A Legend of the Frontier

Review: 'Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter' by Tom Clavin

'Wild Bill' Hickok / Getty Images

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner proposed his famous Frontier Thesis—the notion that the American character had been fundamentally formed by the experience of a frontier, an ever-moving line that divided civilization from the wilderness. And here we are, well over a hundred years later, still watching Westerns. Still arguing over the effects of westward expansion. Still reading books like Tom Clavin's latest effort, Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter.

In truth, Turner's thesis has been out of fashion for over 50 years, with John F. Kennedy's call for a New Frontier one of the last attempts to deploy it unselfconsciously and unironically. Westward the course of empire takes its way, wrote Bishop Berkeley in 1728. And so it did, with Berkeley, California, named after him (though he pronounced his name "Barkly"). But through the late 20th century, the holes in Turner's historical account grew ever clearer. The attempts to extend his thesis to some later frontier appeared more and more forced. And the notion of an American identity formed by the old experience of the westward way came to seem ridiculously implausible.

Except, you know, for Wild Bill. Wild Bill Hickok, as extravagant a private individual as one could possibly imagine. As outrageous a minor historical figure as anyone could design. As American a man as we could ever hope for. Single-handedly he suggests that maybe there actually is something to Turner's dated notion. The west is the best, as Jim Morrison would sing. Get here, and we'll do the rest.

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Born in Illinois in 1837, Hickok left home at age 18 (one step ahead of the county sheriff). He headed for the frontier, naturally. And the West really did do the rest: forming him as a lawman and a scoundrel, a sometime solid citizen and a regular ruffian, a national hero and a local disgrace. The West killed him, too, when a disgruntled gambler named Jack McCall snuck up behind him at a card game and put a bullet through his head. That was in the town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876. Hickok was 39 years old at the time—only 21 years after leaving from his Illinois birthplace. Only 21 years after lighting out for the West.

In his new book, Tom Clavin takes Hickok as a defining figure for the nation's picture of the West, both at the time and down through the next century. Thus, for example, in the subtitle to Wild Bill—identifying Hickok as the "First Gunfighter"—Clavin accepts the claim that Hickok's 1865 shootout with a gambler named Davis Tutt in Springfield, Missouri, was the original example of the western form of a duel: the ur-battle on a town street, from which decades of movie Westerns would draw. (Clavin is probably right, but other candidates have been put forward as the initial gunslinger. In the 1959 shoot-'em-up novel, The First Fast Draw, for example, Louis L'Amour insists on Texas's Cullen Baker.)

Some of Clavin's text is devoted to debunking. After the Tutt shooting, a former Union colonel named George Ward Nichols interviewed Hickok and published a piece about the encounter in Harper's Magazine. The article, Wild Bill dryly notes, "would do much to create the Wild Bill Hickok legends that exist to this day. It even contained a few facts." Mostly, though, it was the beginning of an exaggeration and puffery that would continue for years. One of the facts it didn’t contain: The gunfighter's actual name was James Butler Hickok, with even the "Bill" part of "Wild Bill" an invention.

To his credit, Clavin seems to realize that the vein of journalistic debunkery is as played out as the older vein of journalistic mythologizing. In part, that slows the book down, as Wild Bill launches off into entertainingly told but only loosely connected accounts of how the Pony Express was born, the origins of traveling circuses, and minor battles of the Civil War. In greater part, however, Clavin gains from his willingness to accept some of the larger-than-life aspects of Wild Bill’s story.

Thus, for example, we get the story of an 1866 Kansas baseball game between the Kansas City Antelopes and the Atchison Pomeroys. After a previous game had ended in brawl, the organizers hired Hickok to serve as home-plate umpire, which he did while wearing a pair of six-guns strapped to his waist. Or, for another example, we get the best-documented account of the gunman's death—a death long coming, with his hands growing shakier and eyesight failing.

Mostly we get Wild Bill in all his strange glory. An ambidextrous man who could actually do the two-hand shooting that Hollywood absurdly shows every second or third gunfighter doing, Hickok was always a showboat. He wore his hair long and wavy, kept his elaborate mustache trimmed, and dressed as close to a dandy as Western haberdashery allowed: a long frock coat, a fancy waistcoat, a black hat, and two easy hands full of pistols. He had the looks for it, too. Standing over six-feet tall, he moved like a panther. He had killed men and cleaned up towns. He once fought a bear, pulling a knife after his pistol had failed and slitting the bear’s throat as it had him pinned to the ground and clawed at him.

He once fought a bear. If you want an American exemplar, surely that will do. So would other facts about the man: He died broke. His fame made him a target and he was lucky to live all the way to age 39. His friends, knowing he couldn't much stand Calamity Jane, buried her next to him, years after his death, as a last practical joke on him. Wild Bill Hickok is the figure of the frontier in exactly the way Frederick Jackson Turner imagined it: He lived astonishingly free, died younger than he should have, and cut along the way a figure impossible anywhere but there, at that time. On the frontier.