The True Story Of Wild Bill Hickok, The Sheriff Of Deadwood

One of the most fascinating historical figures from the days of the American wild west is Wild Bill Hickok. Most famous for being the sheriff of Deadwood, the imposing figure held many titles during his lifetime. For decades, Hollywood has tried to immortalize him, but how much of his life have they gotten right? Born in 1837, Wild Bill rampaged his way through life and left a trail of destruction in his wake. This is the story of Wild Bill Hickok that Hollywood just doesn’t get right.

He Fought In The Union Army

union army generals
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

At the start of the Civil War, Bill Hickok signed up with the Union army. Initially, he was given the role of teamster. After a while it was clear he was capable of more and he was promoted to wagon master.

One year after joining the Union army, Hickock was discharged. The reasons for his discharge are still unknown today. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though and teamed up next with the Kansas Brigade in various roles.

He Dueled Over A Watch

wild bill hickcok sitting
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt were two men who did not get along. Tutt was a gambler and won a gold watch from Hickock one day. After he lost his watch, Bill asked Davis not to wear it in public because it was special to him.

Tutt didn’t listen, and the conflict led to one of the first documented quick-draw duels in the Wild West. When the two drew their weapons, Tutt missed his shot and Hickok didn’t. He was arrested for the death but was cleared of all charges by a jury.

His Family’s Possible Connection To The Underground Railroad

fugitive slaves on the underground railroad
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Bill Hickok grew up in an abolitionist household. His family was even rumored to be a stop on the Underground Railroad for refugee slaves. The railroad established safe houses and secret routes for slaves to find paths to free states and even Canada.

If the Hickok family house was used as a part of the Underground Railroad, it helped to free nearly 1,000 slaves per year at its peak. Like many stories about Hickok’s past, there is no confirmation if this one is true.

Hickock Claimed To Have Fought A Bear And Won

black bear at a zoo
Kenneth Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Kenneth Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

While working as a constable for the Monticello Township, Bill Hickok told a wild story where he claimed to have fought a bear. He said he approached the animal and its two cubs when he noticed them blocking a roadway.

He shot the bear, which only angered it and it attacked him. The enraged beast crushed Hickok with its body, but he managed to take out his knife and fight it off. The encounter left him badly injured, but still alive.

The Origin Of His Name Came From His Nose

wild bill close up
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When he was born, Wild Bill Hickok was named James Butler Hickok. He was later given the nickname “Duck Bill” because of his peculiarly long nose. When he tired of being the butt of everyone’s jokes, he grew a mustache and rebranded himself as “Wild Bill.”

During the same time period he was known as “Duck Bill” he was also noted for having a slim build, which led to another nickname, “Shanghai Bill.”

Charlie Utter Tried To Straighten Him Out

charlie utter
De Agostini/Getty Images
De Agostini/Getty Images

Along his travels, Hickok teamed up with Charlie Utter and even became a partner in Utter’s train business. As soon as their lives became intertwined, Utter could tell that Bill was going down a dangerous path with his behavior.

While they worked together, Utter tried to ease Hickok away from his worst habits in hopes that he could live a long life. As you’ll earn, Utter’s efforts, while noble, ended up being lost when the pair went their separate ways.

He Left His Wife To Travel With Utter

wild bill and friends
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

At 38 years old, Hickok married Agnes Lake. She was 12 years younger than him, and the marriage was doomed to fail from the beginning. It was only a few months into their lives together that Hickok hitched his wagon to Charlie Utter.

Hickok was excited about the idea of heading to South Dakota to prospect for gold. He and Agnes lived in Wyoming Territory, and he left her there to pursue his own monetary interests.

He Was Red-Headed

wild bill painting
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

One of the big things Hollywood gets wrong about Bill is that he had brown or black hair. Pictures of him tend to be in black and white, making his hair look dark, and in turn leading to the way he is portrayed on film.

If you study Wild Bill, however, you learn that most written accounts about him describe him as having red hair. Much like the confusion with Abraham Lincoln’s voice, this is one aspect of Hickok you see in movies we can guarantee is false.

Little Big Man Helped Shape His Modern Image

image from little big man
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

In 1970, the film Little Big Man was released, featuring Hickok as a character. Jeff Corey played him in the movie, which also starred Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway.

