The Ambitious Life Of General George Custer

General Custer was a renowned United States Army officer and cavalry commander for the Union Army during the American Civil War and the American Indian Wars. He worked closely with some of the most prominent commanders of his time, who noticed Custer’s natural ability and mind for warfare. He quickly rose in the ranks and became one of the most recognizable faces of the Union war effort. Yet, he is best remembered for his actions at the Battle of Little Bighorn. There, he and all of his command were killed by Native Americans in what has grown to be known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Now, take a look into who this decorated soldier was and what separated him from the others during his time.

He Was Known For Keeping Up His Appearance

Regardless that Custer had a rather dirty job as a soldier, he always made sure that he looked good. He was known to be flamboyant with his style, almost always wearing a black velvet uniform with coils of gold laces, spurs on his boots, a broad-brimmed sombrero, and a red scarf around his neck.

Picture of Custer
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

As if that wasn’t enough, he also liked to show off his golden curls and would perfume his hair with cinnamon oil.

He Was A Hard Man To Kill

Considering all of the massive battles and bloody military campaigns that he led, it was a miracle that he lived as long as he did. Not only did he not die, but he also managed to avoid serious injury, despite his daring charges and having eleven horses shot out from under him.

Picture of Custer
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

It wasn’t long before the phrase “Custer’s luck” began circulating among the troops. Unfortunately, his supposed luck ran out during his last stand at Little Bighorn.

He Graduated Last In His Class At West Point

Although Custer made a name for himself while serving in the army, he wasn’t the greatest student while attending the United States Military Academy West Point. During his time there, he earned the nickname among his fellow cadets as the “dare-devil of the class,” dedicating his time to pranks and tomfoolery rather than his academic studies.

Custer on his graduation day
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MPI/Getty Images

His behavior usually resulted in extra guard duty on Saturdays, although he did graduate. However, when he left the academy in 1861, he was the lowest-ranking cadet known as “the goat.”

Buffalo Bill Helped Make Him Famous

Although Custer’s wife spent the remaining years of her life writing stories about her deceased husband’s valor, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody also helped cement his name in history. Buffalo Bill had scouted for Custer at one point, and weeks after the Battle of Little Bighorn, he killed and scalped a Cheyanne warrior named Yellow Hair, claiming it was “the first scalp for Custer.”

Portrait of Buffalo Bill
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American Stock/Getty Images

Bill would later incorporate Custer’s Last Stand into his theater routine titled “Custer’s Last Rally,” which even included some of the Native Americans that had been present at the battle.

He Was Portrayed By Ronald Reagan

Before Ronald Reagan became the 40th President of the United States, he made a name for himself in Hollywood. In 1940, he played the role of a young Custer in Santa Fe Trail. He starred opposite to Errol Flynn, who played J.E.B. Stuart, hunting abolitionist John Brown in pre-Civil War Kansas.

Reagan as General Custer
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Although the film was successful at the box office, it was riddled with historical inaccuracies, not that most audiences cared. Just a year later, Flynn would star as Custer in They Died With Their Boots On.

He Was The Youngest Civil War General In The Union Army

While Custer may not have been the best student while attending West Point Academy, his mind for combat was proven on the battlefield. Following his graduation, Custer joined the Potomac Army, one of the most significant forces in the Union Army. There, he made a name for himself with his cavalry charges, leadership style, and tactical skill.

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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

At the young age of 23, Custer was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, making him the youngest in the army. He earned his nickname “Boy General” for his valor during the Battle of Gettysburg, and by the end of the war had risen to major general.

He Wasn’t The Only Custer To Die At Little Bighorn

On June 25, 1876, Custer’s force of over 200 men, including himself, met their fate at the Battle of Little Bighorn. On that day, the combined forces of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes fought against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army. Custer and his men were decimated by the Native Americans, which is now referred to as Custer’s Last Stand.

