I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and His Myth

Joseph C. Rosa

  •  Joseph C. Rosa, Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and His Myth (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1996).

Joseph G. Rosa, like many boys of his generation, grew up venerating Wild Bill Hickok and his larger-than-life exploits. This admiration led Rosa to contemplate the validity of Hickok’s popular image later in life. Close inspection of primary sources, including interviews with Hickok’s family, resulted in the writing of Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and His Myth, in which Rosa juxtaposes the fabled Wild Bill Hickok with the real-life James Butler Hickok. Hickok’s myth and Western myths in general are problematical and complex, Rosa argues, because they consist of an interwoven web of fact and fiction, the balance of which is sometimes precarious. In Wild Bill Hickok, Rosa addresses, topically, the major myths surrounding Hickok’s figure, and assesses the validity of these myths and their particular origins. The myth first found its footing in 1867, in an article in Harper’s New Monthly, and was solidified into the minds of the nation on his death in 1876, when he was shot in the back of the head, while playing cards, those in his hand being known as the “Deadman’s Hand.”

Hickok is the most controversial figure to have survived the nineteenth century West by way of popular culture, Rosa contends. He still represents the ultimate purveyor of frontier justice, the quintessential gun slinging straight shooter. Hickok and other fabled Western figures came to prominence after the Civil War, Rosa writes, because Americans were in need of a source of escapism, a need that Americans have seemingly not shaken. The hero acts as an “extension of ourselves,” the embodiment of our greatest wishes for our own character. In the case of Wild Bill Hickok, the real-life figure that inspired the myth was quite different from his public persona. He was much quieter and shier than his image would suggest and was also the product of a sound, disciplined, and religious household. His military service during the Civil War was romanticized to feed the growing desire for escapist drama. As with most myths, Rosa finds that there was some factual basis behind all of the claims, but that they were severely blown out of proportion to satisfy public yearnings.

The major problem with investigating Wild Bill Hickok’s myth, Rosa finds, is that there are no clear indications as to how Hickok personally felt about his burgeoning public persona. In the case of Daniel Boone, one can find clear examples, both in writing and in action, of Boone sustaining and even accentuating the mythic character that preceded his authentic actions. In both cases, the rougher qualities of each man are heightened in order to feed the East with its desire for entertainment and excitement. However, Hickok, at least to Rosa’s knowledge, did not overtly fuel the mythmaking process in the same way the Boone did with such actions as wearing a coonskin cap. Rosa illuminates the way in which mythology basically became the middle and lower-class’ form of tourism. Unlike the upper-class that could vacation in the West, as shown in Anne Farrar Hyde and Earl Pomeroy’s studies, those left behind had to rely on the stories passed down to them through newspapers, dime-novels, and films.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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