On gunfights, U.S. colonialism, and studying the American West on the East Coast

"Wild Bill" Hickok shot down Davis Tutt 150 years ago in the first quick-draw gunfight of the American West. Yale historian John Mack Faragher answers questions about gunfights in the American West, how the West is a window into American history, and the importance of Yale collections.

Davis Tutt shouldn’t have taken Wild Bill’s watch.

Postcard of James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok, by the Arthur Jaff Heliochrome Co. in New York; published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

The former Confederate soldier and gambler was shot down by James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok 150 years ago in Springfield, Missouri, in what is today recognized as the first quick-draw gunfight of the American West.

Events leading up to the legendary shootout began the night before with a dispute over a gambling debt. Hickok and Tutt had known each other for years, but there had been a falling out and Wild Bill refused to play cards with Tutt. According to an account by a witness who called himself “Captain Honesty,” Tutt retaliated that evening by giving money to every other man around the table playing against Hickok. A successful gambler, Wild Bill won nearly $200 that night, which angered his one-time associate even more.

Tutt called in a past debt of $45 on the spot from Hickok, who promptly paid up. Tutt then claimed another $35 debt owed from a previous game. Hickok disagreed with this second claim, saying he only owed Tutt $25. It was at this point that Tutt took Hickok’s gold Waltham watch from the table and said he would keep it until the debt was paid. Hickok warned Tutt against such a foolish action. Trial testimony from a J.W. Orr noted that Tutt later raised his price to $45.

While the details of what happened the next day on July 21, 1865, are not entirely clear, historians agree that Tutt showed up in the town square in front of the courthouse around 6 p.m. with Hickok’s watch. Wild Bill appeared at the other end of the square and warned Tutt not to come any further. The two began to cross the square toward one another, drawing their pistols. Exactly how far apart they were and what guns were used are not definitely known. It’s written that they were facing side-on, dueling fashion, almost 100 paces apart, with Hickok using his Colt Navy. 

Tutt and Hickok fired one shot each. Tutt missed; Hickok didn’t. Tutt staggered and fell, shot through the heart, and Hickok was soon arrested and charged with murder. The charge was later reduced to manslaughter, but the jury found that Hickok acted in self-defense and he was acquitted.

The shootout launched Wild Bill’s fame as a gunman. He went on to have a short-lived career as a lawman in Kansas, befriended other renowned figures of the Wild West such as Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Cody, became a dime novel hero, married a circus proprietor, and continued his gambling career.

Hickok’s luck ran out on Aug. 2, 1876, when he was shot in the back of the head while playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota). He died immediately, though his killer, Jack McCall, later bragged that he had beat Hickok in a fair gunfight. Wild Bill’s cards at the time of his death — aces and eights — are today known as a “Dead Man’s Hand.”

Photograph of James Hickok’s grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota, from an album by Ethel Pearl Storing, created in 1898. According to Storing, Hickok’s “nose, ears, mustache, and arms have been carried home by Eastern enthusiasts and this iron fence was built for his protection.” Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Peabody Museum of Natural History houses another one of Wild Bill’s pistols (not used in the Tutt gunfight), a .44 caliber six-shot repeater made of polished bare steel with round-ended ebony butt plates. Hickok presented it to William Green, his advance agent and manager for the “Wild West Show.” A photo of his grave is in an album at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has an internationally renowned Collection of Western Americana. The Yale University Art Gallery has numerous images of the American West by artists such as Frederic Remington and Albert Bierstadt.

YaleNews spoke to John Mack Faragher ‘77 Ph.D., the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies, and director of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Faragher answered questions about gunfights in the American West (particularly the myths vs. the reality), how the West is a window into American history, and the importance of Yale collections. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

In the 19th century American West, how did a gambling debt escalate so quickly into a shootout in the middle of the town square?

People resort to violence for all kinds of reasons. But violence often occurs when people have little faith that justice can be achieved through civil or legal procedure. That was the case for much of the American West during the frontier period. State-sponsored authorities on the frontier, including the courts, were weak and ineffective in many ways. And in the absence of legal justice, individuals frequently relied on an honor code to settle disputes. A crime like taking a watch was interpreted as a sign of disrespect, something that could only be answered by facing down the accuser and forcing him to relent or recant, or violently punishing him.

How common were gunfights in the American West?If we’re talking about a quick-draw duel, like the ones in movie westerns, it almost never happened. The Hickok case is famous precisely because it was so rare.

“Wild Bill” Hickok’s .44 caliber six-shot repeater pistol. Polished bare steel with round-ended ebony butt plates. Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Formal dueling, on the other hand, with rules, seconds, and perhaps a physician on hand, was common in the first half of the century, right up through the Civil War. In 1859, for example, California senator David Broderick was killed in a duel with David Terry, a former justice of the California Supreme Court. But the violence of the Civil War was so cataclysmic that it killed the idea of dueling as an honorable affair. The incident with Hickok and Tutts had aspects of a formal duel, but in the context of the times people put it in a different category, labeling it a gunfight rather than a duel.

Now, if we’re talking about the use of firearms in personal disputes in the American West, that was much more common, though a victim was more likely to be shot in the back. The idea was to “get the drop” on your enemy. I’ve just completed a new book, which will be published in January, called “Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles,” which looks at the period between 1830, when Los Angeles was a Mexican town, and 1875, when it was on the cusp of its transformation into a modern American city. The homicide rate in LA during that period was comparable to that of Ciudad Juarez, the city on the Mexican border, at the height of the drug cartel wars five years ago.

