Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wild Bill Hickock - The Shootist

[This is another in an occasional series of posts about characters who, while not fitting into the "daredevil" classification, unquestionably added to the legend of Niagara. I hope you enjoy it. - MR]

In the early days of exploration and colonization of North America, Niagara Falls was the Wild West. The area now known as Western New York state and the Niagara Region of Ontario changed hands several times in the Eighteenth - and early Nineteenth - century. Old Fort Niagara, a military compound of the era still extant in Youngstown, NY, was at various times operated by the French, British, and United States military.

Of course, by the mid-1800's, the vast majority of the American continent had been explored, and was beginning to be populated. One James Butler Hickock was born in May of 1837, in what is now Troy Grove, IL. His parents were devoutly Christian, and deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement of the era [their farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad escape route for slaves, and legend says young James Hickock picked up his phenomenal shooting skills from a young age, helping his parents defend their property from slave catchers.]. His father was killed in a gun battle with slavers when James was 14. Four years later, after a fight [non-shooting, apparently] in which Hickock mistakenly believed he had killed his opponent, he fled to the Kansas Territory. While there, he joined a vigilante anti-slave "army", and met a 12-year-old scout named William Cody. Years, later, Cody, known as "Buffalo Bill", would become another legendary Wild West figure.

While in Kansas, Hickock began his career as a gun fighter or, as some practitioners called themselves, "shootist". While several of his alleged "gunfights" have been brought into question, there is no doubt that Hickock, equipped with hand-eye coordination said to be among the best of his time, dropped more than a few challengers in single combat. (Also during this time, Hickock picked up the nickname "Duck-bill", no doubt due to his elongated nose and protruding lips. After growing a mustache, and with a little encouragement on his part [would you say "no" to Mr. Hickock?], the name was changed to Wild Bill, by which he was known the rest of his life.

Hickock served with distinction in the Union Army during the Civil War, becoming known as an excellent scout. After the War, he remained in the Army, serving a brief stint with the Seventh Cavalry [then-commanding officer George Armstrong Custer was said to be rather impressed with him]; in time, he joined up with old friend "Buffalo Bill" Cody , and made his living as a buffalo hunter. In 1867, he took part in a famous interview with Henry Morton Stanley, who would become world-famous a few years later after finding long-missing African explorer and missionary David Livingstone.

1867 turned out to be a busy year for Wild Bill. In addition to the Stanley interview, Hickock decided he'd had enough of frontier life, and moved to, of all places, Niagara Falls! While there, he decided to try his hand at acting, joining the cast of a play called The Daring Buffalo Chases Of The Plains. Skill with a handgun, however, did not translate into skills on stage. Word soon trickled out that Hickock was a dreadful actor [my definition of "the bravest person in Niagara Falls" during that time would be "anyone who told Wild Bill Hickock the truth about his acting"]. In time, even Hickock got the message, and returned to the West.

As you read the last paragraph, you may have asked yourself [as I did when I heard the story of what would be Hickock's first visit to Niagara], "Why, of all the places Wild Bill could have gone, did he select the Falls?" Well, Niagara Falls was a known tourist destination even then, and Hickock perhaps thought he could make a living with some sort of tourist attraction. But there may have been another reason.

Charles Utter was born near Niagara Falls in 1838, the year after Hickock. Most of his childhood was spent in Illinois and, on adulthood he, like Wild Bill, drifted to Kansas. It's believed the two met there, although no one is exactly sure of the circumstances. Utter was a character in his own right; just five-and-a-half feet tall, he was considered a "dandy" in his day. Utter wore hand-tooled buckskins, pistols decorated with gold, silver, and pearl, kept himself immaculately groomed, even in the wilds of Colorado, and had the unprecedented [for that time and place, anyway] habit of taking a daily bath! (This was not his only oddity: while "on the camp", he slept in a tent kept as clean as himself. He gave standing instructions to all, even his best friend Hickock, not to enter his tent on pain of being shot!) The two men kept in contact during their roving lives, and it's possible that Utter may have told Wild Bill of the wonder in his home town.
At any rate, Hickock, as noted above, first came to Niagara in 1867. Next time, the story of his return trip a few years later, and the "Wild West Spectacular" he put on that turned out to be little more than a "dog and pony" show. Until then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley

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