by Tom Clavin
They were the two most famous plainsmen of the American West, and they shared the same first name. Well, sort of. William Cody came to be known as Buffalo Bill and James Butler Hickok came to be known as Wild Bill.
Hickok hailed from Illinois and had traveled to Missouri and Kansas as a young man looking for adventure. The Codys were a farming family in Iowa but the death of Billy Cody’s older brother sent the family to Kansas to start over. But the anti-slavery views of Isaac Cody were not welcome and he was beaten and stabbed by an angry mob. When he eventually died from his injuries, Billy had to find work to support his mother and sisters. It was while he was a 12-year-old worker on a wagon train that Cody met James Hickok, about 10 years his senior. The older man saved Billy from being beaten by a bully, and the two became friends for life.
They met again during the Civil War. Hickok originally served as a Union Army scout, but then he went behind enemy lines as a spy. Sometimes this got him into hot water. There were some close escapes.
Cody claims to have witnessed one of Hickok’s dashing escapes. The Union and Confederate forces were drawn up in a skirmish line near Fort Scott, Kansas, when Cody observed two men take off on horses away from the rebel position. Improbably, “some five hundred shots were fired at the flying men” with only one man—another of Hickok’s unfortunate sidekicks—being felled. With Union troops returning fire, he made it safely to report to General Alfred Pleasonton that Price’s force was weaker than it appeared. Based on this intelligence, an attack was ordered, and it was successful in driving Price back.
Hickok and Cody scouted together for a time during the campaign, then went to Springfield, Missouri. “Wild Bill and myself spent two weeks there ‘having a jolly good time,’ as some people would express it.”
By the way, how did each man get his new name? In the case of James Butler Hickok, he was already called Bill by most folks. Then something happened one day in Independence, Missouri, during the Civil War.
As Hickok walked through town one day, he came upon a disturbance in a bar. He was told that the bartender had incautiously spoken in favor of the rebellion and several drunken Union-favoring patrons inside were beginning to show the bartender the error of his ways with a severe beating. Though far from sharing the man’s views, Bill believed in fair fights, and peering inside, he saw this wasn’t one.