True Story: Wild Bill Hickok, 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

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.

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

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

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

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

wild bill close up
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
De Agostini/Getty Images
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.

wild bill and friends
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.

wild bill painting
Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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.

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

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.

cowboys playing poker
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.

calamity jane on a horse
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:

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

calamity jane at bill hickok's grave
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.

detectives conversing
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.

He Gained An Enemy Giving A Man Money For Breakfast

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.

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

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

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.

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

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”

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.

GettyImages-1047947546
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.

Charlie Utter Took Responsibility For Hickok’s Death

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.

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

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 Went On Trial Twice

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.

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

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 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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

Inspiration Behind An Oscar-Nominated Film

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.

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

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 One Of HBO’s Most Beloved Series

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.

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

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.