Native Americans charging
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

However, General Custer wasn’t the only member of his family to die on the battlefield. There were four other members of the Custer family, including his 18-year-old nephew Henry Lee, brother-in-law James Calhoun, and his two younger brothers Boston and Thomas.

He Helped Find Gold

In 1874, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills. While traveling near the French Creek near what is now Custer, South Dakota, he stumbled upon gold, which he announced to the public.

Men mining for gold
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In response, Custer’s announcement sparked what is now known as the Black Hills Gold Rush. This led to the development of the area, including the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, which grew in notoriety for its lawlessness and attracted some of the biggest Old West figures of the time.

His Wife Owned The Table That General Lee Signed His Surrender On

After being defeated at Appomattox Courthouse, Confederate General Robert E. Lee signed his official surrender on a table in a house near the battlefield. Although nobody thought much of the table at the time, it eventually fell into the hands of Custer’s wife, Elizabeth.

Lee signing his surrender
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although the table originally belonged to General Sheridan, he ended up giving it to Custer for his services during the war. Elizabeth lived until 1933, and when she died, she bequeathed the table to the Smithsonian Institution.

His Body Was Not Harmed By The Native Americans

Although it was common for both the Native Americans and the United States military to scalp each other or worse while in conflict, no such harm was done to Custer. While many of Custer’s men had their bodies mutilated by the Native Americans, when Custer’s body was recovered, it was surprisingly untouched.

Custer's grave
Andrew Woodley/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Andrew Woodley/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This is most likely because Custer had been a noble adversary to the Cheyenne for years and left his body alone out of respect. His brother Tom was also found, and the two were buried side by side in a shallow grave. Custer was later reburied with full military honors at West Point.

There’s A Debate Over His Death

Although there’s no debate whether Custer died at the Battle of Bighorn or not, there is about how he actually died. One of the most notable was that he was killed by a Cheyenne female warrior.

Custer with a dog
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The story goes that during the battle, she knocked him off his horse and delivered a fatal blow while he was on the ground. However, according to a soldier that inspected Custer’s body, he had been killed by a rifle shot from a far distance judging by the bullet holes around his heart and his temple.

His Nickname Was “Autie”

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, on December 5, 1839, to Emanuel Custer and his second wife, Marie Ward Kirkpatrick. He had two younger brothers Tom and Boston, a younger sister named Margaret, and an older brother, Nevin.

Photo of Custer
APIC/Getty Images
APIC/Getty Images

He also had three older half-siblings. As a boy, he couldn’t pronounce his middle name, Armstrong, so his family jokingly gave him the nickname “Autie.” This name would stick with him for the rest of his life, with his wife using it as a term of endearment.

He Wasn’t Always Going To Be A Soldier

If General Custer had followed through with his first occupation choice, chances are that he would have passed away at a ripe old age rather than being killed by Native Americans in battle. At 16 years old, he attended Normal School and earned his grammar school teaching certificate by the next year.

Custer and Pleasanton sitting
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Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, considering Custer’s personality, teaching bored him and he enrolled in West Point in 1857. On top of that, in his even younger years, his mother hoped that he might join the clergy.

He Almost Didn’t Fight In The Campaign That Killed Him

While Custer was set to lead the 7th Cavalry in its campaign against the Sioux in the spring, things got complicated when he ran into some controversies involving the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. At a Congressional hearing in Washington D.C., Custer implicated several members of Grants administration, including Grant’s brother.

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Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Furthermore, Custer caused more damage by leaking information to the press. This resulted in Grant removing Custer from his command and briefly arresting him. It was only after several high-ranking generals became involved that Custer was returned to his post.

He Was Court-Martialed Twice

While still attending West Point, Custer was court-martialed and given a light punishment for his failure to stop a fight between two cadets when he was an officer of the guard. Then, in 1867, for a much more severe matter, Custer was court-martialed when he was convicted of eight charges, including prejudice of good order and military discipline, and absence without leave of command.

General George A. Custer, 1861. From an issue of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Almanac.
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Buyenlarge/Getty Images

He was then suspended from rank and command without pay for a year. Nevertheless, General Philip Sheridan reinstated him to lead a military campaign against the Cheyenne.

