Tuesday 12 December 2017

My Grandfather and Wild Bill Hickok

OK, the title above is a bit of a mis-direction. My grandfather did not know Wild Bill Hickok. But he may have heard about him while he was growing up in Kansas.

Edwin Miller was born in Manhattan, Riley County, Kansas on 17 February 1870. His parents, Isaac and Alice Miller had migrated to the area from Indiana, initially by wagon train, in 1866. They settled on bottom lands of the Big Blue River in June 1868, having stopped for a year or so in Westfield, Illinois, where their first child was born. The railroad had just reached the Manhattan area bringing with it farmers and business people looking for new opportunities. Their original homestead probably lies under Tuttle Creek Lake, formed after the Big Blue River was damned for the purpose of flood control in 1951.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé Railway, Union Pacific Railway and Kansas Pacific Railway were prime factors in the expansion of settlement in the western US. Several sites along the Kansas section became centres for the distribution of goods and services, including the burgeoning cattle industry of Oklahoma and Texas. 

The Kansas Pacific main line shown on an 1869 map highlighting locations of the towns of Manhattan and Abilene. The thickened portion along the line indicates the extent of the land grants available to settlers. At the time of the map, the line extended only as far as western Kansas (section in green). The extension to the Colorado Territory (section in red) was completed the following year. (retreived from the Kansas Pacific Railway Wikipedia website 12 December 2017)

Abilene became an important terminus of the Chisholm Trail, where cattle from south Texas were driven and sold.
1873 Map of Chisholm Trail with subsidiary trails in Texas (retrieved from Wikipedia Commons on 12 December 2017) completed the following year. 
(retrieved from the Kansas Pacific Railway Wikipedia website 12 December 2017  
To get back to Wild Bill and my grandfather – James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok succeeded Thomas James Smith as Abilene’s Police Chief. The city was one of many centres established following the introduction of the railroads into the region, in particular for the sale of cattle. Among some of the more notorious others in Kansas were Caldwell, Dodge City, Ellsworth, Newton and Wichita. Abilene was a lawless place until Smith’s appointment on 4 June 1870. Among his actions, he sternly enforced the town bylaw prohibiting the carrying of guns and clamped down on men, mainly drovers, who wanted to let off steam after a long ride on the cattle trail. Dance hall girls were restricted to locations south of the railroad tracks (the Devil’s Addition). Smith was killed trying to arrest accused murderers and outlaws Andrew McConnell and Moses Miles on 2 November 1870. Hickok was a reputed and fearsome gunfighter. He lasted until December 1871 and ended with the shooting of saloon owner Phil Coe and the death of Deputy Marshall Mike Williams.

Manhattan is only about 40 miles from Abilene. It is certainly probable that the Miller family heard about the goings-on in Abilene and the gunplay that was rampant there and in other towns. The Miller family farmed in Riley County until 1893 when they left to homestead in Oklahoma. Young Edwin may have grown up hearing such names as Bat Masterton, Clay Allison, Doc Holliday, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin or Wyatt Earp. All were in Kansas during the 1870s and 80s.
Photo of a train of covered wagons, oxen and men on horseback setting our from Manhattan, Kansas about 1860 (retrieved from Kansas Historical Society website 8 December 2017)
I wonder if my grandfather knew about these larger-than-life men living at the time he was growing up. It’s curious to me now that he grew up in a time and place not far removed from where the likes of Wild Bill Hickok lived out part of his life. Looking back on my experiences with my grandfather, I never connected him or his family with the Old West that I saw on TV many years later. Of course, at the time I did not know where he came from and could not appreciate the time period in which he was raised.

Did he play “Cowboys and Indians” the way my friends and I did when we were young in the 195s.? Did he give any thought to their lifestyles or attitudes? Or was the idea of people carrying guns and causing havoc part of normal life? Or was he too busy helping out on the home farm and exploits of the gunslingers never really impacted rural communities such as Manhattan, Kansas?

Did Edwin Miller ever hear about Wild Bill Hickok? I really have no idea. I would like to think he did, if only through reports in the local newspapers. I hope he did not think of such men as heroes though. Most of them, other than perhaps Thomas James Smith certainly were not!