What role did newspapers and dime novels play in constructing the “Wild West” we think of today?

The kind of violence displayed in the Hickok gunfight was prominently featured in dime novels, in newspapers like the “Police Gazette,” and later in western short stories in the “pulps,” in “Wild West Show” performances, and of course in the movies, which became the biggest propagator of the idea of the quick-draw shootout. They depicted an organized, sort of admirable, gunfight showdown. But it was much more chaotic and archaic.

Can you talk about the difference between myth and reality in these types of stories?

The primary difference between myth and reality is that actual violence is ugly. It’s hard to look at, offensive, and scary. Individuals in a frontier society with a weak state, a society characterized by wars of dispossession against the native inhabitants and persistent conflict among ethnic groups, a society with a large population of young, unattached men, awash in alcohol, these individuals are much more likely to act as if the appropriate response to conflict is violence, substituting mayhem for the rule of law.

Myth pretties this up in a way that’s presentable, turning conflicts into struggles between good and evil. It transforms anarchy into a melodrama of righteousness. Myth tries to reconcile discomforting realities. For example, it tells us that firearms are the most effective method for dealing with violence, when in fact the evidence indicates that they multiply the mayhem.  

Real justice can only be achieved with institutions, hard choices, and a lot of patience. But the myth says that justice can be achieved by a lone righteous man with a gun. It was manufactured that way as literary, stage, and screen entertainment, but also as a way of prettying up our past.

How does this translate into our story as a nation?

Albert Bierstadt, “Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail,” ca. 1873, oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs. Vincenzo Ardenghi 1931.389

The characteristic feature about the United States — and one good reason to study the American West — is that our country is the product of several centuries of settler colonialism. The history of the American frontier is a history of conquest and destruction, as well as settlement and the creation of new communities. As I insist with my students, for every community founded in the American West, imagine that one was destroyed, and people killed, removed, or pushed aside.

The major issue that caused the Civil War was the conflict over expansion. Would the West become slave or free? From the very beginning the nation’s future was premised on expansion into the West. James Madison wrote in the “The Federalist Papers” that the country needed to “extend the sphere” in order to ameliorate the conflict, meaning that if we had more territory then people could spread out and not get in each other’s way. But in fact, it was expansion that created persistent conflict: conflict with American Indian people, conflict over land, and then conflict over whether the West should be free or slave. American expansion is at the heart of what this country is all about.

The best side of our history is the attempt to form a just society out of our less than promising beginnings. Western history really looks at the heart of what the United States is, how it was formed, and how it attempted to resolve the contradictions of its founding.

The Lamar Center is celebrating 15 years at Yale. How did it come into being?

I came to Yale to study as a graduate student in history in 1971, working with Howard R. Lamar, one of the great figures in the historiography of the American West, who today remains intellectually active into his 90s. Howard retired from teaching in 1992, and served as president of Yale for one year, in the interim between Benno Schmidt and Rick Levin. I was honored by appointment as his successor, after 15 years of teaching at Mount Holyoke College. Today I’m very pleased to sit in a chair with Howard’s name. It’s a great honor.

In the late ’90s, several years after joining the Yale faculty, I helped to organize the Lamar Center. Over the years we have enjoyed the support of the university as well many alums, most particularly Roland Betts, who got us started with some extraordinary funding. The Lamar Center exists to support the advanced historical study of the American West.

What kind of research and programs take place at the Lamar Center?

Dinée Dorame ‘15, Sebastian Medine-Tayac ‘16, and Reed Bobroff ‘16, co-founders of Blue Feather, Yale’s first American Indian performance group, showcasing both traditional and contemporary drum music. They perform at a variety of events on campus and beyond Yale.

The Lamar Center supports and funds graduate student research in the departments of history and American studies, and sponsors public programming on campus related to the American West, frontiers, and borderlands.

Our conferences and symposia have focused on such topics as America’s national parks; women and colonization; ethnic cleansing on the frontiers of Europe and America; and global oil frontiers. About 10 years ago we had a symposium called “Got Yourself a Gun: Frontier Violence in American History and Culture.” David Milch ‘66, the writer and producer of “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood,” gave the keynote address.

The growth of the native community at Yale has been one of the most positive and remarkable changes we’ve helped to foster. The Lamar Center has sponsored and supported many native events and lectures. Most recently, we provided assistance for Yale’s native drum group, Blue Feather.

Yale has an incomparable collection of Western Americana. How did it come to be here, and how do you use the collections?

In my opinion, the Beinecke has the best collection of Western Americana in the world. The collection of trans-Mississippi material extends from Mexico to the Arctic and includes more than 40,000 printed works, 3,000 catalogued manuscript collections, thousands of vintage photographs, and hundreds of prints, watercolors, and paintings documenting the history and culture of American Indians, as well as European and American settlers. 

It’s interesting how a university in Connecticut became a place for the study of the American West. In the early 20th century the West was very much celebrated. That was the time when we had our first cowboy president, Theodore Roosevelt. Many ivy-league men were fascinated by the West, and it became a focus of collecting by numerous Yale alumni. 

In 1952, alum William Robertson Coe gave Yale his extensive collection along with funds to consolidate other collections and materials, and provided for an endowed curatorial position. I often work with George Miles, who has been curator of Western Americana at the Beinecke for more than 30 years. The Beinecke has always been a primary supporter of the Lamar Center, and we have collaborated on many projects. Yale has a structural commitment to the ongoing study of the American West, which not only includes the library collections and a senior position in western history in the History Department, but the operation of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders.

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Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,