James Butler Hickok was born in Troy Grove, Illinois, on May 27, 1837. As a boy in rural Illinois, young James was quite interested in guns, shooting, and competition. He became recognized locally as an outstanding marksman with a pistol. His parents were God-fearing Baptists. He was not close to either of his parents. Nevertheless, James did his chores on the family’s farm – still harboring romantic notions of the wild west.
At the age of 18, he left home and migrated to Monticello, Kansas. There he landed a job driving a stagecoach on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails. In 1855, highwaymen were real threats to stagecoaches laden with relatively well-heeled travelers with cash in their pockets, and as a driver, young James had many violent encounter with robbers, putting his marksman skills to use immediately. In his own mind it was instantly clear that he was rather good as a gunfighter, and he began to develop an attitude which quickly earned him the nickname “Wild Bill.”
Scrapes with desperados, outlaws, and even bears did nothing to diminish Wild Bill’s growing reputation as a very tough frontier character. He was, after all, right for such a job given that he had all the proper traits: a sharpshooter’s eye, and an unwavering appreciation of his own courage and reasonably good looks. Embellishing his image, he grew his hair to an unusual length, largely, he said, as a challenge to those scalp seeking Indians he had been fighting so often — though others offered the opinion that the hair was more a vanity than anything else.