Today In Western History: James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok Is Born

May 27, 1837


One of the true legends of the west is born today in Homer, Illinois.  His given name is James, but he will be forever known as Bill. 

James Butler "WIld Bill" Hickok, legendary lawman, shootist and gambler
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, legendary lawman, shootist and gambler

He will become a stagecoach driver, Army scout, hunting guide, an actor – a bad one, at that — a lawman, and a gambler.  He will fight a bear, and become involved as a participant in one of the most iconic events of all western folklore.  He will be known as a dandy and ladies’ man, and one of the most deadly shootists of all time.  He will be friends with one of the most famous soldiers of all time, and one of the most famous showmen of the frontier.  He will know on a first name basis some of the most well-known figures of the west, and he will always be associated with his last card game.

James Butler Hickok is an American original.  He will serve with the Union Army as a scout, courier, and spy, and be successful at all of them.  He wasn’t afraid of anything, including bragging about him-self, and he wasn’t intimidated by anyone either.  He moved to Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory in 1855, at age 18, following a fight with a Charles Hudson, during which both men tumbled into a canal, believing they had killed the other one. Hickok fled the area and joined “General” Jim Lane’s “Free State Army” (also known as the “Jayhawkers“), a vigilante group then active in the Kansas Territory.  While he was serving as a Jayhawker, he met young 12-year-old William Frederick Cody (later known

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo

as “Buffalo Bill”) who, despite his youth, was serving as a scout for the U.S. Army during the Utah War.

One of the major events in Hickok’s life took place in 1860, when he was badly injured by a bear while he was driving a Russell, Waddell, & Majors freight team from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Keeping in mind he frequently told tall tales, according to Hickok’s account, he found the road blocked by a cinnamon bear and its two cubs. Dismounting, he approached the bear and fired a shot into its head, but the bullet only glanced off its thick skull, which only served to infuriate it further. The bear attacked, crushing Hickok with its body. Hickok said that he managed to fire another shot, disabling the bear’s paw. Hickok asserted the bear grabbed his arm in its mouth but he was able to grab his knife and kill it.

 While recuperating from the fight with the bear, James experienced another major event in his life.  He was convalescing at the Rock Creek Way Station of the freight company.  On July 12, 1861, Dave McCanless went to the Station office to demand an overdue property payment

David McCanless, first known victim of James Butler Hickok
David McCanless, first known victim of James Butler Hickok

 from Horace Wellman, who was the station manager. McCanles reportedly threatened Wellman, and either Hickok (who was hiding behind a curtain) or Wellman killed him.   Hickok, Wellman, and an employee, J. W. Brink, were tried for killing McCanles but were found to have acted in self-defense. McCanles was the first man Hickok may have killed.

On July 21, 1865, Hickok and Davis Tutt had several disagreements in Springfield, Missouri about Hickok’s unpaid gambling debts and

Davis Tutt, loser of the first recorded face off gunfight with James B. "Wild Bill" Hickok
Davis Tutt, loser of the first recorded face off gunfight with James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok

competing affections for the same woman (Susanna Moore). Tutt took a watch of Hickok’s who promptly demanded its return and warned Tutt not to be seen wearing it.  The next  day Hickok saw Tutt wearing the watch and warned him to not cross the town square with it.  Tutt challenged Hickok and the two men assumed classic duel stance, facing each other sideways. Their “quick draw duel” was the first of its kind. The “quick draw gunfight” was later fictionalized as a typical action by Hickok, but it is the first known instance of the classic Western gunfight, and in all the documentation and history of the old west, this is the ONLY time it ever happened, the opening of the tv show Gunsmoke not withstanding.  However, unlike the stereotypical Hollywood gunfight in which the two combatants stand face-to-face, the two men faced each other sideways, before drawing and firing their weapons. Tutt’s shot missed but Hickok struck Tutt through the heart from about 75 yards (69 m) away. Tutt called out, “Boys, I’m killed” before he collapsed and died.

Over the next 11 years, Hickok served as a lawman at Ft. Riley, Kansas; Abilene, Kansas; Ft. Hays, Kansas; where he kept order based on his fearsome reputation.  Few wanted to risk trading shots with Wild Bill, as he never shot to wound and uncommonly accurate when he did.  He served as a guide for General Custer, and was a favorite of Libby, the General’s wife.  He and Tom Custer, the General’s brother, did not get along.   He ‘trod the boards’ for Bill Cody in New York, where he would notoriously shoot close to the legs of the other actors to scare them.  He was only shooting blanks but they hurt, nonetheless.