He Played A Key Role In The Battle of Gettysburg

Custer was a major player in the decisive Battle of Gettysburg between July 1-3, 1863. He managed to prevent General J.E.B. Stuart from attacking Union troops while also later capturing Confederate troops retreating south after the battle had been won.

Painting of Custer
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

However, it came at a cost. His brigade lost more than 250 men, the highest of any Union cavalry unit. As the war went on, it was clear that Custer continued to lose more men than anyone else.

He And His Wife Met As Children

When they were just children, Custer and his future wife Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon met in Michigan. However, the two didn’t fall in love until Custer returned home on leave in 1862.

Photo of Custer and Libbie
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Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Libbie was from a wealthy and prominent local family, and at that point, Custer hadn’t made a name for himself. Despite her father’s disapproval, the two married in December 1864. The couple had no children and instead dedicated their time to cultivating Custer’s fame.

He Didn’t Always Get Along With His Troops

Both during and after the Civil War, Custer had some troubles with the troops that he commanded. Many of the men saw him as being hot-headed and being reckless with their lives, as long as he got the fame and recognition that he so much desired.

Custer and other officers
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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

It came to the point when he considered leaving the army to pursue a career in business and even possibly run for office. Yet, when a new 7th Cavalry Regiment was raised to help control the West, Custer assumed command as a lieutenant colonel.

He Was Of German Descent

Custer’s family is initially from Germany, with their name originally being spelled “Kuster.” His family most likely hailed from the Palatine region in West Germany. Many of the Palatines had to flee Germany because of the contrast conflict in the early eighteenth century and ended up immigrating to countries such as England, Ireland, and America.

Portrait Of Custer
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Their family anglicized their name in the eighteenth century, with Custer being named George after his family’s pastor and close friend.

His Image Has Changed Over Time

Both during his life and after his death, General George Custer was seen as a larger-than-life figure. Over time, he has become a household name and is a regular character in popular culture.

Painting of Custer
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

However, in recent years, his image has changed from a war hero and a gallant Indian fighter to a racist and bloodthirsty killer. While most historians admit he was neither right or wrong in a number of his actions, the events at Little Bighorn are still hotly debated.

“Buffalo Bill” Cody Was Not Fully American

William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody was a legendary bison hunter, soldier, scout, and showman. Considered as one of the most prominent figures in the Wild West, he became a legend by the time he way 23, although many historians believe his exploits have been embellished throughout the years.

Not fully American
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, is considered to be one of America’s great heroes, he’s actually Canadian-American. His father was born in raised in what is now Mississauga in Ontario, Canada. Cody lived there for many years in his youth in between the years when he was born in Iowa Territory before his family relocated south to the United States Midwest. It was there that Cody began to make a name for himself.

He Had Quite The Role Model And Was Brave From A Young Age

Cody’s father, Isaac Cody, strongly opposed slavery, which was still a very legal and common practice in 1853. When the Cody family was living in Iowa, his father was invited to speak at a trading post that was often frequented by pro-slavery individuals.

He Had Quite The Role Model And Was Brave From A Young Age
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, many of them took offense at Isaac’s word’s against slavery, with one man stabbing Isaac twice with a Bowie knife, and he never fully recovered from his injuries. At one point, when his father was living away from the family for their safety, ten-year-old Cody even rode 30 miles to warn his father after he heard about a plot to have him murdered.

He Started Working In His Youth

In 1857, Cody’s father passed away due to health complications that were the result of a respiratory infection and his wounds from being stabbed. With his father gone, at a young age, Cody had to start to work in order to help his family that was struggling financially.

He Started Working In His Youth
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Bettmann/Getty Images

At the young age of 11, Cody started his first job as a freight carrier, delivering messages on horseback between the workmen and the drivers. This early job most likely helped him develop his legendary horsemanship.

