Deadwood History Link

Thursday, 14 June 2012 23:19

Wild Bill

His contemporaries called him Wild Bill, and the newspapermen of the day made him a legend in his own time. He was written about by General George Armstrong Custer and “Buffalo Bill” Cody. What are the facts? James Butler Hickok was born in 1837 inIllinois and spent his formative years helping out on the farm.  Most of his adult years were spent in the West where his exploits included working for Pony Express, being employed as a detective, scouting for the US Army, and as the Marshall of Abilene, Kansas.  

He stood over 6 feet tall, had shoulder length light brown hair and gray eyes. Libbie Custer describes him in her 1890 book, Following the Guidon,

"Physically he was a delight to look upon.  Tall, lithe, and free in every motion, he rode and walked as if every muscle was perfection, and the careless swing of his body as he moved seemed perfectly in keeping with the man, the country, the time in which he lived.  I do not recall anything finer in the way of physical perfection than Wild Bill when he swung himself lightly from his saddle, and with graceful, swaying step, squarely set shoulders and well poised head…”  

Five months before his death, he married Agnes Lake in Cheyenne,Wyoming Territory.  Although this was his only documented marriage, evidence indicates that he was a ladies man.  

Part of the Hickok legend was built on his ability to handle a pistol with either hand.  He was the first of the so-called "fast guns."  He carried his pistols in his belt, in an unusual 'butts-forward position. Although his contemporaries were mixed in their opinion of his marksmanship, everyone agreed that when he shot at a man, Hickok was in a class by himself. His greatness was his ability to stay calm, taking very deliberate and careful aim...

Wild Bill liked to gamble, but opinions vary as to his abilities.  Some people said that Hickok would rather "indulge in poker than eat," and that he would "gamble the shirt off his back."  One story tells of Hickok wagering  his last earthly possession, a black and tan terrier. 

Hickok's life of adventure ended during a card game in Deadwood’s No. 10 Saloon.  Although supposedly black Aces and Eights and a nine of Diamonds - forever known as The Dead Man’s Hand - the actual composition of Wild Bill’s final hand of cards remains an unresolved issue. 

Over a century has passed since Wild Bill died, but his name lives on – as a marksman, a gambler and a legend of the American West.


  • Buried Hickok, The Memoirs of White Eye Anderson.  Creative Publishing Company 1980.
  • They Called Him Wild Bill The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok,  Joseph G.  Rosa, University of Oklahoma Press, 2nd edition 1974.
  • Wild Bill and Deadwood, Mildred Fielder, Superior Pub., 1965.
  • The West of Wild Bill Hickok, Joseph G. Rosa, University of Oklahoma Press 1982.
  • Wild Bill Hickok – The Man and his Myth, J. Rosa, 1996.
  • Wild Bill Hickok: Deadwood City - End of Trail, Thadd M. Turner, Universal Pub., 2001.