In 1855, he left his father's farm to become a stage coach driver on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. An early record refers to him as "Duck Bill" (perhaps in reference to a protruding upper lip he hid beneath a moustache), but his gunfighting skills changed his nickname to "Wild Bill". His killing of a bear with a bowie knife during a turn as a stage driver cemented a growing reputation as a genuinely tough man who feared nothing, and who was feared for more than carrying a fast gun.
In 1857, Hickok claimed a 160 acre tract of land in Johnson County, Kansas (in what is now the city of Lenexa) where he became the first constable of Monticello Township, Kansas. In 1861, he became a town constable in Nebraska. He was involved in a deadly shoot-out with the McCanles gang at Rock Creek Station, an event still under much debate. On several other occasions, Hickok confronted and killed several men while fighting alone.
Hickok invented the practice of "posting" men out of town. He would put a list on what was called the "dead man's tree" (so called because men had been lynched on it) while constable of Monticello Township. Hickok proclaimed he would shoot them on sight the following day. Few stayed around to find out if he was serious.
Civil War and scouting
When the Civil War began, Hickok joined the Union forces and served in the west, mostly in Kansas and Missouri. He earned a reputation as a skilled scout. After the war, Hickok became a scout for the U. S. Army and later was a professional gambler. He served for a time as a United States Marshal. In 1867, his fame increased from an interview by Henry Morton Stanley. Hickok's killing of Whistler the Peacemaker with a long-range rifle had influence in preventing the Sioux from uniting to resist the settler incursions into the Black Hills. That rifle shot helped cement Hickok's legend as a master of weapons.
During the civil war Bill Cody served as a scout with Robert Denbow, David L. Payne, and William Hickok (Wild Bill Hickok). The men formed a friendship that would last decades. After the war the four men, Payne, Cody, Hickok, and Denbow engaged in buffalo hunting. When Payne moved to Wichita Kansas in 1870, Denbow joined him there while Hickok served as sheriff of Hays, Kansas. Hickok was rumored to have appeared in a stage play put on in 1873 by Bill Cody entitled "Scouts of the plains." When Bill Cody started the Buffalo Bill shows, Denbow travelled with Cody all over Iowa with the Buffalo Bill shows. All 4 men knew each other originally from serving together as scouts in the Civil war.
Lawman and gunfighter
On July 21, 1865, in the town square of Springfield, Missouri, Hicock killed Davis K. Tutt, Jr. in a "quick draw" duel. Fiction later typified this kind of gunfight, but Hicock's is in fact the only one on record that fits the portrayal. The incident was precipitated by a dispute over a gambling debt incurred at a local saloon.
Hicock was working as sheriff and city marshal of Hays, Kansas when, on July 17, 1870, he was involved in a gunfight with disorderly soldiers of the 7th US Cavalry, wounding one and mortally wounding another. In 1871, Hickok became marshal of Abilene, Kansas, taking over for former marshal Thomas J. Smith. Hickok's encounter in Abilene with outlaw John Wesley Hardin resulted in the latter fleeing the town after Hickok managed to disarm him.
While working in Abilene, Hickok and Phil Coe, a saloon owner, had an ongoing dispute that later resulted in a shootout. Coe had been the business partner of known gunman Ben Thompson, with whom he co-owned the Bulls Head Saloon. On October 5, 1871, Hickok was standing off a crowd during a street brawl, during which time Coe fired two shots at Hickok. Hickok returned fire and killed Coe. Hickok, whose eyesight was poor by that time in his life from early stages of glaucoma, caught the glimpse of movement of someone running toward him. He quickly fired one shot in reaction, accidentally shooting and killing Abilene Special Deputy Marshal Mike Williams, who was coming to his aid, an event that affected him for the remainder of his life.
Hickok's retort to Coe, who supposedly stated he could "kill a crow on the wing", is one of the West's most famous sayings though possibly apocryphal): "Did the crow have a pistol? Was he shooting back? I will be."