He Was A Soldier In His Youth

As a young man, Cody’s mother fell ill so he returned home from working odd jobs to care for her. As his mother was recovering, the Civil War broke out, and Cody was keen to enlist as a soldier in the Union Army. However, he was refused because of his young age.

He Was A Soldier In His Youth
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Pinterest/Wishfully

Then, in 1863, at the age of 17, Cody enlisted as a teamster with the rank of Private in Company H, 7th Kansas Calvary, in which he served until he was discharged in 1865.

Earning His Nickname

Cody’s nickname of “Buffalo Bill” came about from a job that he had providing buffalo meat for the workers of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Supposedly, Cody is purported to have shot and killed 4,282 buffalo in an 18-month span between 1867 and 1868.

Earning His Nickname
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VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

Furthermore, Cody and another buffalo hunter, Bill Comstock, entered and eight-hour competition to see who could kill the most buffalo and secure the right to use the name “Buffalo Bill.” Cody won, killing 68 to Comstock’s 48.

He Had A Special Name For His Weapon

For shooting buffalo along with other targets, Cody’s preferred weapon of choice was his Springfield .50 caliber trapdoor needle gun. He named it after the Italian Renaissance femme fatale, Lucretia Borgia, who is best known as the subject of the Victor Hugo play, and regarded for being “beautiful but deadly.”

He Had A Special Name For His Weapon
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

Currently, the gun is on display at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, however, the stock is missing, and the reason why remains unknown for the most part. Some say he broke it while killing an elk and others that he lent it to the Grand Duke Alexei of Russia on a hunt.

He Was Honored For His Work As A Scout, At First

During the Indian Wars, Cody served as an Army Scout and was awarded a Medal of Honor in 1872. Yet, it was revoked in 1917, along with 910 other recipients, after Congress allowed for the War Department to revoke prior Army Medals of Honor that didn’t meet the regulations introduced in 1897.

He Was Honored For His Work As A Scout, At First
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Amon/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

All civilian and civilian scout medals were revoked since they did not meet the criteria of being an enlisted soldier, with Cody being one of five scouts to have theirs taken. However, his medal was reinstated in 1989.

He Joined The Freemasons

Buffalo Bill Cody had an incredibly exciting and busy life, but he still managed to find enough time to join the Freemasons, a fraternal organization that many Founding Fathers had been members of.

He Joined The Freemasons
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Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In 1889, he achieved the rank of Knight Templar, and in 1894, he was elevated to the 32-degree rank of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. When Cody died in 1917, he was buried with a full Masonic funeral, a high honor among the brotherhood.

Becoming An International Celebrity

In Nebraska in 1883, Cody founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a touring circus-like attraction. Eventually changing the name to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, the show would include a parade and performers re-enacting the ridings of the Pony Express, stagecoach robberies, Indian attacks, and more.

Becoming An International Celebrity
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

Some of Cody’s top performers included Annie Oakley, her husband, Frank Butler, and more. Eventually, Cody took the show internationally and made tours around Europe, establishing him as an international sensation.

He Was Already A Legend In His Early 20s

In 1869, when Cody was just 23, he met Ned Buntline, who published a story about Cody’s adventures, although he took a lot of creative liberty. He first published the story in the New York Weekly newspaper before publishing the novel, Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen, which made it onto the front page of the Chicago Tribune.

He Was Already A Legend In His Early 20s
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American Stock/Getty Images

Other sequels followed, with other writers taking it upon themselves to write about Cody’s embellished life, turning him into a legend at an incredibly young age. To this day, his exploits are still being portrayed in popular culture.

He Had Friends Similar To Him

As it turns out, Cody was friends with another famous “Bill” of the West, “Wild Bill” Hickok, to be exact. Hickok was another notorious gunslinger whose exploits became the stuff of legends over the years, much like Cody.

He Had Friends Similar To Him
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

The two were close friends, and in 1873, Cody invited Hickok to be a part of the stage performance Scouts of the Plain. However, Hickok left the group after just a few short months once he realized the acting life wasn’t for him.

