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A NEW ENGLAND CLAN
Wild Bill Hickok, who would forever be a firm fixture in the annals of the American West as a plainsman, gunfighter, and lawman, was born into a family that identified themselves as New Englanders.
Some accounts of Hickok’s life contend his family, at least on his father’s side, originated in Ireland. William Connelley, who bent over backward to romanticize Hickok, stated unequivocally in his 1933 biography that “it is established that the Hickok family is one of the oldest and most honorable in America. It was of pure Saxon blood, and Wild Bill bore the traits and characteristics of the Ancient Saxons.” Apparently, he saw Hickok as a knight in shining armor, with a six-shooter replacing an Arthurian sword.
A tad closer to modern times, the genealogy becomes clearer. There was a Hiccox family in Warwickshire, England, in the 1600s. Records reveal that the family farmed 107 acres owned by William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. The family remained in the area as farmers and in other humble occupations for decades. The first member to distinguish himself was John Hiccocks, son of William Hiccocs, who became a lawyer in 1690 and a judge in 1709. By the time of his death in 1726, the family had acquired a coat of arms, which offered a respectability above and beyond tilling land.
Sometime during this period, a family member became one of the early settlers of America. In May 1635, a William Hitchcock or Hickocks strode up the gangway of the Plaine Joan, and shortly afterward the ship left London and sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean. He brought farming skills with him, and he employed them after settling in Farmington, Connecticut. He married a woman named Elizabeth, and they had two sons, Samuel and Joseph. Only ten years after arriving in America, William died. Both sons did not survive the seventeenth century; however, according to Joseph Rosa, the most dogged of Hickok researchers, the brothers’ descendants in Connecticut “were prolific and lusty, and soon spread all over New England.”
The most direct connection to the man who would become Wild Bill Hickok was a great-grandfather, Aaron Hickok, who in 1742 was born in Woodbury, also in Connecticut. His family moved to Massachusetts—first to Lanesborough and then Pittsfield in the Berkshires. When the Revolutionary War began, Aaron and a brother named Ichabod enlisted in the Massachusetts militia, becoming Minutemen in a regiment led by a Colonel Patterson. They and their fellow Minutemen harassed British troops on April 19, 1775, during the Lexington and Concord engagements. It is believed that the brothers became members of the Continental army two years later.
If members of the Hickok family were indeed prolific and lusty, they had nothing on Aaron. In between his nonmilitary labors as a farmer and owner of a sawmill, he sired nineteen children with two wives. His third son was Oliver, who also went off to war when the United States and Great Britain went at it again. Unlike Aaron, Oliver did not emerge unscathed. He was wounded severely in the Second Battle of Sacket’s Harbor in upstate New York in July 1813 and died from those wounds three months later. In a way, his father was a casualty, too, because a grieving Aaron died soon after.
When Oliver died, he left behind a twelve-year-old son, William Alonzo Hickok, who was born and raised in Vermont near Lake Champlain and the border with Canada. His path was much more scholarly than military. Intending to become a Presbyterian minister, he attended Middlebury College in Vermont. While at a seminary in New York, William met Pamelia Butler, who was called Polly. Her father had been one of the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont, who had served under Ethan Allen in the Revolutionary War. Her nephew, Ben Butler, decades later, would find both fame and notoriety as a Union general in the Civil War (he was dubbed “Beast” Butler while in command of New Orleans), lead the effort to impeach President Andrew Johnson while in the House of Representatives, and be elected governor of Massachusetts.
William and Polly married in June 1829. He survived typhoid fever but in such a weakened state that continuing to study for the ministry proved too taxing. His mother gave them some seed money, and the couple moved to Broome County, New York, to open a small store. William was well enough to sire Oliver, born in 1830, and then Lorenzo in 1831. Sadly for the family, Lorenzo died soon after birth. What is curious is that the following year, William Hickok moved his family to Illinois. This would be far removed from the couple’s extended family in New England and upstate New York, and the well-educated William was far from being a robust, rough-hewn pioneer. Yet off he went, to be a shopkeeper. By doing so, he put Polly and their children in harm’s way.
They first settled in Union Center, Illinois, then moved on to Bailey Point (later renamed Tonica). There, in October 1834, Polly gave birth to their third child, a son, who was also named Lorenzo. Two years later, the family was on the move again, this time to Homer. None of these towns, though, were yet considered free of danger.
