Nov 1, 2011

Four Hard Men, Four Different Ways: William Hickman

William Hickman.Or Wild Bill Hickman, as he was more colorfully known. Accounts of him are all over the map. So what is true?

The short answer?

Who knows.

He lived more than a hundred years ago. In piecing and parcing accounts done by Mormon scholars such as Hugh Nibley, accounts from individual family histories by his descendents, his own well-known publication, and the mentions he gets in the biographies of other famous or well-documented people who knew him, I see two possibilities (and a whole range of gradations in between):

1) William Hickman was a fierce defender of the faith who had a weakness for horseflesh that eventually lead to his downfall and excommunication. His book, Brigham’s Destroying Angel, Life, Confession and Startling Disclosures of Bill Hickman, the ‘Danite Chief’ of Utah, was borne out of the feelings of betrayal and bitterness that followed his excommunication. His parter in the work, a notorious anti-mormon named John Hansen Beadle, took the account that Hickman admits is not true in many respects and embroidered it further so that it was a complete fiction (acc. To sources quoting Hickman) and he regretted it as soon as it was published.

2) William (Wild Bill) Hickman was a fierce warrior for the church leadership who murdered, stole, lied, and mistreated his family in the name of the church. He is the personification of the dark, shadowy doings of the church and when he was found out, the church denied and betrayed him. His book is a true account of all that occurred and shows that the LDS faith was lead by unscrupulous people willing to commit all manner of atrocities in the name of God for their own selfish purposes.

Here, I will examine these two hypothesis as best I can. All who read this must consider the reality, though: hardly ever is life so black and white. Generally, things fall in-between. More on that in a sec.

Hickman was famous not only for his book, but for being the one who first brought news to Brigham Young of the Federal Troops about to cross into Utah Territory. Young didn’t believe him at first; in fact one account states that Young laughed at Hickman (which might say something about how little Brigham Young actually did trust him, maybe?) Maybe.

Anyway, when Porter Rockwell brought further news, however, Brigham realized that there was about to be trouble, and he made that famous announcement for everyone in Salt Lake to leave their homes ready to be burnt.

Hickman was among those who attacked the solders’ supply wagons and stole their animals, keeping them on the other side of the mountain for a key amount of time so that Brigham Young and the people of Salt Lake would have time to mobilize and move south. At the time, he is said to have “executed” a man named Richard Yates, which he later claimed he did at the order of Brigham Young. If you look at online articles and even in books, you’ll find account after account that seems to hint that Hickman was told to “execute” Yates. But here, from the diary of Daniel W. Jones, is something that could shed a bit more light on the situation.

From Forty Years among the Indians, by Daniel Webster Jones:

"There is one circumstance connected with my experience while in Echo Canyon service which I wish to put on record--the killing of Yates by Bill Hickman. This Mr. Yates was a personal friend of mine, a kind-hearted, liberal man of whom I had received many kind-[130]nesses, and his being murdered did not agree with my feelings, but I knew of no way to mend the matter, for I knew nothing of the killing till he was buried.

I was camped with a small party about four miles west of the Weber valley and ten or twelve miles from Echo. One very cold morning about sunrise, Hickman and two others came to my camp. They seemed almost frozen, shaking and trembling in an unusual manner. Hickman asked me if I had any whisky. I told them I had not. He then asked if we had coffee. I replied that we had. "Then make us a good strong cup." While the coffee was being made, he took me outside and asked me if I knew Yates. I told him I did. "Well, we have just buried him."

He then told about Yates being taken prisoner for tampering with Indians. And after talking quite excitedly, he said, "We have got away with him. What do you think the Old Boss," (meaning Brigham) "will say?"

Now if Yates had been killed as Hickman related in his book he would not have manifested so much interest in what President Young would say. He tried hard to draw an approval from me of what he had done. I told him I knew nothing about such modes and did not know what Brother Young would say about it.

Hickman killed Yates for his money and horse the same as any other thief and murderer would have done, and then excused himself by telling that he was counseled to do these things. I know positively that Governor Young's orders were to avoid bloodshed in every way possible. I was continually acting and around in places and under circumstances that gave me the best of opportunities to know."

In dealing with the Indians, Hickman was quick to act “in defense of the saints.” Again, from this account: William and his families stayed on the plains until 1849. During this time, he apparently scalped an Indian that made a threat against Brigham Young’s life. William Hickman was operating as a body guard at this time, but later in his life after a serious break in his relationship with the prophet, he wrote, “This was my first act of violence under the rule of Brigham Young.”

