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 pictured wearing a fluffy hat
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/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 hickcok sitting
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via 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.