Wild Bill Hickok: From the Backwoods to the Wild West

If you have ever been to Troy Grove, Illinois, you more than likely would not have known it. It is a “blink and miss it” kind of town. It is nestled in the flat plains of northern Illinois, just south of Mendota, and just north of LaSalle. In the early 1800s, the land north of the Illinois River was slow to settle.  The thick, black, and rich prairie soil was tough to plow, and the winters even tougher. When settlement did spread north, most settlers came with a church. Many towns throughout northern Illinois were settled in such a manner. The land, filled with deer and other wild life, would produce one of America’s greatest legends, Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok would partake in some of America’s greatest events over the next 40 years.

Born James Butler Hickok in 1837 in what was then called Homer, Hickok grew up in an abolitionist and religious home. The family was purportedly known to have helped escaped slaves northward to Lee County and DeKalb County and eastward to Grundy County and Kendall County. Young James was known to explore the countryside and became an expert marksmen in doing so. Hickok also was a voracious reader. Hickok read as many adventure stories as he could get his hands on. He became enamored with the legends of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

At the age of 15, James went south to nearby LaSalle to become a mule boy on the newly opened I & M Canal. He would care for the mules and walk the mules pulling barges up and down the canal. Most days were filled with apples, long walks, and foraging through the nearby forests for game. Hickok and one of the mule boys, Charles Hudson, did not get along. Hudson thought Hickok was challenging him for the head mule boy position. In the ensuing fisticuffs, Hickok won the fight but he thought he had killed Hudson when they fell in to the six foot deep canal. As a result, young James took off for the west.

First Hickok went to Arkansas before he went to Kansas. At the time, the newly minted Kansas territory was in turmoil over whether Kansas was to be slave or free. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 determined that popular sovereignty would decide the matter. Free-soilers began to pour into Kansas just as Pro-slavery settlers arrived. The result was “Bleeding Kansas.” First hooking up with General Jim Lane, then later a 12-year-old Buffalo Bill Cody, Hickok’s skills of riding and shooting came into need. Hickok soon went to work for what would become the Pony Express driving a wagon.Odd jobs in the west were common for Hickok. He never stayed in one place very long, and he never stayed in one profession either. Whether it was fighting a bear, delivering mail, or law enforcement, Hickok was a natural drifter.

In 1861, Hickok was involved in an incident of much dispute. Hickok shot and killed David McCandles at Rock Creek Station. McCandles had come to collect a second payment on the property owned by Russell, Majors, & Waddell and their stagecoach company. Court records referred to him as “Duck Bill.” After the incident, Hickok would grow a mustache to cover his lips, which protruded out like a duck’s bill.

The Atchison Daily Champion newspaper reported the fight this way:

The McCandlas gang consisted of only the leader and three others, and not of fourteen as stated in the magazine. Of these “Wild Bill,” in the fight referred to, shot McKandlas through the heart with a rifle, and then stepping out-of-doors, revolver in hand, shot another of the gang dead; severely wounded a third, who ran off to a ravine near by, and was found there dead, and slightly wounded the fourth, who ran away and was not heard of afterwards. There was no grudge existing between the McKandles gang and “Wild Bill,” but the former had a quarrel with the Stage Company, and had come to burn the station “Bill” was in charge of.

Hickok was said to have killed McCanles during a dispute over funds from the sale of the station. Eventually, Hickok was found not guilty. He did not stay in Rock Creek Station. His next adventure saw him joining the Union Army during the Civil War.

Hickok’s time in the service had him doing many things: Wagon master, teamster, packer, property master, driver, and scout. It is also where Hickok got the name “Wild Bill” rescuing a bartender from a fight. It is rumored, but not substantiated, that Hickok spent all of 1863 in south as a spy. His whereabouts for the year 1863 to this day have not been confirmed.

