The world knows him as an army scout, a stagecoach driver, a gunfighter, a gambler and a lawman, but did you know that Wild Bill Hickok’s career as a lawman started in Johnson County, Kansas? On March 22, 1858, Hickok was elected constable for the Monticello Township. He was only 20 years old. At that time, Monticello had dreams of being the county seat, but because it was not centrally located the honor went to Olathe.
James Butler Hickok was born in rural Illinois and raised on a farm. When his father died, Hickok stayed close to home to help his family when all he wanted to do was to head west like his older brother Oliver. Newly opened land called to him, but he was in charge of providing the food supply for his family, so he stayed. Some say he finally left in 1855 at the age of 18 because a fight he was involved in made him mistakenly believe he had killed a man. He fled for fear of retribution. Lorenzo, an older brother, and Hickok set off on foot from Homer, Illinois, following the Illinois River to St. Louis. Upon arriving they stopped at the post office where they found a letter from home. The letter informed that their mother was sick. Lorenzo decided to head back home, and Hickok continued on to Kansas.
Shortly after arriving in Kansas, Hickok met John Owens, a local farmer. It is with Owens that Hickok joined the Free-State Army (also known as the Jayhawkers) led by James H. Lane. Legend has it that to join the Free-State Army a contest took place to find the best shot. Hickok only had $32 and the entry fee was $30. Because he was an excellent sharpshooter, he took the chance and out-shot everyone and took first place. He became a scout for Lane’s army, and some say he was Lane’s bodyguard.
By the end of 1857 Hickok was in Monticello, where he was elected constable of the Monticello Township. A sheriff is over the entire county while constables are over the townships. Hickok was known for inventing “posting” men out of town, which is putting a list on what was then called the dead man’s tree. He also attempted to lay claim on 160 acres that is now 83rd Street and Clare Road, but it fell through in 1859.
Hickok did not stay long in Johnson County. The Monticello Community Historical Society keeps record of his stay. In 1876, Hickok was killed in Deadwood, Dakota Territory while playing five card stud, shot in the back of the head by Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall, who was thought to have shouted, “Take that!” McCall was hanged at the age of 24 for the murder. Hickok’s hand is forever known as Aces and Eights, the dead man’s hand – the unluckiest hand one can have. In 1980, Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.
-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library