Tuesday, July 21, 2015



Today, 150 years ago, in the late afternoon of July 21, 1865, a man wearing a pair of 1851 Navy Colts strapped to his waist, ivory handles turned forward, walked along a street in Springfield, Missouri, heading for the town square—a walk that would launch a legend by nightfall.

The flat broad-brimmed hat he wore shaded his gray eyes and long, droopy mustache. Gambler and gunman James Butler Hickok, a former Union Army scout, approached the square from the south. 

He reached across his six-foot-three frame, pulled out one of the Colts, cocked it, and returned it the holster.

"So, this is what a professional gambler looks like," someone in the gathering crowd whispered. "Looks a bit of a dandy in my book."

Hickok, a physically imposing character, was a dandy, alright. Dandy with a Colt. The dark vest he wore accentuated his narrow waist and his riding britches were tucked inside a pair of custom-made top-boots.

Across the square stood gambler Davis Tutt, an ex-Confederate soldier. The night before, the two men—who were friends and often gambled together—engaged in a bitter argument during a poker game at the Lyon House. 

Some say the dispute may have been over a card game, or a woman. Others contend Tutt supposedly claimed Hickok owed him money from a previous wager.

Whatever the reason, Tutt snatched Hickok's prized gold-cased Waltham Repeater pocket watch off the table to keep as collateral. 


Adding verbal fuel to an already tense situation. He threatened to wear it in public to show the town Hickok didn't pay his debts. Tutt's action enraged Hickok, and the two men continued arguing. 


"I intend wearing it in the morning," Tutt vowed.

"If you do, I'll shoot you, and I warn you not to come across the square with it on," Hickok replied. 

('Putting upon him'- Dave Tutt takes Wild Bill's watch
from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Feb 1867)
"I intend wearing it in the morning," Tutt vowed.

"If you do, I'll shoot you, and I warn you not to come across the square with it on," Hickok replied.

With the sun low in the sky, shadows crisscrossing the market square, the two men stood sideways, separated by about seventy-five yards, classic dueling stances. Hickok repeated his warning.

”Dave, here I am. Don't you come across here with that watch.” 

(Wild Bill Hickok vs. Dave Tutt: painting by Andy Thomas)

The two men went for their guns. Witness says each fired a single bullet at about the same time. Tutt’s shot went wild and missed. Hickok coolly took aim and drilled a round into Tutt's ribs.

“Boys, I’m killed,” Tutt cried out, staggering around for a few seconds before he collapsed and died.

The February 1867 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, featured an account of the gunfight written by Col. George Ward Nichols. The article, which came under heavy criticism for its numerous inaccuracies and exaggerations, carried a lengthy quote from Richard Bentley Owen, Hickok’s quartermaster during the Civil War.

“At that moment, you could have heard a pin drop in that squad. Both Tutt and Bill fired, but on discharge followed the other so quick that it’s hard to say which went off first. Tutt was a famous shot, but he missed this time; the ball from his pistol went over Bill’s head. The instant Bill fired, without waiting term see ef he had his Tutt, he wheeled on his heels and pointed his pistol at Tutt’s friends, who had already draw their weapons.”

According to Owen, Hickok said, “Aren’t yer satisfied, gentlemen? Put up your shooting-irons, or there’ll be more dead men here.”

The confrontation between Hickok and Tutt represented one of the few recorded instances on the American frontier involving a one-on-one duel to the death. 

Hickok was charged with murder the next day, but the it was subsequently changed to manslaughter and the case went to trial. 

On August 6th, the jury deliberated about "an hour or two," and acquitted him.

Hickok, better known as Wild Bill, made his way to the Plains of Kansas from Troy Grove, Illinois, where he was born in 1837. At age 20, he was elected constable of Monticello, Kansas, in 1855.

The so-called legend of Wild Bill Hickok got its start at Rock Creek Station, Nebraska, which served as a stop for overland stagecoaches and a Pony Express station. The place was owned by David McCanles, who sold it to Russell, Waddell, and Majors of the Pony Express.

The station had fallen on tough economic times— close to bankruptcy, in fact—and couldn't pay McCanles, who showed up at the station with his cousin James Wood and ranch hand James Gordon.

Wild Bill had just arrived in the middle of a heated argument between McCanles and Horace Wellman who operated the station.

Depending on which story is told, Wild Bill apparently stepped into the bitter exchange and ended up shooting and killing from inside the house. 

He also wounded Woods and Gordon. Wellman, or his wife, beat the wounded Woods to death with a hoe. And a shotgun blast by Hickok, or Wellman, finished off Gordon.

During a subsequent trial, Hickok and Wellman pleaded self-defense. As employees of the Overland Stage Company, one of the most powerful companies west of the Mississippi, the two men had plenty of influential friends at their backs. 

Hickok and Wellman were exonerated and, from that point, the legend grew thanks to an ambitious writer who exaggerated the story to the level and accuracy of a dime novel.

In 1866, Hickok served as Deputy U.S Marshal at Fort Riley. Three years later, he took a job as marshal of Hays, Kansas. 

But his reputation as a frontier legend suffered a blow when he mistakenly shot and killed his own deputy. 

He stepped away from his role as a lawman and - from 1872 to 1873 - toured the East with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show.

Wild Bill ended up in Deadwood, South Dakota where, on the afternoon of August 2, 1876, he was killed by Jack McCall while playing cards at the #10 Saloon.

If you enjoyed this Story of the West, more await you in my new three-volume package, Tall Tales from the High Plains & Beyond. Book One: The Unexpected and Other Stories and Book Two: The Law Keepers are now available in soft-cover or eBook instant download. For a FREE SAMPLER of all three volumes, visit my website and leave your name and email address and get instant access.



  1. Very interesting, Tom. I stood on that square in Springfield last year when we drove Route 66.

    1. That had to be surreal experience, Keith. Thanks.

  2. Tom, It seemed to be a common accepted practice for anyone gunning down another who had a weapon on his person to plead self protection when questioned. Killing Jim Miller and John Wesley Hardin comes to mind. Those who lived by the gun usually, at some point, got rubbed out by the gun.
    Nice post.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jerry. I think you nailed it. The frontier has a long history gunmen using the justifiable "self defense" argument, which seemed to work in many cases.

  3. As a younger man I lived in Springfield for a few years, crossed that spot several several times, but was ignorant of its history until a couple years ago. Appreciate you re-enacting it here, Tom.

    1. Fascinating stuff, Phil. Keith posted a photo on FB that he took of a plaque on market square that mentions the duel.

  4. Tom,

    As usual, I come late to the party. Good stuff. Wild Bill Hickok was certainly one of the more interesting characters of the West.

    Glad to see you getting those books out there.

    Charlie Steel