On August 2, 1876, while playing poker at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, in the Black Hills, Dakota Territory, Hickok could not find an empty seat in the corner, where he always sat in order to protect himself against sneak attacks from behind, and instead sat with his back to one door and facing another. His paranoia was prescient: he was shot in the back of the head with a .45-caliber revolver by Jack McCall. Legend has it that Hickok, playing poker when he was shot, was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights. The fifth card was either unknown, or some say that it had not yet been dealt. This famous hand of cards is known as the "Dead Man's Hand".
The motive for the killing is still debated. McCall may have been paid for the deed, or it may have been the result of a recent dispute between the two. Most likely McCall became enraged over what he perceived as a condescending offer from Hickok to let him have enough money for breakfast after he had lost all his money playing poker the previous day. McCall claimed at the resulting two-hour trial, by a miners jury, an ad hoc local group of assembled miners and businessmen, that he was avenging Hickok's earlier slaying of his brother which was later found untrue. McCall was acquitted of the murder, resulting in the Black Hills Pioneer editorializing:
"Should it ever be our misfortune to kill a man ... we would simply ask that our trial may take place in some of the mining camps of these hills"
McCall was subsequently rearrested after bragging about his deed, and a new trial was held. The authorities did not consider this to be double jeopardy because at the time Deadwood was not recognized by the U.S. as a legitimately incorporated town because it was in Indian Country and the jury was irregular. The new trial was held in Yankton, capital of the territory. Hickok's brother, Lorenzo Butler Hickok, traveled from Illinois to attend the retrial. This time McCall was found guilty and hanged. After his execution it was determined that McCall had never had a brother.
Charlie Utter, Hickok's friend and companion, claimed Hickok's body and placed a notice in the local newspaper, the Black Hills Pioneer, which read:
"Died in Deadwood, Black Hills, August 2, 1876, from the effects of a pistol shot, J. B. Hickok (Wild Bill) formerly of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Funeral services will be held at Charlie Utter's Camp, on Thursday afternoon, August 3, 1876, at 3 o'clock P. M. All are respectfully invited to attend."
Almost the entire town attended the funeral, and Utter had Hickok buried with a wooden grave marker reading:
"Wild Bill, J. B. Hickok killed by the assassin Jack McCall in Deadwood, Black Hills, August 2d, 1876. Pard, we will meet again in the happy hunting ground to part no more. Good bye, Colorado Charlie, C. H. Utter."
In 1879, at the urging of Calamity Jane (with whom he had a baby girl in 1873 called Jane), Utter had Hickok reinterred in a ten-foot (3 m) square plot at the Mount Moriah Cemetery, surrounded by a cast-iron fence with a U.S. flag flying nearby. A monument has since been built there. In accordance with her dying wish, Calamity Jane was buried next to him.
Shortly before Hickok's death, he wrote a letter to his new wife, which reads in part: "Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife—-Agnes-—and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore" and "My dearly beloved if I am to die today and never see the sweet face of you I want you to know that I am no great man and am lucky to have such a woman as you".
"Dime novel" fame
It is difficult to separate the truth from fiction about Hickok, the first "dime novel" hero of the western era, in many ways one of the first comic book heroes, keeping company with another who achieved part of his fame in such a way, frontiersman Davey Crockett. In the dimestore novels, exploits of Hickok were presented in heroic form, making him seem larger than life. In truth, most of the stories were greatly exaggerated or fabricated.
Hickok told the writers that he had killed over 100 men. This number is doubtful, and it is more likely that his total killings were about 20 or a few more. Hickok was a fearless and deadly fighting man, versatile with a rifle, revolver, or knife. His story of fighting a grizzly bear, which he claims mistook him for food because of his greasy buckskins, personified a man who feared nothing. According to Wild Bill, he killed the bear with a Bowie knife after emptying his pistols into the bear. That story is also thought to be an exaggeration.