The facts put forth in the movie about Bill are arguably inaccurate, despite the film’s recognition by the Library of Congress as a modern classic. One of the biggest facts that the movie falsifies is how Hickok died. In the film, his life is taken by the son of a man he took the life of.

He Never Sat With His Back To The Door

cowboys playing poker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During his life, Hickok made a lot of enemies. He had so many folks coming after him that whenever he went to a pub or saloon, he would find a seat where he could sit with his back facing the wall.

Having a view of the door meant that no one could sneak up on him. Even when he would play cards and gamble he would make sure he was sitting in a seat with his back facing the wall.

Was He Married To Calamity Jane?

calamity jane on a horse
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1941, Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick was awarded old age assistance after making the claim she was the child of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. McCormick even had a marriage document as proof that the two were lovers.

According to the document, Hickok and Jane were married in 1873. Despite this, Hickok’s history is so shrouded in false details and claims that historians continue to argue against McCormick’s claim, citing multiple inconsistencies in her story.

Bill Never Forgot His Marriage To Agnes Lake

wild bill pictured wearing a fluffy hat
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Wild Bill Hickok had many loves throughout his life, but Agnes Lake may have been his greatest love of all. Before he died, years after leaving her for his travels, he wrote her a letter:

“Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife—Agnes—and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.”

Hickok And Jane Were Buried Next To Each Other

calamity jane at bill hickok's grave
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Further confusing the narrative of Hickok and Calamity Jane are the competing stories of how they ended up being buried next to each other. One story states that Jane requested to be buried next to Hickok.

The other story comes from the men who buried Hickok and claimed he thought it would be funny to be buried next to her because he had “no use” for her. Which version do you think is true?

One Of His First Jobs Was As A Detective

detectives conversing
Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Long before Wild Bill Hickok made himself a home in the Wild West he lived in Springfield, Missouri, where he worked as a detective for the city police. In this job, he was given several tasks ranging from menial to highly skilled.

Three of his most important tasks were policing local Union Army troops, verifying liquor licenses around town, and bounty hunting. It was while he was doing this job that his now-famous rivalry with Davis Tutt began.

He Gained An Enemy Giving A Man Money For Breakfast

wild bill playing cards
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

Bill Hickok loved to gamble, and this next story shows how that would sometimes get him in trouble. In 1876, Bill sat down at a saloon in Deadwood and entered into a game of cards with a heavily inebriated man named Jack McCall.

McCall lost a large sum of money during the game, so Hickok offered him some money back to buy breakfast. The man agreed, but was enraged by the charity and would later confront Hickok for his good deed.

McCall Returned To Settle The Debt

bill hickok death
Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

On August 2, 1876, Hickok once again sat down in the saloon for a game of poker. This time, however, he was not able to find a seat with his back to the wall and was forced to sit with it to the door.

As “luck” would have it, the one time Hickok wouldn’t be able to sit the way he preferred would be the last. Jack McCall, who still held a grudge over the previous game of poker walked up behind Wild Bill and took his life.

Hickok Is Responsible For The “Dead Man’s Hand”

GettyImages-1047947546
Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images
Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images

At the time of his passing, Wild Bill Hickok had a poker hand that included two black eight and two black aces. This hand has since that day been known as the “Dead Man’s Hand” during a game of five-card stud.

This signature hand is the only part of Hickok’s legacy. While it’s impossible to know which stories about him are true or not, there is no questioning the impact his legend left on our understanding of the American Wild West.

Charlie Utter Took Responsibility For Hickok’s Death

bill hickok grave site
Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After the events of August 2, 1876, were settled, Charlie Utter took responsibility for the death of his friend. Stricken with grief, Utter was the first to report the act of vengeance in the paper and held Hickok’s funeral at his camp.

Furthermore, Utter took control of what Hickok’s gravestone would read. One portion called out McCall for the heinous act, while another message said he hoped to “meet again in the happy hunting ground to part no more.”

McCall Said This Was The Reason

jack mccall killed bill hickok
Sharon bomboske/Pinterest
Sharon bomboske/Pinterest

Although it’s easy to guess that the action Jack McCall took against Bill Hickok was simply petty revenge, he claimed it was much bigger than that. Afterward, he claimed that wasn’t settling a debt at all, but was instead avenging his brother.