If one were asked to name an American Indian leader who accomplished the rare feat of pulling different tribes together to fight a common foe, names most likely to come to mind would be Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, or perhaps Quanah Parker. However, before all of them came Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk. In 1832, he persuaded the Meskwaki and Kickapoo to join his tribe, and he led them across the Mississippi River from Iowa Indian Territory into Illinois. His intent was to return to tribal lands on that side of the river, which had been given away in the Treaty of St. Louis in 1804. This treaty was, of course, recognized only by the U.S. government, as the Sauk, like most other American tribes, had no idea that they had ceded anything until the army forced them off their land.
The combined Indian tribes who entered Illinois numbered around five hundred warriors and were known as the British Band, as it was first believed the incursion had been encouraged by British agitators, only seventeen years after the end of the War of 1812 and the end of Great Britain’s presence in the eastern half of the United States. After a peace delegation was fired upon by Illinois militia, Black Hawk attacked, earning a victory at the Battle of Stillman’s Run. Pursued by army regulars, he and his warriors found refuge in southern Wisconsin. The actions inspired other tribes to attack settlements in western Illinois, and thus the series of conflicts became Black Hawk’s War. The most famous participants—though only in retrospect—were Winfield Scott, Jefferson Davis, and two future U.S. presidents, Zachary Taylor and Captain Abraham Lincoln.
Colonel Henry Dodge (who would later, coincidentally, command the fort outside Dodge City) led a force that caught up to Black Hawk and the British Band and defeated them at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. Another loss at the Battle of Bad Axe meant the end of Black Hawk’s War. The Sauk leader escaped capture for a short time, then surrendered and spent a year in prison. After his release, Black Hawk returned to Iowa, authored the first autobiography of an American Indian, published in 1833, and died five years later at the age of seventy.
The amount of time between the Black Hawk War’s end and the Hickoks arriving in Illinois was at most a year, so it cannot be said that this was a safe place to raise a family or a place for a man with fragile health. But the family managed to put down roots in Homer—which would be renamed Troy Grove in the 1860s—in LaSalle County, along with others heading west looking for good farmland. There was plenty of that near the Vermilion River as well as forest full of sturdy timber to erect houses and fences. William Hickok must have been feeling energized by the burgeoning community because he built a home, though he eschewed farming for opening a general store.
William’s fourth son, Horace, was born in Homer in 1832, and his fifth, James Butler Hickok, entered the world on May 27, when the country was in the grip of the Panic of 1837. This was no quick-hitting economic anxiety attack. There had been an expansion in the American economy the previous two years; then the prices of land, cotton, and—in the South—slaves, rose dramatically, until there was a collapse. The resulting recession would last for seven years, with banks closing, businesses failing, and, in some parts of the United States, unemployment rates as high as 25 percent. Not long after the youngest Hickok was welcomed, William had to shut the doors of his store.
He could no longer afford to avoid the labors of farming. The family moved again, though this time only a way north of Homer, where even a nearly broke businessman could buy land. William’s other labors produced two daughters, Celinda and Lydia, in September 1839 and October 1842. Apparently, during the first few years of farming near Homer, William’s health was stable. It was of great help that he had four sons who, according to their ages and abilities, could share in the work.
William also had a sideline occupation: abolitionist. The Hickoks had brought their antislavery fervor from New England to Illinois. William went further than simply making speeches on Sunday—he offered his farm as a sanctuary stop on the Underground Railroad. This was potentially dangerous. While today Illinois is known as the Land of Lincoln and the state most associated with the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, people on both sides of the issue lived there in the 1840s, and no doubt, some were neighbors of the Hickoks. (Even those who did not support slavery as an institution could hold the belief that you don’t interfere with another man’s property, whether it be land, possessions, or people.) To the east of Illinois was Indiana, which would later host a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, and bordering Illinois to the southeast and southwest were Kentucky and Missouri. Very discreetly, William worked with local Quaker families who were part of the Underground Railroad that extended deep into the South.
As a child, James Hickok would at times enter the family barn to find frightened escaped slaves hiding there, or they would be in a second cellar under the house lined with hay that William had created for this purpose. The men and women, and sometimes children, were waiting to be taken to the next stop along the line to eventual freedom farther north. On occasion, William Hickok took them on that journey, hiding them in his wagon with one or more of his sons with him to present an image above suspicion.
Sometimes this didn’t work as planned. An unpublished manuscript written by Howard Hickok, a grandson of William and a nephew of James, reported being told that one night the Hickok wagon was fired upon by bounty hunters. William pushed James and his brother from the front seat into the bed of the wagon, where they lay atop the hidden slaves. The darkness of the night and William’s knowledge of the terrain allowed him to elude the pursuers and deliver his cargo.
