffalo Bill Cody, in one of his last interviews, claimed that Wild Bill cocked his pistols as he drew, which gave him a hairs-breadth advantage.

Hickok’s first gunfight was with a nasty gunman named Dave McCanles in Rock Creek, Nebraska. The exact circumstances of the gunfight have been shrouded in many different versions. But one circumstance seems to be especially relevant. McCanles often made fun of Wild Bill, but Wild Bill got the last laugh by having a dalliance with McCanles’s mistress! McCanles came after Hickok and threatened to drag him outside and thrash him. The 24-year-old Wild Bill replied: “There will be one less son-of-a-bitch when you try that.”

McCanles tried and Hickok shot him in the chest. Two other men then attacked Bill. He shot one twice and winged the other. That launched Hickok’s reputation as a legendary gunslinger. The incident was further regaled in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1867.

One of Wild Bill’s most famous gunfights involved David Tutt in Springfield, Missouri in 1865. Hickok had lost at gambling and gave up his prized gold watch for security. Hickok grumbled that if Tutt ever looked at the watch, he’d kill him. Soon they were out in the town square to settle their differences with guns. (Not sure, but drinking might have been involved...) Just to mock Hickok, Tutt pulled out his watch to check the time! They fired. Tutt missed. But Hickok’s bullet reached its mark—at 75 yards. Two days later, Hickok was tried for manslaughter, but was acquitted.

Hickok’s reputation as a famous gunslinger spread nationwide and many fame-seekers challenged him. In July 1876, Wild Bill Hickok took a lawman job in Deadwood but spent much of his time gambling. He was cautious and always insisted on sitting in a corner, so no one could sneak up on him. Why he was not sitting in a corner the evening of August 2nd, 1876, as he played poker in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood that night no one knows, but it was Wild Bill Hickok’s undoing. A local buffalo hunter, Jack McNall, who sought to get revenge for Bill killing his brother in Abilene, snuck up behind Hickok and shot him dead in the back of the head. Bill was 39 years old.

Wild Bill was buried cradling his prized sporting .50-caliber Springfield Model 1870 rifle in his coffin. When he was reburied in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, the rifle was stolen from his body. Twenty-seven years later, his fellow frontier legend, whiskey drinker, story-teller, doting amour, and possibly even occasional bed mate, Calamity Jane, was buried next to him per her wishes. She died the day before his death date.


PHOTOS: (1) Wild Bill as a young man. Many newspaper and magazine articles depicted Hickok as being extremely dashing, over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, with long locks and mustache. (2) On March 5, 1876, Bill married Agnes Thatcher Lake, the owner of a circus in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She was a skilled tightrope walker, lion tamer and equestrienne. The wedding portrait shows Bill, Agnes and her daughter by a previous marriage. Very shortly thereafter, Bill left for the goldfields of the Black Hills. They were married for five months before he was killed in a poker game in Deadwood at age 39. (3) Part of the love letter Wild Bill wrote his wife Agnes, to be read upon his death: “Agnes, darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife Agnes and with wishes even for my enemies, I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.” (4) Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok became lifelong friends when Wild Bill stopped a man from beating the 11-year-old Buffalo Bill. Later, Wild Bill would perform in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show on the east coast and the Midwest. (5) A pearl-handled, engraved Limited Edition Wild Bill Hickok Navy commemorative revolver that was sold by The American Historical Foundation made by Uberti. Wild Bill’s actual revolvers were Colts. (6) The Deadman’s Hand, two black aces and two black eights, nicknamed after the poker hand Wild Bill Hickok was said to hold when he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood. Hickok was a cautious man and usually insisted on sitting in a corner, so no one could sneak up on him. The face-down card was reputed to be the queen of hearts, found on the floor with a speck of Hickok’s blood on it. (7) Wild Bill during his Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show days in 1873 and 1874, posing with his beloved Springfield rifle.

These related posts may interest you:

-Calamity Jane

-The Greatest Gunfighter: It May Surprise You

-The Deadly Dozen

Wild Bill originally posted June 19, 2019 on Facebook

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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