During his short life (he died at 39) he was a federal scout, army spy, Indian fighter, professional gambler, and U.S. marshal. Somewhere along the way he also acquired the nickname Wild Bill and a reputation as a fearless hero, peerless gunfighter, and charming womanizer, renowned for his fashionable clothes.
Wild Bill Hickok: Villain or Hero?
By Mr Ghaz, January 31, 2010
Wild Bill Hickok: Villain or Hero
The exploits of James Butler Hickok are legendary. During his short life (he died at 39) he was a federal scout, army spy, Indian fighter, professional gambler, and U.S. marshal. Somewhere along the way he also acquired the nickname Wild Bill and a reputation as a fearless hero, peerless gunfighter, and charming womanizer, renowned for his fashionable clothes.
Wild Bill Hickok died in 1876, shot through the back of the head by a coward- a coward who had so feared Hickok’s reputation as a gunfighter that he felt it would be suicide to meet him face to face.
But shortly after Hickok’s death, rumors started that his great reputation was founded on exaggeration, and sometimes downright lies.
Hickok first became famous in 1867, when Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published an article about him. It told of an incident in 1861 when Hickok had pitted himself against a man called McCanles and his gang of “desperadoes, horse thieves, murderers, and regular cut- throats.” It was said that Hickok had killed six men with the six bullets in his gun, then the remaining four with a knife. He had survived, despite being riddled with bullets and stab wounds. The article was the foundation of Hickok’s heroic reputation; afterward he was constantly besieged by journalists who wanted more tales of his daring deeds.
To some people, however, the “McCanles massacre” raised some doubt as to Hickok’s behavior. Hickok had met McCanles when he was at Rock Creek Station, working for the pony Express Company, which owed McCanles money. McCanles was putting pressure on Wellman, the station superintendent, to pay up.
On July 21, 1861, McCanles went to Wellman’s ranch house with his 12- years- old son and two employees to demand a settlement. Wellman, suspecting trouble, summoned Hickok to the house.
During an argument outside between McCanles and Wellman, Hickok stepped inside the house and behind a curtain. When McCanles yelled at him to come out, Hickok shot him through the curtain. The McCanles gang came to help, and Hickok shot them too. McCanles died from his wounds, but the others were killed by Wellman and his men.
But another version of the story claims that it was Wellman who shot McCanles, and that Hickok killed the other men. There was also some dispute as to the part played in the affair by McCanles. Some people believed that he was a bully, but not a killer, and that he had been unarmed when Hickok shot him. And why should a man expecting trouble take his son along? Others argued that McCanles had always been armed before; why not then?
Bill Hickok is Still a Hero
At the trial it was the world of McCanles Junior against Hickok that his father had been unarmed. The truth was ever conclusively established, but the court accepted the plea that Hickok, Wellman, and another man had acted in self- defense in the protection of company property.
Hickok’s detractors may say that he acted like a coward. But the general view is that the original story was essentially true, if exaggerated. To most people Wild Bill Hickok is still a hero of the Wild west- brave, fearless, and honest to the end.