“Running the Underground was a serious and dangerous undertaking,” wrote Howard Hickok. “Besides the Provost Marshals, who were legally bound to reclaim the slaves, there were several men in the neighborhood who made the undertaking more difficult and dangerous. These were the kidnappers and bounty hunters. The kidnappers recaptured the slaves and resold them. The bounty hunters returned the slaves to their former owners.” Howard estimated from what he had been told that his grandfather “helped hundreds of slaves to their northern goal.” One of the fugitives, a woman named Hannah, was taken in by the Hickoks and remained for years with them as a domestic before marrying and moving away.
This secret operation came to an end on May 5, 1852, when William Hickok died. Given his decades of uncertain health and the routine harshness of farmwork, he was fortunate to have lived to age fifty-one. And he had lasted long enough that his youngest son was about to turn fifteen. Oliver, the oldest, had left Illinois the year before, lured west with thousands of other men in a rush for gold. That left Horace, Lorenzo, and James to carry on the outside work while Polly took care of the household and her two young daughters.
The chore of providing much of the family’s food fell to James because he was the one most comfortable with guns and was already an excellent marksman. While William was still alive, his youngest son had saved some of the money earned doing chores for surrounding farmers and purchased his first gun, a rifle. Walking deep into the nearby woods, James practiced relentlessly, and with increasing frequency he found his way back to the farm with dead animals to be skinned and cooked. This became more of a necessity with William and Oliver gone and more work spread among fewer hands.
James may have been content with his rural surroundings for years to come, but life on the farm ended. Lorenzo and Horace made the decision to sell it and buy a house back in Homer, and the remaining Hickoks moved there. While this kind of life was less interesting to James, it did mean regular schooling. Previously, he had received only as much formal education as farm chores and being able to get to the nearest one-room schoolhouse allowed. It was not unusual in an Illinois farm community in the 1850s that boys were educated fitfully and for the most part remained illiterate into adulthood. (Girls may not have received any schooling at all.) But James had shown ability, and he enjoyed reading pamphlets that carried tales of adventure, featuring Daniel Boone and Kit Carson. And he could write. Given his original life plans and education, William (as well as Polly) may have actively encouraged his children to learn, and thus the Hickoks became regular letter writers, including James, who to the end of his life would write to his family and others back east from wherever he was on the frontier.
The time came when James heard the siren call of California, possibly in a letter from big brother Oliver. He became increasingly restless in Homer, and approaching his seventeenth birthday, James announced he wanted to head west, too. Horace and Lorenzo persuaded their headstrong brother to postpone his trip for a few months, until the family could become more settled and solvent in town. James took a job as a driver of horse and mule teams with the Illinois and Michigan Canal company, living for a time in Utica, Illinois.
Up to this time, when he was approaching his eighteenth birthday in 1855, the life of James Butler Hickok was free of legend. The combination of being an excellent woodsman and able to read and write well enough might be unusual at that time and place, but these were good qualities for a restless young man yearning for more adventure than the humble Homer could provide. How he came to leave his hometown has been portrayed in many accounts that have more to do with enriching the Wild Bill Hickok legend as folk hero than with the truth.
According to a typical account, James, when about sixteen, was swimming with friends in a stream, and a local bully began picking on one of his friends. The young Hickok, described as “always a defender of the weak,” lifted the bully off the ground and tossed him in the water. Another account has it that around the time James had expressed a desire to venture west, he threw his boss into the Illinois and Michigan Canal after the older man had mistreated horses. This was viewed as an early indication of Hickok’s “life long habit of interposing himself between the oppressed and the oppressor.” Connelley has a man named Charles Hudson, both a boss and a bully, fall into the canal after being beaten severely by the younger James: “The boy, believing that his antagonist was dead, and fearful of the results in case that should be true, immediately ran away.”
His departure was less dramatic and far more practical. Polly Hickok and her children discussed relocating to Kansas. This might offer the compromise of satisfying James’s desire to explore new lands to the west and finding good, less expensive land to farm. So, in June 1856, a month after James had turned nineteen, he and his older brother Lorenzo set off on foot, aiming to make St. Louis their first stop.
Soon after the brothers arrived in St. Louis, they parted ways. Thanks to the uncanny reliability of the U.S. mail system in the 1850s, letters from Homer, Illinois, had outpaced them and were waiting for pickup at the St. Louis post office. One reported that Polly Hickok was ill, causing Lorenzo to have second thoughts about continuing the trip. He did not share his younger brother’s restless spirit, and he was somewhat overwhelmed being in a loud, dusty city teeming with trappers, hunters, prospectors, immigrants, and others passing through the gateway to the West. The news about his mother convinced Lorenzo that St. Louis was enough of an adventure for now. He gave James most of the money he had brought along, and he prepared to begin the journey back to LaSalle County.
