William A. Hickman obeyed the Mormon teaching of polygamy and was husband to ten wives and father to thirty-five children. Aint that somethin.
William Adams ("Wild Bill") Hickman by his descendant.
Wild Bill was one of the most notorious figures of the 19th-century American frontier. A Mormon who was eventually excommunicated and had married ten wives under the Mormon doctrine of polygamy and who fathered thirty-five children, Hickman served as a spy for church presidents Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and operated as a guerrilla in the Utah War. All of this and much, much more, accurately depicting a colorful western figure's life, is plainly presented and makes for a fascinating look at the Old West within the context of the Mormon community in the western frontier that was to eventually form the states of Utah, Idaho, western Nevada, and northern Arizona.
Hickman admitted to the murders of several people, suggesting that he had been taking orders from Brigham Young. When his activities became embarrassing to the church, Hickman engaged in a game of power politics, playing Mormon and government officials against each other. He was successful for a time, but his violence eventually made him persona non grata in both camps. In 1872 he published an expose, Brigham's Destroying Angel, which implicated the Mormon leadership in his misdeeds.
Born in western Kentucky. He was the oldest of thirteen children; nine boys and four girls. Kentucky became overcrowded with settlers after the Revolutionary War ( he was told that he had twenty-one blood relations who participated "and not one Tory among them!") When he was four years old (1819) his parents moved to northeast Missouri, where they built a gristmill and farmed. He loved the wilds of Missouri. It was in this environment that he learned how to defend himself against man and beast. He enjoyed the freedom to enjoy outdoor sports, especially hunting. He worked with his father on his farm and his father 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."
His education began with his parents teaching him and his brothers at home. At the age of fifteen he was sent away to school. He was urged to go into medicine, and he did, but he did not like it. He went back to school to study law, which he liked better, but eventually got tired of that, too. He returned to school once again attending a boarding school. There, he fell in love with his teacher, two years older than he was and after much objection from their parents, they wed. Bill was blue eyed, dark haired and handsome. She was black-eyed, black haired and pretty. Both parents were against the marriage mainly because Bill was only seventeen years old. But when Bill's father saw that they were determined to make a go of it he relented and gave them a farm. They joined a Methodist Church, but Bill had met several Mormans in the area and became fascinated by their ideas. In spite of them being openly disliked in Missouri, Bill joined them, he said, "thereby losing his good standing in society."
In 1838 the Mormons were expelled from Missouri and fled to Quincy, Illinois. Bill and Bernetta had four children by then, but he sold the farm and moved to the Mormon settlement where he met the church leader, Joseph Smith. He gave financial aid to several suffering migrants. In 1839 Bill was ordained, signifying full acceptance as a Latter Day Saint. Bill was twenty-four at the time. Within a year or two he was chosen as one of a group of body guards or protector of Joseph Smith. He was a regular with the security forces during the period of 1843-44. There is no evidence that he was a member of the Danite group that wreaked vengeance on people who persecuted the Saints and was repudiated by Smith. It has been assumed that he was, but if so, he was not involved to any significant extent. He farmed in Iowa and Illinois and carried out occasional assignments for the Saints. In 1846 he was endowed in his first plural marriage. He returned to Nauvoo for his family and got caught up in the hostilities between the Mormons and anti-Mormon mobs. The citizens attacked Nauvoo and Bill was thrown into jail, but he escaped and returned for a time to Missouri. While, he was gone, Joseph Smith and his brother were killed. The Mormons splintered for a while into different factions. Brigham Young emerged as the most successful new leader even though Joseph Smith's wife and children did not follow him. Bill did not like Brigham but felt the group needed a leader and thought he as good as any.
Bill did not travel west with Brigham Young, but was called later to come and do some "important" work. At the start of his crossing, Bill was delegated to help the nineteen year old Minerva Wade, whose mother had died. He took her as his third plural wife.
Orson Hyde wrote of Bill about this time: "He is sometimes a little rash and may shoot and innocent Indian, mistaking him for an Omaha horse thief." He continued: "This is even better than many do, who will do nothing themselves to save or preserve the property of the Saints."
In the fall of 1851 Bill got gold fever and went to California to search for gold. But rumors of trouble in Utah made him return in the summer of 1852.
He brought home some of the gold he mined while in California. He melted a nugget, got a paint brush and painted his mustache cup with gold.
Bill did what was asked of him by the church and sometimes took it upon himself to do more besides. A testimony that would indicate the influence of his reputation alone, is the fact that Jim Bridger survived a confrontation with our Bill by simply abandoning the fort that Bill had been sent to negotiate for.
Bill described the scene after his arrival at the fort with a sense of humor:
"The whiskey and rum, of which Bridger had a good stock, was destroyed by doses; the sheriff, most of the officers, the doctor and chaplain of the company, all aided in carrying out the orders, working so hard day and night that they were exhausted, not being able to stand up."
In 1854 he became a licensed lawyer and he was appointed sheriff of Green River and representative in the territorial legislature. It was a region populated with outlaws. James S. Brown wrote: "We met men face to face, with deadly weapons, and if it had not been for the cunning and cool head of Bill Hickman,…blood would have been shed more than once.