He Probably Didn’t Ride For The Pony Express

Although at the age of 11, Cody did carry messages on horseback for the freight firm Major and Russell, which eventually started the Pony Express, it’s doubtful that Cody rode for the actual Express.

He Probably Didn't Ride For The Pony Express
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

There are contradictions in his autobiography that raise suspicion, with one historian claiming that even when the Pony Express existed, Cody was in school in Leavenworth, Kansas. It’s unlikely that he would have been riding back and forth across Wyoming at the same time.

He Hunted With Russian Royalty

Between 1871 and 1872, Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia took a four-month goodwill tour of the United States. During that time, the Grand Duke also went on a buffalo hunt organized by General Philip Sheridan.

He Hunted With Russian Royalty
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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Cody was also involved in the hunt as a scout. The hunt took place in January at Red Willow Creek in Nebraska and was widely publicized, with some sources claiming that Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich was affectionate toward an “Indian princess.”

He Performed For Queen Victoria’s Jubilee

In 1887, Cody’s manager, Nate Salisbury, arranged to have Buffalo Bill’s Wild West perform in London’s American Exhibition. Traveling across the Atlantic, he brought along “83 saloon passengers, 38 steerage passengers, 97 Indians, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 Texan steers, 4 donkeys, and 2 deer.”

He Performed For Queen Victoria's Jubilee
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Culture Club/Getty Images

Upon his arrival, he met with future King Edward VII and his family. The performance was on May 11, 1887, and it was the first time since her husband’s death two decades earlier that she appeared at a public performance.

He Fought For The Civil Liberties Of Native Americans

Although Cody fought and killed Native Americans in the Indian Wars, he noted that “I never scouted with a party of soldiers after Indians that I didn’t feel a bit ashamed for myself and a whole heap sorrier for them.”

He Fought For The Civil Liberties Of Native Americans
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Furthermore, although his shows portrayed Native Americans as villains, his feelings towards them were a bit more complicated. In reality, he had immense respect for the Native Americans and believed that everything they were going through was wrong and that they should resist it.

He Supported Women’s Suffrage

Even though Cody is an incredibly “manly” figure, he sympathized with his female counterparts. After spending years traveling and performing alongside women such as Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, Cody understood their plight and became a firm believer in women’s suffrage.

He Supported Women's Sufferage
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Bettmann/Getty Images

In an interview with The Milwaukee Journal in 1898, when asked if he believed in women’s suffrage, Cody replied “Yes […] Set that down in great big black type that Buffalo Bill favors woman suffrage… These fellows who prate about the women taking their places make me laugh…” He also believed that women should have all of the same civil liberties as men.

He Had A Tabloid Marriage

At the time, Buffalo Bill Cody could have been compared to a reality television star of today. In 1866, he married Louisa Frederici, although he spent much of his time away from her and their four children. In 1904, he sued for divorce, claiming that she had attempted to poison him.

He Had A Tabloid Marriage
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, the suit turned into a major scandal that was covered by all the newspapers and even had some reporters digging up old dirt about Cody. The case was eventually dismissed, the couple reconciled their relationship, and stayed together until Cody’s death.

He Played A Role In One Of The First Federal Water Development Projects

After earning some serious money through show business, Cody invested in land in Wyoming, where he became involved in the Shoshone Irrigation project. In 1904, Cody transferred his water rights to the Secretary of the Interior, and drilling began for Shoshone Dam that year, which was later renamed the Buffalo Bill Dam.

He Played A Role In One Of The First Federal Water Development Projects
Alan Band/Fox Photos/Getty Images
Alan Band/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Currently, the Shoshone Project irrigates more than 93,000 acres of a variety of produce. The damn was one of the first concrete dams in the US, and in 1910 was the tallest in the world at 325 feet.

He Served Under Custer

In 1866, when Cody was still serving as a scout for the US Army, he served under numerous different commanding officers. Although many of them are rather unmentionable, one of them stands out, and that’s the infamous General George Armstrong Custer.