In 1864, Hickok reappeared and the next few years saw him once again taking odd jobs here and there. But in these years, Hickok’s fame began to spread. His ability to “quick draw” his pistols still became the stuff of legend. Several times during his life, Hickok would be tried for murder, yet he never was convicted. In 1865, David Tutt became one of Hickok’s victims. Like so many other incidents of the time period, gambling debts played a role in the confrontation. The Missouri Weekly printed the following:

David Tutt, of Yellville, Arkansas, was shot on the public square, at 6 o’clock on Friday last, by James B. Hickok, better known in Southwest Missouri as “Wild Bill.” The difficulty occurred from a game of cards. Hickok is a native of Homer, Lasalle County. Illinois, and is about twenty-six years of age. He has been engaged since his sixteenth year, with the exception of about two years, with Russell, Majors & Waddill, in Government service, as scout, guide, or with exploring parties, and has rendered most efficient and signal service to the Union cause, as numerous acknowledgments from the different commanding officers with whom he has served will testify.

After Hickok had taken Tutt to the cleaners in a card game, Tutt brought up a previous debt. Hickok agreed Tutt’s claim forthright. Hickok gave Tutt the balance due. For Tutt, this was not enought. Tutt brought up another debt but Hickok disputed the debt. In the pursuant discussion, Davis took Hickok’s pocket watch. Tutt claimed he would hold it as collateral until Hickok paid the sum in full. Hickok was incensed. However, Hickok did nothing at the time. Tutt was surrounded by his cronies. Had Hickok attempted any retribution, Wild Bill would have met his end right then and there. Hickok agreed Tutt he could keep the watch, but said if Tutt ever wore the watch in public, Wild Bill would shoot him on the spot. Tutt did not scare easily.

On July 21, 1865, Tutt proudly wore the watch in public in downtown Springfield, Missouri. When the two men met face to face, Tutt drew first and missed. Wild Bill did not. He shot Tutt in the heart. The account became the stuff of legend. At the trial, the judge instructed the jury not to decide guilt or innocence based on the facts, but instead to base their decision on whether it was a “fair fight.” Wild Bill was found not guilty.

Hickok’s legend only grew larger in the coming years. The St. Louis Missouri Democrat wrote the following in 1867:

James Butler Hickok, commonly called “Wild Bill,” is one of the finest examples of that peculiar class known as frontiersman, ranger, hunter, and Indian scout. He is now thirty-eight years old, and since he was thirteen the prairie has been his home. He stands six feet one inch in his moccasins, and is as handsome a specimen of a man as could be found. We were prepared, on hearing of “Wild Bill’s” presence in the camp, to see a person who might prove to be a coarse and illiterate bully. We were agreeably disappointed however. He was dressed in fancy shirt and leathern leggings. He held himself straight, and had broad, compact shoulders, was large chested, with small waist, and well-formed muscular limbs. A fine, handsome face, free from blemish, a light moustache, a thin pointed nose, bluish-grey eyes, with a calm look, a magnificent forehead, hair parted from the centre of the forehead, and hanging down behind the ears in wavy, silken curls, made up the most picturesque figure. He is more inclined to be sociable than otherwise; is enthusiastic in his love for his country and Illinois, his native State; and is endowed with extraordinary power and agility, whose match in these respects it would be difficult to find. Having left his home and native State when young, he is a thorough child of the prairie, and inured to fatigue. He has none of the swaggering gait, or the barbaric jargon ascribed to the pioneer by the Beadle penny-liners. On the contrary, his language is as good as many a one that boasts “college laming.” He seems naturally fitted to perform daring actions. He regards with the greatest contempt a man that could stoop low enough to perform “a mean action.” He is generous, even to extravagance. He formerly belonged to the 8th Missouri Cavalry.