What’s interesting, is this story is similar to what happened in Little Big Man. Even though this is the story that has been spread around about the reasoning for Hickok’s death, historians have never found hard evidence this is true.

McCall Went On Trial Twice

wild west trial
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

After his final run-in with Wild Bill Hickok, Jack McCall reportedly stole a horse to flee the scene but fell off. Authorities found him hiding in the local butcher shop and arrested him.

McCall ended being put on trial twice for the same crime. His first trial lasted two hours and consisted of a jury of locals who found him innocent. When he was caught bragging later, he was arrested again and found guilty for his crime.

Wild Bill’s Home Town Was Renamed

Wild Bill's Home Town Was Renamed
Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Wild Bill Hickok was born in 1837 in a little town known as Homer, Illinois. Nowadays, the town goes by a different name, one that was taken from a nearby grove named for one of the village’s earliest settlers, Troy Grove.

According to the 2010 census, the population of Troy Grove is only 250, shrinking from the beginning of the millennia. One thing that remained the same through the years, though, is the Wild Bill Hickok Memorial.

He’s Believed To Be Part Of One Of The First Quick-Draw Duels

He's Believed To Be Part Of One Of The First Quick-Draw Duels
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

One of Hickok’s “enemies” was a man named Tutt. The two gambled, argued, and would even chase the same women. But it took Tutt winning Hickok’s prized watch and wearing it in public for their growing resentment to finally boil over.

On July 21, 1865, the two met in Springfield’s town square. It’s believed that it was there that the first quick-draw duel occurred, with Tutt losing and Hickok being arrested for murder. Of course, this was a different time. So, Hickok was found not guilty and was released.

His House Might Have Been Part Of The Underground Railroad

His House Might Have Been Part Of The Underground Railroad
American Stock/Getty Images
American Stock/Getty Images

Wild Bill’s father, William Hickok senior, was an abolitionist, opposed to slavery and everything it stood for. He was very passionate about freedom, and it’s been reported that the Hickok family home was one of the stops along the Underground Railroad.

Black slaves would stop at the house for refuge, taking a short break before continuing their journey north to freedom. Wild Bill was brought up with the same beliefs as his father, fighting for the Union and even serving as a scout for the 10th Cavalry Regiment, a segregated African-American unit.

He Wrote A Letter To His Wife Before Leaving Her

He Wrote A Letter To His Wife Before Leaving Her
adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images
adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

On March 5, 1876, Wild Bill married Agnes Thatcher Lake. And while Wild Bill loved her in his own way, it didn’t stop him from leaving her a few months into their marriage. However, he did leave her a letter.

Bills letter read, “Agnes Darling if such should be we never meet again while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife—Agnes—and with wishes, even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.” At least he had a way with words!

He Had A Favorite Type Of Weapon

He Had A Favorite Type Of Weapon
Lorin Morgan-Richards/Pinterest
Lorin Morgan-Richards/Pinterest

As most gunslingers did back in the days of the wild west, Bill Hickok had a favorite type of gun. Hickok favored a Colt 1851 Navy Model, of which he had a pair of. The matching pair had ivory handles engraved with his name.

But he did something others didn’t. Instead of holstering his guns with the butts facing backward, they were forward. Hickok had to use a movement called a cavalry draw if he ever had to un-holster the guns.

An Actor He Was Not

An Actor He Was Not
Sherry Petcosky/Pinterest
Sherry Petcosky/Pinterest

In 1873, Buffalo Bill Cody invited Wild Bill Hickok to join an acting troupe with him. Wild Bill hated the experience, realizing early on that he did not like the spotlight on him. And that’s meant in a literal sense.

Wild bill hated when a spotlight was shown on him so much that once he actually took out his gun, shooting the light! Needless to say, he wound up quitting the acting troupe a few months after joining.

He Was Inducted Into The Poker Hall of Fame

He Was Inducted Into The Poker Hall of Fame
The Sarantuya/Pinterest
The Sarantuya/Pinterest

Due to his legendary poker and gambling skills, Wild Bill Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979, the first year the hall of fame for professional poker players was founded.

He is considered to be on the best card players to grace a poker table before the 20th century. But that’s not his only claim to fame when it comes to poker. He is one of three players to die while playing the game, alongside Tom Abdo and Jack Straus.