In August of 1876, he was secretly going blind from glaucoma and ophthalmia Hickok had a premon-ition that Deadwood would be his last camp, and he expressed this belief to his friend Charlie Utter (also known as Colorado Charlie) and the others who were traveling with them. On August 2, 1876, Hickok was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. Hickok usually sat with his back to a wall, but the only seat open when he joined the game that afternoon was a chair that would put his back to a door. Twice he asked another player by the name of Charles Rich to change seats with him but Rich refused.   A former buffalo hunter, Jack McCall (better known as “Crooked Nose Jack”), entered the saloon unnoticed by Hickok. McCall walked to within a few feet of Hickok, drew a pistol and shouted, “Damn you! Take that!” before firing at Hickok point blank. McCall’s bullet hit Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The bullet emerged through Hickok’s right cheek, striking another player, Captain Massie, in the left wrist. The murder weapon was a 18 inch “Sharps Improved” revolver.


To purchase a signed copy of Larry Auerbach’s novel “The Spirit Of Redd Mountain”, Click Here

Photo courtesy of

Today In Western History: Edward Zane Carroll Judson Is Born

March 20 —

Edward Zane Carroll Judson is born today, in 1823, in Stamford, New York.  He didn’t become well known until 1845, when he founded a sensationalistic magazine in Nashville, Tennesee, called Ned Buntline’s Own. 

Edward Zane Carroll "Ned Buntline" Judson
Edward Zane Carroll “Ned Buntline” Judson

Ned Buntline became the best known of several pseudonyms he used during his exciting career. Buntline’s goal in life was very simple. He wanted to make as much money as possible writing stories that the public would pay to read. He filled the pages of Ned Buntline’s Own with a variety of fantastic and outrageous stories, although he tended to favor nautical adventures. A compulsive womanizer (he was married an incredible seven times), he ended up killing a jealous husband who suspected him of seducing his wife in 1846.  Even though Buntline was only defending himself, some of the townspeople sympathetic to the dead man decided to hang Buntline from an awning post in the town square, but luckily for him, and for history, Buntline’s friends cut the rope before he strangled and he was spirited out of town.  Buntline relocated to New York, where he began publishing his magazine once more. Al-though he had once desired to become a serious writer, he was desperate to make a living so he began to write more for a mass audience. Buntline’s popular adventures were successful beyond his expect-ations, and he penned dozens of melodramatic “shocking” stories over the course of only a few years. By the time he was in his late 20s, Buntline had earned the title “King of the Dime Novels” and was making an excellent living.

After traveling to San Francisco in 1869, Buntline realized he could easily adapt his stock adventure plots to a setting in the American West.  At about the same time he met a handsome young scout and buffalo hunter named William Frederick Cody. Buntline claimed to have given Cody the nickname

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo

“Buffalo Bill,” but Cody later said he earned the name years before as a hunter for the railroads.  It was Buntline’s decision to write a dime novel starring Buffalo Bill Cody made the relatively unknown scout into a national media star. Buntline’s book The Scout of the Plains grossly exaggerated Cody’s western adventures, even making up the entire story and flagrantly manufacturing the details to sup-port the story, but the Eastern public loved the thrilling tales.  Always the promoter, Buntline turned the novel into a play that he staged in Chicago. In 1872, Buntline convinced Cody himself to travel to the city and play himself in the production. Cody was a poor actor, but his participation brought in people and money.  Cody broke with Buntline after a year, but the national fame he had acquired as a result of Buntline’s endless energy and boundless imagination eventually allowed “Buffalo Bill” to create his famous Wild West show. Buntline churned out other western dime novels, and he eventually became the nation’s top literary money earner, surpassing the income of serious authors such as Samuel Langhorne Clemons (“Mark Twain“) and Walt Whitman.  Buntline prized his wealth, but he always remained scornful of his own work. “I found that to make a living I must write ‘trash’ for the masses, for he who endeavors to write for the critical few, and do his genius justice, will go hungry if he has no other means of support.”

One of the other famous legends that was attributed to him was about a set of special guns that he sup-posedly presented to a group of famous lawmen.  The guns were a variation of the famous Colt Peace-maker, but with an extra-long barrel.  This legend was started by Stuart N. Lake in his HIGHLY fiction-

Stuart N. Lake, creator of the legend of Wyatt Earp
Stuart N. Lake, creator of the legend of Wyatt Earp

alized biography of Wyatt Earp in 1931.  The only problem with this enduring legend is that neither  Colt, nor any of the other firearm manufacturers, ever made the extra-long barrel in that time period, and none of the researchers have ever found any proof that the real Wyatt Earp ever owned such a fanciful weapon.  Certainly a 12” barrel would have created some logistical problems for a quick draw, no matter how fast the gun artist was.

Perhaps more than any single writer, Ned Buntline was responsible for creating a highly romantic-cized and somewhat misleading image of the American West as the setting for great adventure and excitement. Buntline died at his home in Stamford, New York, in 1886. He was 63 years old and had written more than 400 novels and countless other short stories and articles.


To purchase a signed copy of Larry Auerbach’s novel “COMMON THREADS”, Click Here

 Photo courtesy of