Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wild Bill in Abilene

After the death of Abilene’s Tom Smith in 1870, the town needed a new law officer to tame the wild cattle town.  Mayor Joseph McCoy (who you may remember brought the cattle drive to Abilene) and the city council, decided to hire a new City Marshal for the 1871 cattle season.  Their choice for City Marshal was James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok.
Photograph courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
Hickok maintained order and quiet in Abilene to the best of his ability.  His eight months tenure was a stormy one though, with the end of the cattle season following an incident widely known as the Phil Coe shooting affray.

Prior to his time as Marshal in Abilene, Hickok had performed many duties including scout for the Union and constable of Monticello Township, Johnson County, Kansas.  His reputation preceded him due to an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in February 1867; and his many exploits which were talked about throughout the country.  One particular exploit, the McCanles affair, was well known, and involved Hickok fighting anywhere from four to fourteen men at the same time.  While Hickok was involved in several impressive gunfights, many of these stories were greatly exaggerated.  In addition to having exaggerated stories, the Harper’s article featured many falsehoods.  The author of the piece did not even get Hickok’s name correct, calling him William Haycock.

While employed as city marshal of Abilene, Hickok continued the enforcement of the city’s no fire arms ordinance.  This ordinance was still ignored by many, and shootings did occasionally occur.  Those that ignored the ordinance did not openly carry a firearm though, as Hickok would have tried to confiscate it if they did.  Hickok did not maintain a mostly ceaseless patrol of the streets as his predecessor, Tom Smith, had.  Instead he often set up his unofficial headquarters at the Alamo Saloon, where he could be found gambling while on duty.  
Photograph courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
During his time in Abilene, Hickok had several enemies and was always on his guard in case of an assassination attempt.  This would lead to an incident, known as the Phil Coe affray, which would greatly affect Hickok.  After responding to a rowdy crowd near the Alamo Saloon, Hickok shot and killed the former owner of the Bull’s Head Tavern, Phil Coe.  Hickok believed that Coe was trying to kill him, and responded in this manner to save his life.  Most reports state that Coe fired two shots at Hickok and provoked the attack, neither of Coe’s shots found their mark though.  A policeman, Mike Williams, responded to the scene after hearing the initial commotion, and was accidently shot by Hickok.  This would be the last major event to happen during Wild Bill’s time as Marshal.  Since the cattle drive season came to a close, Hickok was relieved of his position in December 1871.  After this period, crime rates dropped greatly after the Abilene city council and the Farmer’s Protective Association decided that the cattle trade should not return for another season.

In 1872, due to an increase in domestic livestock deaths related to Texas Fever, an ever growing problem with unlawful cowboys, and a local economy moving towards being agriculturally based, Abilene passed an ordinance prohibiting Texas longhorns, making it necessary for ranchers to find new railheads to ship their cattle from. The following proclamation was issued: “We the undersigned most respectively request all who have contemplated driving cattle to Abilene to seek some other point for shipment, as the inhabitants of Dickinson County will no longer submit to the evils of the trade.”  So ended the cattle town days of Abilene.
Photograph courtesy of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
Further Reading:

Joseph C. Rosa is a fantastic author and researcher of Wild Bill.  His books They Called Him Wild Bill and Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and his Myth are both great resources for more information on Wild Bill Hickok.

No comments:

Post a Comment