July 12

This Day in History

Old West

Jul 12, 1861:

Wild Bill Hickok's first gunfight

Wild Bill Hickok begins to establish his reputation as a gunfighter after he coolly shoots three men during a shootout in Nebraska.

Born in Homer (later called Troy Grove), Illinois, James Butler Hickok moved to Kansas in 1855 at the age of 18. There he filed a homestead claim, took odd jobs, and began calling himself by his father's name, Bill. A skilled marksman, Hickok honed his abilities as a gunslinger. Though Hickok was not looking for trouble, he liked to be ready to defend himself, and his ability with a pistol soon proved useful.

By the summer of 1861, Hickok was working as a stock tender at a stage depot in Nebraska called Rock Creek Station. Across the creek lived Dave McCanles, a mean-spirited man who disliked Hickok for some reason. McCanles enjoyed insulting the young stockman, calling him Duck Bill and claiming he was a hermaphrodite. Hickok took his revenge by secretly romancing McCanles' mistress, Sarah Shull.

On this day in 1861, the tension between Hickok and McCanles came to a head. McCanles may have learned about the affair between Shull and Hickok, though his motivations are not clear. He arrived at the station with two other men and his 12-year-old-son and exchanged angry words with the station manager. Then McCanles spotted Hickok standing behind a curtain partition. He threatened to drag "Duck Bill" outside and give him a thrashing. Demonstrating remarkable coolness for a 24-year-old who had never been involved in a gunfight, Hickok replied, "There will be one less son-of-a-bitch when you try that."

McCanles ignored the warning. When he approached the curtain, Hickok shot him in the chest. McCanles staggered out of the building and died in the arms of his son. Hearing the shots, the two other gunmen ran in. Hickok shot one of them twice and winged the other. The other workers at the station finished them off.

The story of Hickok's first gunfight spread quickly, establishing his reputation as a skilled gunman. In 1867, Harper's New Monthly Magazine published a highly exaggerated account of the shoot-out which claimed Hickok had single-handedly killed nine men. The article quoted Hickok as saying, "I was wild and I struck savage blows." Thus began the legendary career of "Wild Bill."

For the next 15 years, Hickok would further embellish his reputation with genuine acts of daring, though the popular accounts continued to exceed the reality. He died in 1876 at the age of 39, shot in the back of the head by a young would-be gunfighter looking for fame.

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