Over the next ten years, Hickok lived off this reputation in newspapers and Harper’s Magazine. He was a lawman, showman, and gambler. He lived mainly in Kansas and southwest Missouri during these years. Whether he was tracking or working as a lawman, Hickok’s reputation preceded him. Hickok favorite set of pistols were a set of 1851 Ivory plated Colt Navy 36 caliber Revolvers. He often wore them backwards in holsters, sashes, or belts. Even Hickok’s horse, Black Nell, was the stuff of legend. It was said to lay down just by Hickok’s touch. It was even rumored to come on command and even jump up on a pool table. George Ward Nichols wrote in 1867:

Bill whistled in a low tone. Nell instantly scrambled to her feet, walked toward him, put her nose affectionately under his arm, followed him into the room, and to my extreme wonderment climbed upon the billiard-table, to the extreme astonishment of the table no doubt, for it groaned under the weight of the four-legged animal and several of those who were simply bifurcated, and whom Nell permitted to sit upon her. When she got down from the table, which was as graceful a performance as might be expected under the circumstances, Bill sprang upon her back, dashed through the high wide doorway, and at a single bound cleared the flight of steps and landed in the middle of the street

illustration from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, February, 1867

In the early 1870s Hickok’s health began to wane. It was rumored that his eyesight was beginning to go. Then again, his mental capacities were not in full effect either after accidentally killing one of his deputies. After a brief stint in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he left show business, something he for which didn’t care too fondly.

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in the Dakotas, Wild Bill made  his way north to Deadwood, South Dakota in 1876. An outlaw town, Hickok tried to make it in gold but he soon set up shop mainly as a gambler in the town – set up illegally in Indian territory. Hickok was said to be night blind during this time. The saloons soon became the place for him to search for gold by gambling. Hickok had frequently talked of a premonition that Deadwood would be his last camp. In saloon Number 10, Hickok would meet his fate. With his back facing the back door, Jack McCall walked in and shot Hickok dead. His last words, “It looks like you got me and I’m broke.” His cards, Aces and 8s, the dead man’s hand, fell on the table. McCall faced a kangaroo court in Deadwood and was found not guilty. McCall claimed Hickok had killed a family member of his in Kansas. The Kangaroo Court agreed with McCall that the killing was justified in the lawless town. However, The government later tried McCall in a real court. He was found guilty of the murder of Hickok and executed.

The newspaper simply read about Hickok’s death,

“Died in Deadwood, Black Hills, August 2, 1876, from the effects of a pistol shot, J. B. Hickock [sic] (Wild Bill) formerly of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Funeral services will be held at Charlie Utter’s Camp, on Thursday afternoon, August 3, 1876, at 3 o’clock P. M. All are respectfully invited to attend.”

For further reading…Wild Bill Hickok Gunfighter: An Account of Hickok’s Gunfights by Joseph G. Rosa

Here is the entire Harper New Weekly Magazine article here.



  1. this was a man whom I would have very much like to have met. they don’t make them like that any more.

  2. Way back when I was just a lad, I read a series of biography books about legendary ole west heroes. One of the legendary heroes was Wild Bill Hickok. About the only thing I remember from that book was how Wild Bill’s beloved horse, Black Nell, died… or was deliberately killed. There once was a settlement of invading whites settlers who happened to come under siege and attack by a bunch of Indian savages. Wild Bill bravely and selflessly volunteered to ride like the wind for help. And that he did, riding and spurring Black Nell at her top speed till her courageous heart burst, willfully giving her life for him. I recall that the book taught us lads that Ole Wild Bill did the heroic right thing by knowingly sacrificing his beloved Black Nell to bring rescuers back to that settlement full of unknown white settlers, much to the misfortune of the Indians…. and Wild Bill’s Black Nell. (This is as I can recall)

  3. I didn’t know about Black Nell’s death…too sad. Of all I’ve read about James Butler, I’m so impressed with him, seems like he tried, but was in the wrong place with the wrong people often. I visited Rock Creek Station on Friday, 2017-08-11…I was almost giddy. Then, on my way to Denver, I visited the pony express stations at Julesburg, CO and Gutenburg, NE; plus, stopped at several pony express historic markers. Visited the station at Norton, KS, in June. I’d like to take the express ride starting in St Joseph. I’m sad for James that he “fell” for and married late.

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