He Served Under Custer
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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Of course, Custer is best known for getting himself, and hundreds of other cavalrymen massacred at the Battle of the Big Horn. Supposedly, Cody himself would portray Custer in his shows around the United States.

There Was Debate Over His Burial

Even though he had established the town of Cody, Wyoming in 1895, Cody made it clear that he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain near Denver, Colorado, overlooking the Great Plains. He was buried there. However, there was a debate over his corpse in the following decades.

There Was Debate Over His Burial
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Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1948, 31 years after his death, the American Legion’s chapter in Cody, Wyoming, offered a reward to anyone that could retrieve Cody’s body and bring it back to the town. In response, the Legion’s Denver chapter organized guards to protect Cody’s grave while they dug a deeper hole.

He Rode Into The Herd To Beat Comstock

During his competition with Comstock, Cody didn’t just, he won by a large margin. In order to kill so many more buffalo, Bill would ride into the middle of the herd and pick off the leaders first. Then, the panicked herd would run in circles, and he could take them out at his leisure.

He Rode Into The Herd To Beat Comstock
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In contrast, Comstock would ride up behind the herd, causing them to scatter and making them much more difficult to pick off.

His Complicated Legacy

While you already know that Buffalo Bill sympathized with Native Americans, you don’t know the whole story. In the late 1850s, he was known as an “Indian fighter” for the stories about his abilities.

His Complicated Legacy
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Bettmann/Getty Images

One story in particular claims that while he was surrounded by a dozen Native Americans one time, he managed to take out more than half of them. While this story has never been confirmed, it does strike us as odd considering the information we do know to be true.

How Much Do We Really Know?

When it comes to Buffalo Bill, it can be hard to separate the man from the myth. Most of what we know are stories that he told about himself. Many of these stories have been disputed by historians.

How Much Do We Really Know
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Part of the reason is history is so debated is because of how extraordinary many of his claims were. One of the best examples is the already-discussed inaccuracies about his history with the Pony Express.

One Of His Shows Received Terrible Reviews

In 1872, Buffalo Bill reteamed with Ned Buntline to star in The Scout of the Prairie. Buntline was producing the show, which co-starred another one of Bill’s friends, Jack Omohundro. The show was Bill’s stage debut, and was also one of the first Wild West shows ever produced. The show received terrible reviews.

One Of His Shows Received Terrible Reviews
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Luckily, audiences weren’t as negative as critics. The show was consistently sold out, with fans showing their loyalty to one of their favorite performers.

He Was A Conversationist

Despite his reputation as one of the great buffalo hunters of the Wild West, Bill Cody actually identified as a conservationist. Maybe he was always one, or maybe he realized later in his life that hunting for sport was bad. We don’t know.

He Was A Conversationist
Tom Stoddart/Getty Images
Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

What we do know is that Buffalo Bill believed there should be a hunting season. He also was an advocate to ban hide-hunting, a practice that killed an unnecessary amount of animals for their skin.

Bill Hickok Fought In The Union Army

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. 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.

Bill Hickok Fought In The Union Army
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Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

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

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.

He Dueled Over A Watch
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Bettmann/Getty Images

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

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.

His Family's Possible Connection To The Underground Railroad
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Universal History Archive/Getty Images

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

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.

Hickock Claimed To Have Fought A Bear And Won
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Kenneth Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

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

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.”

The Origin Of His Name Came From His Nose
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

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.

Charlie Utter Tried To Straighten Him Out
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De Agostini/Getty Images

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

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.

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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

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

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.

red-headed
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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

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.

Little Big Man Helped Shape His Modern Image

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

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.

He Never Sat With His Back To The Door
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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?

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.

Was He Married To Calamity Jane
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

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 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:

Bill Never Forgot His Marriage To Agnes Lake
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“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

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.

Hickok And Jane Were Buried Next To Each Other
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

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

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.

One Of His First Jobs Was As A Detective
Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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.

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

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.

cards
Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images
Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images

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.