By the end of 1856 Bill had the responsibility of caring for seven wives and fifteen children. Despite the obvious problem, Bill was not neglectful and he had a good relationship with his wives and children. The diaries of his neighbors have many references to visiting with the Hickmans and they frequently went visiting. Bill worked hard for the community and specifically labored on the expansion of the schoolhouse.
When the bad times came for Bill, he had married ten wives and had twenty-four living children, the eldest just eighteen years younger than himself. At least two of the women did not live conjugally with him. The others seemed to live together somewhat successfully. The method of how he "chose" who he would spend the evening with is revealed in one of the stories he told of himself. The ones wanting his company would put their names in a hat and he would draw a name.
When he was about forty-two years old he was described:
…a tough, muscular, heavily built man, full-bearded and not unhandsome. His hair was dark auburn with some gray showing. It was his eyes, though, that told of this man's fierce dedication to his cause. They were dark blue and on a job or when angry, became electric, flashing cold."
Whatever the true facts of his deeds, the job he fulfilled was necessary and not for a weakling. If he was sometimes rash in his dealings with people, he was a man of his times and totally dedicated to his cause. He knew his own faults and accepted the consequences. He never understood the complete disregard (he was excommunicated) of the very church he had given his life to protect. His faith in the church, if not to the people in the church, stayed strong to the end.
Bill said of the book, BRIGHAM'S DESTROYING ANGEL, that it was mostly a falsehood. He claimed his involvement in the first place was due to the promise of money. There were enough other people who knew him who also disclaimed the book so that while some things are based upon truth, and some stories certainly were told by Bill, the author, a Mormon hater, took the story and twisted it to add interest or for his own purposes. Bill regretted it and the misconceptions it gave. Dr. Hugh Nibley of Brigham Young University claims that "the Hickman stories were not true…We believe that those tales are Beadle's invention…" Neil D. Harding said, "Bill Hickman was not the man who performed the crimes in BRIGHAM'S DESTROYING ANGEL.." Even the manuscript basis for the book is questionable. It is full of inconsistencies. Still, the book did it's damage and harmed not only Bill Hickman but some of his posterity.
He was fanatical about horses. So great was his obsession with horses that he was accused by the church of stealing them. After some righteous accusations about the subject, one of the accusers refrained from pressing formal charges, saying that he would never institute a trial against a brother stealing from Gentiles, but if it was stealing from a brethren, he was down on it. The incident ended when Bill was bid to; " go and steal no more."
A story tells of a horse owned by an army officer that was stolen. The officer let out that he would give the horse to whoever recovered it. Bill Hickman sent word that the mare was in the possession of a band of horse thieves and that he could recover her, but it would cost some money. He succeeded at great risk to his life and expenses, he claimed, and the horse was now in his possession. When the owner of the horse proposed to pay for the expense and take the horse back, Bill handed him such a complicated list of expenses that amounted to more than the horse was worth. Bill told the man very plainly that he expected to be paid. The owner declined and Bill remained in possession of the "fastest horse in Utah". Was he the thief? Whether he took the horse in the first place or not, surely the officer would have thought so.
George Goodhart from Soda Springs, Idaho in a letter writes: "The first time I ever met you father…he was camping on Green River with Port Rockwell and Lot Smith…I was a boy working for the American Fur Company. I was sent with a message to some trappers some distance away…I found some hobbled horses belonging to three men by a camp fire a short distance away. I called, ‘Hello, White Man's friend.' They answered me, taking me into camp with them. My horse was put up with theirs. They had a kettle of venison on the fire. The finest I ever ate. After supper I told them how glad I was not to have come across some of those ‘dam Mormons,' …I told them everything bad I had heard about the Mormons… I slept with Hickman. After breakfast I saddled my horse and one of them tied a good lunch on my saddle. Hickman asked, ‘How have we treated you?' I told him I could not have been treated better…How glad I was to have found them. Then he said, ‘Tell your company we treated you to the best we had; we are Mormons. We are Port Rockwell, Lot Smith and Bill Hickman.' My heart seemed to jump to my mouth.
John Heber Murdock relates the following: "In the spring, it was my job to herd the… flock…My brother Daunt, five or six years at the time, decided to go home… (I) pointed our house out to Daunt. It was about six miles away. When we got home that night, Daunt wasn't there. We and the neighbors got lanterns and set out to hunt him. We didn't find him until the next day. A Mr. Bill Hickman had gone out to look for cattle the night before and heard wolves howling. When he went to see why they were making a noise, he found Daunt sitting by some big rocks on the Jordan River. He took Daunt to his home for the night.
There is another story about an Indian boy who had lost his parents. Without a home or a place to go, no one to care for him, Bill Hickman took him home to live with his family.