Inspiration Behind An Oscar-Nominated Film

Inspiration Behind An Oscar-Nominated Film
National General Pictures
National General Pictures

While there are more than a few films about the legendary Wild Bill Hickok, not all of them were nominated for an Academy Award. That honor was given to one of the movies the lawman inspired, the 1970 movie Little Big Man, with Chief Dan George earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Old Lodge Skins.

Of course, the events and characters in the film are wildly fictionalized, but it still gives a somewhat accurate account of what w know about the man.

He’s The Inspiration Behind Some Songs

He's The Inspiration Behind Some Songs
Tank Dempsey/Pinterest
Tank Dempsey/Pinterest

Interestingly, Wild Bill Hickok isn’t only the inspiration behind films but also for songs. He has been the subject matter for popular artists such as Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and, interestingly, Motorhead.

And then there is Colter Wall, who has a song titled, “Wild Bill Hickok.” The lyrics pretty much sum up Hickok’s life, legacy, and legendary moments, beginning from his birth in Illinois and ending with his untimely death at the hands of Jack McCall.

He’s The Inspiration Behind One Of HBO’s Most Beloved Series

He's The Inspiration Behind One Of HBO's Most Beloved Series
HBO
HBO

Along with the films and songs made about the legendary Wild Bill Hickok, HBO made a series based on Walter Hill’s novel Deadwood. The HBO series featured figures such as Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, and, of course, Wild Bill.

The show ran for three seasons, and in its time, won eight Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. Deadwood is now considered to be one of the greatest television series of all time, and a lot of people think it was canceled too soon.

His Finances Went Up And Down

His Finances Went Up And Down
Vidal Buckridge/Pinterest
Vidal Buckridge/Pinterest

Even though Wild Bill Hickok is regarded as one of the best poker players of all time, his finances weren’t what one would call stable. The gambling man’s fortunes would rise and fall more times than a roller coaster.

During times of low finances, he would often be found living on the streets. And in his last few years of living in Deadwood, South Dakota, Wild Bill was frequently arrested for vagrancy. It seems as though he never learned how to stop while he was ahead.

Master Of Shootouts

Master Of Shootouts
Ne~Ne/Pinterest
Ne~Ne/Pinterest

Wild Bill Hickok was a master at more than poker and gambling; he was a very skilled gunslinger. His skills were put to the test in 1867 hen he faced off against four men after Hickok struck one of them for hitting his drink out of his hand.

Of course, Hickok was able to persuade them to step outside and have an actual shootout. Standing 40 feet apart, Hickok was able to take out three of the men, injuring the fourth.

Hickok’s Grave Was Moved In 1879

Hickok's Grave Was Moved In 1879
Louis Burklow/Pinterest
Louis Burklow/Pinterest

After Hickok died, he was buried in the Ingelside Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota. His sendoff had the whole town in attendance. But three years after his death, in 1879, Hickok’s friend, Charlie Utter, had his grave moved.

Utter paid to move his friends grave to the new cemetery in Deadwood called Mount Moriah Cemetery. He was given a ten-foot plot of land, surrounded by a cast-iron fence and an American flag in the ground.

He Accidentally Shot Someone Coming To Assist Him

He Accidentally Shot Someone Coming To Assist Him
The Vintage News/Pinterest
The Vintage News/Pinterest

Wild Bill Hickok and Phil Coe never had a good relationship. Then, one day in 1871, when Hickok attempted to arrest the man for firing his gun within the town’s limits, something horrible happened. Hickok was forced to shoot Coe because he’d turned a gun on him, but he accidentally shot someone else, too.

Seeing someone running towards him, Hickok shot first and asked questions later. Unfortunately, that man happened to be Deputy Marshal Mike Williams, someone who was running over to help Hickok.

Hickok Had A Best Friend In Charlie Utter

Hickok Had A Best Friend In Charlie Utter
William W. Osborn/Pinterest
William W. Osborn/Pinterest

Although Charlie utter wasn’t present for the events of 1876, he took full responsibility for the death of his friend, Bill Hickok. Utter took it upon himself to arrange the funeral, place an ad in the local paper, and decrying his death by “the assassin Jack McCall” on his grave marker.

He even went as far as placing a personal message on the marker, saying that he hopes to “meet again in the happy hunting ground to part no more.”