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by William H. Benson

August 1, 2002

     Unlike the Lone Ranger or Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or the myriad other fictionalized Westerners who rode horses and were quick with pistols, Wild Bill Hickok was an actual person who lived during the lawless days of the Wild West.  Although archivists have only rare specimens of his signature, they do exist–proof that he was not thought up by a dime-store novelist.

     And the most amazing thing about the West of the latter half of the nineteenth century is that the more colorful characters, such as Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Wild Bill Hickok, entered into the Western mythology at the same time that they were living.  

     James Butler Hickok left his home in Troy Grove, Illinois shortly after his father died, and he headed west.  He drove wagons for Russell, Waddell, & Majors, where he met Bill Cody, who was riding horses for the Pony Express.  He sided with the Union during the Civil War and then scouted for General George Armstrong Custer during the Indian Wars.

     He claimed to have wrestled a bear with only a knife and lived to tell about it.  In Rock Creek, Nebraska, he quarreled with some young thugs and ended up killing them all but was judged innocent by reason of self-defense.  Above all, he worked hard at building up his reputation.

     But he impressed people wherever.  An officer at Fort Riley wrote home.

     “I forgot to tell you about our guide–the most striking object in camp.  Six feet, lithe, active, sinewy, daring rider, dead shot with pistol and rifle, long locks, fine features and mustache, buckskin leggings, red shirt, broad-brim hat, two pistols in belt, rife in hand–he is a picture.  He goes by the name of Wild Bill, and tells wonderful stories of his horsemanship, fighting, and hair-breadth escapes.  We do not, however, feel under any obligation to believe them all.”

     His real claim to fame though was as a Sheriff in the lawless cowtowns–Hays City and Abilene, Kansas.  After weeks of driving the cattle north to the railroad, the Texas cowboys strode into town ready to party.  They gambled, drank, and shot up the town, but they also had to contend with Wild Bill Hickok who ruled with an iron fist, and enforced the law that no guns were permitted in town. 

     In 1872 Wild Bill traveled east, where for two years he appeared in numerous traveling Wild West shows, including Buffalo Bill’s, sealing his fame as a larger-than-life Westerner.  But he quickly wearied of life on the stage and returned to the West.

     On August 2, 1876 at 4:10 p.m. Jack McCall walked into the No.10 Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territories and shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head.  It seems that Hickok’s enemies had convinced McCall that he should do this.  But whatever the reason, the bullet passed through Hickok’s body and eventually lodged in Captain Massey’s left forearm, where it remained.

     Hickok normally sat with his back to the wall, but that day the three others at the gambling table would not let him have that chair.  So he sat exposed.  Legend has it that he held two black eights and two black aces–which is now called the Dead Man’s Hand.  Wild Bill Hickok was buried atop Mount Moriah overlooking Deadwood.  He was thirty-nine years old.

     In the trial, Jack McCall was initially declared innocent and released, but in another trial in Yankton, he was found guilty and on March 1, 1877 was hanged.

     Wild Bill Hickok was the point man for the law’s push west onto the frontier.  Sworn to uphold the law, he tried to bring order.  For it is law and order, meaning that the two go hand in hand; one does not exist without the other.  What ensures American citizens’ their order and their liberty is the law.  The Statue of Liberty holds upright the flaming torch of liberty in one hand, but tucked up next to her heart is a tablet of laws.  The Founding Fathers understood that liberty and order exist and flourish in an atmosphere of rightly produced and executed laws.

     Keeping a lid on lawlessness is civilization’s ongoing battle.  It was so during Wild Bill Hickok’s life, and it is today.