Buffalo Bill. Doc Holliday. Calamity Jane. If there's one thing that unites the celebrities of the Wild West, it's crazy nicknames. But even though many of these nicknames are familiar to us, not everyone knows where they came from. They should. The stories of how many Wild West legends got their names explains a lot about the world that makes these figures memorable even today.
Billy the Kid (1859–1881)
One of the most famous outlaws in the West, Billy the Kid started with a few different names. Born William Henry McCarty Jr., he was an outlaw from early youth on, which probably was the reason he used names like William Bonney and Kid Antrim. His reputation came, in part, from reportedly killing up to 10 men by the time he was 21. "Billy the Kid" stuck because of his previous use of "Kid Antrim" and his youthful appearance, which he kept until he was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881.
Buffalo Bill (1846–1917)
William Frederick Cody is perhaps best known for "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show," which toured the world with stars of the American West. But his nickname came from his real-life experiences as a supplier after the Civil War. According to PBS, Cody killed more than 4,000 buffalo for supplies, though that wasn't the only reason he got the nickname. He actually "won" his moniker in an eight-hour shoot-off with hunter William Comstock. Later appearances in dime novels and onstage ensured the nickname stuck.
Little Sure Shot Annie Oakley (1860–1926)
Born Phoebe Ann Mosey, Annie Oakley was the most famous sharpshooter in the West. The Annie Oakley Center Foundation says we can only guess at why she took the name "Oakley." Some theorize she renamed herself after a man who paid her train fare once, while others believe she took it from Oakley, Cincinnati, a neighborhood where she briefly lived and was married in 1875. The "Sure Shot" part of Annie's nickname is easier to understand — PBS says that when Oakley met Sitting Bull, he gave her the nickname "Watanya Cicilla," which means "Little Sure Shot." Both her new name and nickname stuck as she joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1885.
Wild Bill Hickok (1837–1876)
Wild Bill began life as James Butler Hickok before he became a famous gunfighter, lawman, and gambler who was shot for a suspiciously strong poker hand he drew in Deadwood, South Dakota. According to Joseph G. Rosa's They Called Him Wild Bill, the nickname "Wild Bill" possibly came during a trip to Independence, Missouri, when he whipped out his gun to stop a bar fight. Later, a woman who'd seen his heroics called him "Wild Bill." Other stories claim Bill was called "Wild" to distinguish him from another Bill known as "Tame Bill."
Calamity Jane (1852–1903)
Martha Jane Canary toured the West and appeared in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a celebrity frontierswoman. And the nickname? Though it can't be definitively verified, she told the tale in her own autobiography: Canary said that in 1873 she fought in Goose Creek, Wyoming, against local Native Americans. She claimed that after she saved the life of a captain who'd been shot, he told her, "I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains." However, some biographers have said the claim is probably just a homespun legend.
Butch Cassidy (1866–1909)
Robert Leroy Parker, leader of the Wild Bunch gang, was immortalized in popular history and film, but he wasn't always known as Butch. Richard Patterson's biography Butch Cassidy proposes that the name "Cassidy" came from Parker's mentor, a man who went by the name Mike Cassidy. The "Butch" part is more complicated. Some sources say it began in Rock Spring, Wyoming, where Butch was, appropriately, a butcher. Others say Cassidy struggled with a rifle named "Butch" (yes, the gun had a name). Still others say it was a nickname he picked up at a cookout.
The Sundance Kid (1867–1909)
The Sundance Kid, Butch Cassidy's legendary partner, was born Harry Alonzo Longabaugh. According to Patterson, Sundance got his nickname after stealing horses in Sundance, Wyoming, and going to jail for it. The nickname came either while he was in jail or shortly after, thanks to one of his fellow gang members. While the nickname's origin is appropriately exciting, the real Sundance Kid differed from the version enshrined in myth — he probably palled around with his gang buddy Elzy Lay more than his Hollywood partner, Butch Cassidy.
Black Bart (1829–1888)
Charles Earl Bowles became infamous as a stagecoach robber in Northern California and Oregon, and he even got a reputation for being a poet. The English-born bandit's nickname was what he used to sign the poems he left at his robberies. According to The Wild West, Black Bart was inspired to take the name from a dime novel he'd read (and because he wore black during his robberies). That allowed him to sign his pseudonym to poems like this: I've labored long and hard for bread / For honor and for riches / But on my corns too long you've tred / you fine-haired sons of bitches.
Stagecoach Mary (1832–1914)
Mary Fields was the first African-American mail carrier, and in the Wild West, that job required carrying a shotgun. Also called "Black Mary," Fields, as Ebony magazine writes, became known as Stagecoach Mary because she made her reputation as a stagecoach driver in Montana. She found fame, in part, because she was usually seen with an impressive shotgun and a bottle of whiskey (supposedly, she was the only woman in Cascade, Montana, who was allowed to enter the saloon).
Bat Masterson (1853–1921)
Formally known as William Barclay Masterson, Bat Masterson was one of the Wild West's most famous lawmen, a career he later followed with stints as a New York US marshal and as a newspaper columnist. Most sources attribute "Bat" to his actual birth name, Bartholomew, which was then shortened to "Bat." But other (likely apocryphal) explanations are more fun, like the claim that he used his cane as a "bat" to punish rowdy citizens in Dodge City, Kansas, where he policed alongside Wyatt Earp.
Deadwood Dick (1854–1921)
Deadwood Dick was actually a name from a dime novel that several real cowboys used — and Nat Love was the most famous of them all. As Love described in his 1907 autobiography, he won the nickname in an 1876 contest in Deadwood, South Dakota, after earning a record for roping, throwing, tying, bridling, saddling, and mounting his mustang. According to Love, the crowd spontaneously claimed him a champion roper and worthy of the honorific "Deadwood Dick."
Kit Carson (1809–1868)
Professional mountain man Christopher Houston Carson was known for guiding John C. Fremont throughout the West, exploring the region, and serving in the Army. Made famous in his lifetime by newspaper reports and popular literature, he became "Kit" early in life. Most sources say his size was the reason for his nickname: as an adult, he stood 5-foot-5 and weighed 140 pounds, which didn't stop him from becoming one of the frontier's most famous explorers. Kit is also a generally popular nickname for Christopher, so that may also be the reason behind the nickname.
Doc Holliday (1851–1887)
John Henry Holliday became famous as a Wild West sage, US marshal, and gunfighter. But his nickname came from another section of his biography: he was also a dentist. Up until 1873, he was a practicing dentist in Atlanta, Georgia, but his poor health forced him to move to the Southwest. Most closely associated with Tombstone, Arizona, Holliday earned his modern reputation from his experiences as a gunfighter. But the Tombstone Times notes he was probably a decent dentist, as well: at one Dallas County Fair in 1873, he took home awards for "best set of teeth in gold," "the best in Vulcanized rubber," and "best set of artificial teeth and dental ware."
- Editor: Brad Plumer
- Developer: Yuri Victor