"I remember they hadn't got to raising fruit there yet much, and Pa went over to Maxwells and got us some peaches in the buckboard. When he came back he unharnessed the horses and put them up and came back to get the harness. Something caught in his pistol and it fell to the ground and went off and shot him through the liver and I heard him say ‘Man, I am shot' and ran to grama (must mean Bernetta). We had gone to bed and Ma said ‘get up your Pa is dying' (sic) and I went in to see him. He was in the middle of the floor with his garments on and a sheet around him and them carrying watter (sic) from the spring and throwing it on him and they said ‘let us pray' and they came into my Mother's room and knelt down and asked God to spare him to them. They went back to his room and he was better and they went back and prayed again and he was spared to them, and lived thirty years after that. When Mother washed his close (sic) down by the river there was little pieces of bone in them."
Bill was ambitious. The single largest enterprise launched by the Mormons in the nineteenth century was the Y X Company. It was to provide mail service between Salt Lake City and Independence, Missouri. It would also transport immigrants from the Missouri River to the Salt Lake area, and carry freight. The leading persons were Brigham Young, Hiram Kimball, John Murdock, Orrin Porter Rockwell, and William Hickman. The fact that this enterprise was suddenly canceled by order of the Federal Government, without formal notification or explanation, thereby causing a great financial loss to the participants, all Mormons, probably has much to do with the life and attitude of Bill from that point on.
On December 25, 1859, Bill went to town. There had been some trouble between him and Lot Huntington over the theft of horses. Feelings had become bitter and suspicion was evident on both sides. Bill was caught in an alley while waiting for his team and shots were exchanged between Bill and Huntington. Bill was wounded in the leg. The surgeons did nothing more than a butcher's job. Bill always thought afterward that their treatment was nothing more than an attempt on his life. A second operation was performed later, and a board of physicians from Camp Floyd confirmed that the first surgery was not done in an ethical manner. During his confinement, Bill's ranch was neglected and vandalized. Bill was reported to walk with a shuffling gate and used a cane (can be seen in the full length photo). He had many health problems and when he died years later the cause was stated as, at least partially, due to old bullet wounds.
This incident has been blown out of all proportion by various historians. The facts indicate that the problem was resolved between Bill and Huntington and when the fatal shot was fired it was by Porter Rockwell on January 16, 1861 and Bill was not anywhere near.
Bill was accused of being involved in the Aidin murder near Nephi but Rockwell and Collett were indicted for this murder. Then, he was indicted for the murder of a man named Buck at Warm Springs, along with Brigham Young, Hiram Kimball, Porter Rockwell, Grand and Dutton; and had two documented killings of Ike Hatch and the Spaniard who had an affair with one of his wives and threatened to rape one of Bill's daughters. It is important that these incidents be kept in the context of the times, circumstances, and to his role as lawman.
Bill Hickman was a man of the old west. He was considered an Angel of Mercy to many who needed help. He had a special love for his children, especially the boys. He taught them to saddle and bridle, to curry and crop their horse. They were taught the technique of shoeing each hoof just right to avoid damage, how to feed and water, ride, spur without harm and how much weight a horse could handle. He taught them how to use a lasso, survival, planting and ranching; and, he taught them to be a good marksmen with a gun.
Bill was both sinner and saint. He had intelligence and energy. He was a scoundrel; a desperado; generous, humorous, and sometimes shadowy. He was reckless, impulsive, emotional and daring. He was a man that stood up for what he believed in and he gave protection to those he felt a responsibility. He was friendly and there were those who always defended him even when it was not popular to do so. From this distance, it is difficult to say what is or is not true. We tend to believe what we want to believe. He had weaknesses, and had strength. He was a man to depend on in a time of crisis, one who you would want at your back in a battle.
His family decided to end their plural marriages. Only Bernetta stayed with him to the end. Our Minerva, his third wife, never said anything bad of Bill and related many stories to her children of his deeds. She never remarried. Bill took it with some humor that one of his friends had always commented how sweet one of his wives was and didn't seem upset when the friend married her. There is evidence that they continued to be friends.
In 1870 Bill was hiding in prison. He was released in 1872 and went back to Fairfield until 1877. He went to the mining fields from there and was in Nephi with his son in 1880. He went to Wyoming with his first wife, Bernetta. He had several daughters with their husbands with him there. He began to suffer from the old bullet wound.
He died August 21, 1883 in Lander City, Sweetwater County, Wyoming Territory, at 3:00, after an illness of fifteen days from diarrhea and old bullet wounds. He was surrounded by friends and relatives. He died in the arms of his son-in-law, Robert H. Gillespie. He might have lived as long as his father had it not been subject to recurrences of infection and old wound to his leg.
He was buried in a secluded spot, now unknown. Tradition says that a few days later, his grave was robbed. Bernetta was ill and died a few months later. She had apparently been taken to Nephi where her death is recorded.
FINAL IMPRESSIONS recorded in the book PROFILE OF WILLIAM ADAMS HICKMAN concludes:
"Grandpa Bill did not beat around the bush in admitting his faults and mistakes…" Many times the front he displayed was with a confidence and bravado so typical of his character."
But, perhaps the best conclusion of the man that Bill Hickman was is best described by his own father:
"HE WAS FULL OF MISCHIEF, SUCH AS TRICKS FOR FUN MAKING. HE WAS THE BEST AND WORST BOY I EVER RAISED."
Read an excerpt from the book Wild Bill" Hickman and the Mormon Frontier