Also: "[they] made the trek to Utah in a small company of people that included Bill, his first wife Bernetta, their four children, Udney Hay Jacob, and Mary Jane Shadner. It was noted that Bill killed Indians along their way.

The following years proved to be ones in which he would get his western desperado nickname of “Wild Bill Hickman.” He was involved in quieting Indian trouble that arose in Utah County in 1850."

I have already related the incident of Old Elk. And if you read Hickman’s account of the Provo River or Fort Utah War in his book, you could feel a bit sick at the language he uses… he says things about eating the dead, for instance. But remember that this account is suspect. We don’t know how much is true, and how much can even be attributed to Hickman at all.
Another statement about Hickman as emissary to the Indians:

October 20. 1856. (Taken from THE MORMON, published in Salt Lake City: The editor said in reply to "Correspondent" from Norwalk, Conn, "The 'notorious Bill Hickman', as the correspondent calls him, is a United States Deputy Marshal for Utah, a man that none can fool with, and this the rowdies that come to Salt Lake will soon find out. I know he is a terror to them, for he will not be imposed upon by them, neither suffer his friends to be imposed upon. In regards to his being 'sent to the Indians with goods' what of it, Gov. Young is Supt. of Indian Affairs, and I expect had a perfect right to send whom he pleased. Hickman being well acquainted with the Indians and their Chief, and understanding their language, was certainly a fit person to send".

The question is, how did Hickman see the Indians? One would assume, because of the “Old Elk” deed, the documented killings, and his son’s own account (given below), that he did not see them as human. That words “savage” and “enemy” were used in his household to describe the natives of Utah Valley. But we also have to factor in something a little baffling: Hickman’s tenth wife? A Cherokee woman. They never had children together, but he married her legally. That suggests that he saw Indians as human beings, perhaps. Or it could suggest he saw women as objects and didn’t want to “sin,” therefore he used the principle of plural marriage to satisfy a lust. I don’t know that I see him that way, however. Because accounts also paint Hickman as a loving father. After his excommunication, all his marriages were dissolved except the first. The women decided to do their best to strike out on their own, and Hickman divided his estate among them so that they would have some support. But his children, particularly his sons, followed after him, prospected with him, farmed with him and kept up contact with him. Here is one, very loyal, account of Hickman by one of his sons.

Wm. A. Hickman was elected by the people to be a member of the first legislature of Utah, which met at Fillmore. I have been told by Church members that he was called by Brigham Young to go to Fort Bridger, Green River, and he performed a great mission while there. He had his ferry so the saints could cross and come on to Utah. I have always been led to believe that my father, William A. Hickman was to Utah what Daniel Boone was to Kentucky; a great Indian fighter in early days and a dealer in fine horses. My mother has often told me how in early days he protected and guarded Brigham Young laid, his hands on his head and blessed him, that he might be able to protect the Saints from Wild savage Indians and outlaws.
J.H. Beadle, who wrote my fathers history, had only one object in view, and that was to slander the Mormons. He admits that he changed the original manuscript in some respects, and I may say many. His corroborative evidences, as he calls them, in the appendix, proves that. He never spoke of Brigham as being governor and executive officer who wanted law and order or that the Mormons had been driven from their homes and had endured great suffering. My oldest sister, Katherine, was the manuscript and she said it was changed to a novel form, much to her and to my father's sorrow. Father told his brother, Dr. G.W. Hickman, that there are many things in that book Beadle had written unauthorized and that were entirely untrue. Beadle got his data, then went East and wrote the book and published it without my father ever seeing the manuscript. Beadle might in justice have said that Utah, like all other states in her early days, had outlawry and Indian troubles, and that Hickman, as an officer, tried to protect the people from such conditions.

The last time I saw my father was at Murray, Utah. We were camped there Bishop Hunter came along. I heard him say to may father that he had been misrepresented and greatly wronged. My father replied, "Let it go, things will be made right some day." I knew him to be a kind and loving father. People seemed to like him wherever he went. All his family speak well of him in the kindest affectionate way, and tell of his charitable deeds, not only at home but abroad."