James booked passage on a steamer traveling up the Missouri River. During the trip, he began to be called Bill Hickok. For whatever reason—possibly because he had been named for a brother who died—within the family, Lorenzo had often been addressed as “Bill.” Several passengers on the steamer had heard James do the same to his brother when they parted on the dock, and now they called their new acquaintance Bill. Hickok apparently did not mind, and he adopted the name as his own, with only immediate family continuing to call him James or Jim. As the years went on, “Wild Bill” was considered to be William B. Hickok, even though he always signed official documents using his true initials and name, J. B. Hickok.
In the unpublished manuscript titled The Hickok Legend, his nephew Howard wrote that the young pioneer would soon also be referred to as “Shanghai Bill on account of his slim and supple form.” His uncle is further described as “much over six feet in height, strong and self confident, still attuned to a code of quiet gentle speech and manner; trained to a skill seldom attained in the use of firearms; skilled in woodcraft; taught to champion the weak, but encouraged never to let himself be ‘put upon.’ He was taught to believe in the freedom and equality of men.” Perhaps a few grains of salt are needed here for an account written decades later with “Legend” in the title, but the physical portrait is consistent with ones in subsequent years.
The steamboat bearing “Bill” Hickok and other travelers paddled north and west on the Missouri River toward Kansas. Newcomers could not have arrived in the state at a more dangerous time, and the risks faced on this particular frontier in the summer of 1856 had little to do with Indians. The term beginning to be used in newspapers back east, Bleeding Kansas, was not an understatement.
Two years earlier, President Franklin Pierce had signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened up 140,000 square miles of territory to westbound adventurers and settlers. Most of this swath of land—in the heart of America and ending at the Continental Divide—was occupied by various Indian tribes and animals, especially millions of buffalo. Congress had left open to the people who would reside in this territory whether Kansas or Nebraska would become states, and if so, as free or slave states.
Given the influence exerted by his father, Hickok was strongly antislavery. However, he would encounter people who felt differently. Some of the people flooding into Kansas to farm and ranch the grass-covered prairie were aware that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had admitted Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, had essentially been repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing that the next state to enter the Union could be a slave state. But there were many men like Hickok coming from the east bringing abolitionist views with them. And the act Pierce signed in 1854 did allow Kansans to make their own decision. Hence, conflict was inevitable—especially when fanatics like John Brown became involved.
The federal government thought it had avoided armed conflicts by removing Indian tribes, relocating them to the south on land called Indian Territory or the Cherokee Strip, later northwest Oklahoma. It had not anticipated the number of people coming in from proslavery Missouri. Residents on both sides of the issue set up their own communities, with Leavenworth and Atchison inhabited mostly by Missourians and Lawrence, Manhattan, and Topeka founded by New Englanders who would be called Free-Staters. This scenario made for an increasingly ungovernable situation. No wonder that beginning in 1854, there would be six governors of Kansas in seven years, each one finding frustration at the ballot box and in trying to maintain any semblance of law and order.
The first vote on free or slave state took place that November. Armed groups crossed the border from Missouri to tell people how to vote and to illegally cast votes themselves, and the results had to be nullified. This happened again the following March in 1855. The federal government sent troops to prevent bloodshed, and feeling somewhat protected, supporters of a free state held a convention that June in Lawrence. The result was a more militant faction determined to have Kansas enter the Union as a free state, led by James Lane, who would soon have Bill Hickok as a follower.
Lane had had a colorful career even before he arrived in Kansas. Born in Indiana in 1814, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer. Then he developed interests in the military and politics, the first while serving in an Indiana regiment of volunteers in the war against Mexico. Soon after Lane returned, he became Indiana’s first lieutenant governor. In 1853, he traded in the state capital for the nation’s center of power when he was elected to Congress. The debate on the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act (which he voted for) inspired Lane to see the territory for himself, and the following year, he traveled to Lawrence.
It was Lane who led what became known as the Free State Army. Given his relatively scant military experience, he was not immediately hailed as a leader come to save the free-state cause. But his timing was good, because he was well positioned when the so-called Wakarusa War began that November. It was a skirmish, really, instigated by Frank Coleman, a proslavery settler, who shot Charles Dow, who favored abolition. The more immediate dispute was over a land claim at a place called Hickory Point, ten miles south of Lawrence, but in that tinderbox atmosphere, the men’s opposing views took precedence.
The local sheriff, Sam Jones, actually arrested a friend of the victim, who was soon freed by a group of gun-toting Free-Staters. This aggravated Sheriff Jones, who suddenly found himself the head of fifteen hundred men who had crossed the border from Missouri, looking for trouble. On their way west, they had broken into an army arsenal in Liberty, Missouri, and stolen guns, ammunition, swords, and even a cannon.
