Wild Bill


When I was growing up, the western was a television staple. There was Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Big Valley, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman and a host of others.

The myth of the American West was burned into my psyche. It was a time of larger than life characters, both heroes and villains, daring pioneers who were quick with a gun. Native Americans were an afterthought in those stories, almost subhuman.

I had always thought the stories of lawlessness and gunslinging were, at the least, exaggerated. Turns out I was wrong.

Wild Bill, by Tom Clavin hits the stores today. It is a biography of the man known as the fastest draw in the west, the greatest of the gunslinger, Wild Bill Hickock.

Those television westerns were long ago. I don’t remember much from them, but even as a child I knew they were fiction. Reading this book though has me wondering if I misjudged them

Wild Bill was a colorful character whose life seems to have intersected with every legend of the old West. Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill Cody, General Custer, and many more who put an appearance in these pages. He was a soldier, a sheriff, a wagon train master, trail guide and a man who could draw fast and kill you with a gun in each hand. Clavin doesn’t even try to figure out how many people Hickock killed, though he does work at separating fact from fiction and the man from the myth.

From the descriptions in Wild Bill, I am thankful that I did not live in the American West in Hickock’s time. It seems to have been pretty much a lawless place, at least at first, where both alcohol and human life were cheap. Wild Bill seems to have been a bit more refined than most, but that isn’t saying much.

Clavin paints a picture not only of Hickock (an unusual man who bathed daily when his contemporaries rarely acknowledged the existence of soap and water) but of his time. You can almost feel the dust in the air from the cattle drives, the greed of the gold rush and hear the piano in the honky tonks. Unlike those westerns of my youth though, this story is the true one.

Wild Bill opens up a time in history that I will admit I really didn’t know that much about, even though I knew the names of the major characters. If you are a fan of the myths and legends of the Wild West, you will like this book. If you just want to increase your knowledge of the time and place, Wild Bill in an interesting read.

After reading it, I have a desire to revisit the television westerns of my childhood. I’m sure some of them must be online. But where would I find the time?

“Review copy of this books was provided courtesy of St. Martin’s Press.”



  1. Harriet Johnston · · Reply

    Many of the old Western series are available through Youtube. My husband and I have watched many of them over the last 5 years and enjoyed many of them. Like you I thought many of them were exaggerated. I am now aware that while many of the actual stories told are not necessarily true there is a great deal of truth to the background including characters.
    On a personal note, I grew up in the upper Ottawa Valley, and my husband grew up in the Toledo, Ontario area.
    Thank you for your blog.

    1. Thanks Harriet – I’m going to check some of them out. I love the Ottawa Valley, both as a place to live and a place for vacations – my family roots there go back to 1846. I think I may have driven through Toledo a couple of times trying to find a shortcut to the 401.

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