To a generation of schoolboys who grew up watching John Wayne on the silver screen and thrilling to tall tales of the Old West, the name of "Wild Bill Hickok" lives on in American folklore.
It was on this day in 1861 that a young stockman in remote Nebraska began to make that name for himself. Born and raised on a farm in Homer Illinois, James Butler Hickok showed remarkable skill with both rifle and pistol from an early age. At 18 he fled west to Kansas in the mistaken belief that he had killed another man in a fist fight.
By the summer of 1861 he was working as a stockman at Rock Creek Station, a remote stage depot in Nebraska. Nearby lived a mean-spirited rancher named Dave McCanles, who had taken an instant dislike to Hickok and enjoyed insulting him. By now Hickok was going by his father's name of Bill, but McCanles called him Duck Bill and openly questioned his manhood. Hickok took his revenge by secretly romancing McCanles' mistress, Sarah Shull.
Tension between the two came to a head on July 12th, when McCanles, accompanied by two other men, arrived at Rock Creek Station to demand an overdue payment from the station manager. Angry words were exchanged and when McCanles saw Hickok behind a curtain partition he threatened to drag him outside and give him a thrashing.
Keeping a cool head, 24-year-old Hickok warned the rancher he'd end up dead if he tried, but McCanles ignored the warning and advanced on Hickok, who shot him in the chest. Hearing the shots the other two McCanles men ran in with their pistols drawn, but Hickok shot one of them twice and winged the other, both men finished off by other workers at the station.
The story of Hickok's first gunfight spread quickly, embellished with every new telling and firmly establishing his reputation as a cool gunfighter. By the time the story was printed in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, it had Hickok as its hero killing nine men single-handedly! It "quoted" Hickok saying: "I was wild and I struck savage blows", thereby launching the career of "Wild Bill".
Over the next 15 years the legend of Wild Bill Hickok continued to grow, fed partly by genuine acts of daring and skilled marksmanship, but also by a good deal of exaggeration and journalistic enhancement!
After a trial found Hickok had killed McCanles and shot the other men in self-defence, he worked briefly as a scout and wagonmaster for the Union Army, but increasingly turned to gambling as a source of income. Arguments over gambling debts and a stolen watch led to a highly publicised "quick draw duel" between Hickok and another gambler, Davis Tutt.
Standing side on, each man drew and fired his pistol at a range of about 75 yards. Tutt missed but was shot through the heart by Hickok, calling out "Boys, I'm killed" as he collapsed and died. The impromptu "duel" was the first recorded of its kind and became the blueprint for countless Hollywood Wild West gunfights.
Once again Hickok was acquitted and later served as a Deputy US Marshal in various places, earning a reputation for being bold and fearless, if a little quick to use his guns. In 1869, in his first month as Sheriff of Hays, Kansas, he killed two men, both of them armed but drunk. Later, as Marshal of Abilene, Kansas, he was criticised for fraternising with known outlaws and for questionable shootings. During one gunfight he accidentally shot and killed one of his own deputies, who was rushing to his aid. The incident haunted Hickok, who quit law enforcement soon after.
Over the next few years he drifted, earning some money from gambling and from his reputation, before ending up in Deadwood, Dakota Territory in 1876. It was there that he met his death, shot in the back of the head at point-blank range by one Jack McCall. Some said McCall was seeking to make a reputation for himself by killing Hickok, other that he was just a drunken failed gambler who had some feud with Hickok.
Whatever the case, Wild Bill Hickok died as he had lived – by the gun.