When people think of Old West legends, the famed gunslinger and folk hero Wild Bill Hickok is likely to come to mind. Born James Butler Hickok, the man later known as Wild Bill inspired many fantastic stories, some of them fictional, about his adventures as a scout, spy, federal marshal, gambler, showman and actor.

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Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter

By Tom Clavin

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

$29.99 list price; available wherever books are sold

In “Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter,” author Tom Clavin looks beyond all the tall tales and silver screen depictions. He sifts through historical records to find the nuggets of truth about the iconic figure—without the “generous sprinkling of exaggerations and embellishments” that he says have been written about Hickok over the years, beginning during Wild Bill’s own lifetime.

From Hickok’s ancestors, who farmed property for William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, to Wild Bill’s murder in Deadwood, South Dakota, at age 39, Clavin shares stories spanning the timeline of the real man behind the legend. 

His father, William, was an abolitionist who worked with Quaker families to help hundreds of escaped slaves on their journey to freedom. The family’s farm in Homer, Illinois, was a sanctuary stop on the Underground Railroad, and the family sheltered people in the barn or a second cellar under the house. 

After William died, his wife, Polly, and her children discussed relocating to Kansas to find more affordable land to farm. While traveling to Kansas to locate a homestead for the family, 19-year-old James began to be known as Bill.

Hickok brought his father’s abolitionist views into “Bleeding Kansas” with him, and he became a follower and bodyguard of James Lane, the leader of the Free State Army. He was also elected constable of Monticello in Johnson County. 

After the Civil War, word began to spread about Wild Bill’s prowess as a gunslinger when he killed Davis Tutt in a quick-draw duel. Later, an article published in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” about his exploits brought him national attention.

Wild Bill served as a marshal in Hays City and Abilene, Kansas, and much of the biography covers his experiences as a lawman as he brought order to the wild cow towns.

Clavin discusses other historical figures who touched Hickok’s life, such as his good friend Buffalo Bill Cody, Gen. George Custer and Calamity Jane, who claimed throughout her life to have shared a great romance with Wild Bill. Clavin found that historical evidence indicates Hickok didn’t even like her that much. He married Agnes Lake, a circus owner he met while her troupe was performing in Abilene and who was 11 years his senior.

The author lists an extensive bibliography of articles, books and newspaper archives Clavin consulted. The book includes a collection of letters and photographs of Hickok, his family and well-known associates. 

Clavin is a talented storyteller and Hickok such an interesting character that readers may forget they are reading a biography, not a novel. 

Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or srumbaugh@hpj.com.

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