The latest ineffectual governor in Topeka called for militia to repel the incursion. This was ignored everywhere except in Lawrence, where eight hundred men grabbed guns and turned out. (Among them were John Brown and his sons.) Suddenly, there was the Free State Army. James Lane became second in command to the elected leader. The opposing Missourians established a camp six miles away, at the Wakarusa bottoms, and effectively placed Lawrence under siege. During this mostly lackluster effort, only one man was shot and killed.1
After a few weeks of hurled threats, posturing, and the occasional potshot, the opposing sides, especially with winter taking hold, felt inclined to sign a peace treaty, and the Missouri contingent left Wakarusa and headed home.
Such proslavery militants from Missouri were often called Border Ruffians, and their free-state adversaries were Jayhawkers. With no one inclined or powerful enough to keep the two sides apart—and with the government in Washington itself paralyzed by the issue of slavery, epitomized by the caning of abolitionist Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks on the floor of Congress—violence broke out in Kansas again in May 1856, shortly before Hickok arrived, when Border Ruffians once more showed up at Lawrence, hoping to intimidate convention attendees the same way they had voters in the two previous referendums. They went beyond attempts to frighten citizens, though, destroying two antislavery newspaper offices and the house of Dr. Charles Robinson, who had been a member of a free-state militia. (Fortunately for him, Dr. Robinson was under arrest and confined in Lecompton at the time of the violation of his home.)
The Border Ruffians apparently thought little of the abolitionists’ mettle … but they hadn’t counted on John Brown, whose seething antislavery anger had reached the boiling point. He and a group of armed men, including four of his sons, set out for Lawrence. For whatever reason, they did not get there, and turned around to head back home. One night during the return trip, they came to the home of James Doyle, a supporter of slavery. Brown and his followers led Doyle and two adult sons into the woods, where they were hacked to death with swords. The next stop on this vengeance mission was the home of Allen Wilkinson, who suffered the same fate. A fifth man, William Sherman, at a third house, on the other side of the Pottawatomie Creek, was also killed in a similar fashion. Satisfied with such a productive outing, Brown and his fellow killers resumed their journey home.
What was called the Pottawatomie Massacre outraged proslavery residents and advocates. The federal government, fearing Kansas was descending into murderous chaos, sent more troops. Governors came and went (for three days in September 1856, there were two men holding the office simultaneously) and so did militias and groups of armed vigilantes. As much of a mess as things were in Kansas, they would only get worse after the Civil War began in 1861 with the brutal raids by guerrilla factions.
In June 1856, Bill Hickok disembarked at Leavenworth in Kansas. Though he was no longer accompanied by Lorenzo, his goal continued to be to find a good place to build a homestead, and the entire family would then relocate from Illinois. But he needed to find a job so as not to dip into the homestead money Lorenzo had given to him. Hickok couldn’t help but be distracted by the turmoil in Kansas. Pro- and antislavery positions were being debated in churches, in saloons, and on street corners, and violence simmered barely below the surface. Sometimes it boiled over; as Hickok wrote his mother after three months in Kansas, “I have seen since I have been here sites [sic] that would make the wickedest hearts sick, believe me mother, for what I say is true.”
Trying to stay out of the fray, Hickok worked whatever jobs he could find. Having a strong constitution and years of farmwork on his résumé helped, as did a willingness to take on whatever was offered. When he wrote his brother Horace in November, he had not made any progress toward finding a site for the Hickok homestead, but there had been no lack of experiences and observations: “You wanted to no what was going on in Cansas. I looked ahead of me to where the roads crossed and saw about 500 soldiers agoing on and I looked down the river and saw some nice steamers and they were all agoing on and that is the way with all the people in Cansas, they are all agoing on. I guess they are going to hell so you see I have told you what is going on in Cansas.”
The wide-open albeit dangerous atmosphere of Leavenworth could be catnip for a handsome young man. The end of that letter to Horace implies that Bill was no stranger to alcohol or other vices, and Leavenworth may have offered plenty more opportunity: “Now I will tell you a few lyes. I have quit swearing now. I have quit drinking but tell Bill [Lorenzo] I have quit dancing etc. I have quit chewing tobacco and don’t touch any lager beer and I don’t speak to the girls at all. I am getting to be the perfect hermit.”
As an aside, Hickok had mentioned to his brother, “Thare is 29 of our company in custody at Lacompton yet. I have been out to see them once. I had as good as a horse and as good a gun as thare was in our company.”
Copyright © 2019 by Tom Clavin