Perhaps the history of William Hickman is a great example of how history can sometimes fail us. We can gather bits and pieces, and get an idea of things that might have occurred. But anything that stirs up this much controversy makes everything in its wake murky, possibly slanted, and very difficult to trust, on either side.

Above, I provided the two conventional hypothesis found in the literature, generally, surrounding William Hickman. But I have formed an alternative hypothesis (just something I came up with after reading a lot of mind-boggling articles that I will refer you to if you wish).

If Hickman was a murderer (and by every account, he was) it likely had everything to do with a weakness he had. That weakness was horses. Here are a couple telling accounts:
From here:
“Bill was fanatical about horses and his obsession with them led others to accuse him of stealing. After one such accusation by a member of the Church, a formal trial was not instituted but he told Bill that he would never take a brother to trial for stealing from the Gentiles, but when it came to stealing from a brother, he had a problem with it. He ended by telling Bill to “go and steal no more.”

Once, an army officer’s horse was stolen and he announced that he would give the horse to whoever recovered it. Bill heard of the reward and sent word to the officer that he knew a band of horse thieves that had the mare in their possession. Bill offered to recover her for a fee. The officer asked him to proceed. Bill returned claiming that he recovered the horse at great risk of his life and expenses. The officer offered to pay for the expenses incurred, and Bill handed him a complicated list of expenses that amounted to more than the horse was worth. The officer declined to pay it and let Bill remain in possession of what he claimed was “the fastest horse in Utah.” The officer’s suspicions that Bill was the original thief may have very well been correct.”

“At one point, his horse was stolen, and he retaliated by killing the men.”
From here:
A gunfight on Christmas Day 1859 in downtown Salt Lake City nearly ended Hickman's life. He was shot in the hip by his long-time friend and protégé, Lott Huntington in an argument over stolen horses. The effects of this wound plagued Hickman throughout the last 22 years of his life and caused him to walk with "a shuffling gait."

A few accounts state that Hickman fell out of favor with the church after the mid 1850's. Nobody has a definitive reason why, other than that he "stopped living by gospel principles." The only faint hint I've found is that his weakness for horses and his habit of murders. After he was retired from his post as lawman he killed another man. For this, he was excommunicated from the church and prosecuted by the Utah government, and the church did not back him up as before. It was at this point that Hickman turned on the men he, by his own accounts, had loved and trusted and served before. That is when he was persuaded to write his book.

Of all that I have read of Hickman, this, to me, strikes home the most (from here):

"Missouri was not yet a state and Indians and wild animals were part of daily life on the western frontier. Bill grew up thriving in the freedom of the frontier and enjoyed playing outdoor sports and hunting. Being the oldest son, Bill farmed with his father Edwin, who said of him, “He was full of mischief, such as tricks for fun making. He was the best and the worst boy I ever raised.” Guns and fists settled most arguments, which influenced Bill throughout most of his life. He was born a Missouri Wildcat.

The best and worst boy. The best and worst man. He performed heroic deeds, was always generous and ready to help someone out. And, I think we can say there was also another side of him: vengeful, angry, and selfish… and above all, treating lightly the value of another’s life in the face of his own needs and desires. It is possible that as his life spun out of control with murders and thefts, he lost purchase on the things that he previously valued, and saw very few people outside himself as human--brown, black, or white.

At any rate, there are certainly more than a couple lessons we can ingest from the life (and wildly conflicting accounts of the life) of William A. Hickman. One more interesting factoid: The man who baptised Hickman? John D. Lee, who was eventually excomunnicated and executed for killings in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which is an important piece of backstory for my novel.

1 comment:

PsychDoctor said...

Lott Huntington was my great great great uncle (Son of Dimmock and brother of Clark Allen Huntington (my 3G grandfather who was one of the young men who carried the handcart company across the Sweetwater). My Grandma Allred, who was a Huntington, tells us that Lott had taken a horse that he felt was rightfully his. He had done some work for someone, or something, and the person did not pay him as agreed. He rode the horse west of Salt Lake somewhere and was tracked down by Porter Rockwell. He was holed up in a house with his weapon. I think he had been hit by a bullet. Porter reportedly told him to come out and surrender and he would make sure he got medical attention. When he surrendered, Porter Rockwell reportedly shot him dead. I had never heard of him shooting Wild Bill Hickman, though I know that my 3G grandfather did some hunting/guiding for Bill Hickman near Lee's Ferry many years later...