You have heard of them, perhaps read or seen movies about the three. Each went by the same first name and lived more or less during the same era of the frontier days of America. Two lived and died by the gun and one did not. In the order of their eventual demise, the three Bills of the Wild West:
Wild Bill Hickok. This Bill, born James Butler Hickok in 1837, in Illinois, served as a peace officer in Monticello, Kansas, a few years after leaving home at age 18. At about this time he earned the sobriquet "Wild Bill." Hickok served in the Civil War in the Union Army and at its end became a Marshall in Abilene, Kansas, and then as sheriff in the late 1860s in Hays City.
By now Bill had gained a wide reputation as a sure-shot gunfighter, having participated on the winning side in several shoot outs. His fame led to a tour with Buffalo Bills' Wild West Show in the 1870s.
Then, in 1876, Wild Bill Hickok relocated to the gold rush town of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory. Here, he met his fate on August 2 of that year from a gunshot to the back of the head while playing cards.
Billy the Kid. This Bill (born William Henry McCarty, Jr., on November 23, 1859) came to the Wild West from Brooklyn, New York, to become one of the most wanted outlaws of his time. He moved westward with his mother and step father (William Antrim) at age twelve or so. The family eventually settled in Silver City, New Mexico Territroy, where young William's mother died of tuberculosis.
Not long after, William McCarty began his life of crime, starting out with petty thievery such as stealing cheese. Thievery became a way of life with him. Eventually, trouble with the law led him to relocate into Arizona Territory. There, during an altercation with a blacksmith named Frank Cahill, McCarty shot and killed the man. Again, McCarty fled, this time back into New Mexico Territory.
About this time, McCarty decided to go by the name of William Bonney and began the killing spree for which most people think of him. Some said that by the time of his death at age 21, William Bonney, Billy the Kid, had killed as many as 27 men. True or not, it all ended when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed him on July 14, 1881.
Buffalo Bill Cody. This Bill (born William Frederick Cody on February 26, 1846 in the Iowa Territory) epitomized much for which the Wild West became known. By the time William had attained the age of seven, the Cody family had moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory. Isaac Cody, an outspoken antislavery advocate, died of complications resulting from knife wounds delivered by a pro-slavery proponent. This made it necessary for Willliam to seek employment while not yet a teenager.
His first job, at age eleven, saw William working as a horseback courier carrying messages up and down the straggling length of a slow-moving wagon train heading west. From there, William went on to work as an Army scout, trapper, bullwhacker, gold-seeker, Pony Express rider and hotel manager, with a stint in the Union Army during the Civil War.
William earned his nickname, Buffalo Bill, while killing bison (buffalo) to provide meat for workers hired by the Kansas Pacific Railroad to lay track. Ned Buntline, a dime novelist of the time, proceeded to make Buffalo Bill famous worldwide by writing outlandish adventures he attributed to Cody.
Buffalo Bill finally found his calling in organizing Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which he operated for over 20 years both in the United States and in several European countries, where the show found great acceptance.
William "Buffalo Bill" Cody died at age 71 on January 10, 1917, not of gunshot wounds but of kidney failure, attended by family and close friends in Denver, Colorado.
The Three Bills
There you have it: the three Bills of Wild West renown. Each in his way epitomized a facet of the early frontier days of the western United States. Verifiable documentation remains scarce. It's anyone's guess as to which of the many and varied adventures experienced by these famous Westerners occurred in fact or in fable.