The Birth of the Old West Shootout

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​​​​R.G. YOHO

Author, Writer, Speaker

 After leaving this year’s Western Writers of America Convention in Kansas City, I made it my mission to visit Springfield, Missouri, on my way back home.

Springfield is both a prominent and significant place in Western history. In fact, it’s a landmark which should hold great meaning to nearly every individual who ever dared to pen a Western.

And as my good friend, seven-time Spur Award winner, Johnny D. Boggs, recently pointed out, there probably wouldn’t even be any Western writers today were it not for the incident which occurred on July 21, 1865, in Springfield, Missouri.

From  Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, to Zane Grey, to Louis L’Amour, to Johnny D. Boggs, every Western author who ever lived undoubtedly owes his craft to this specific and singular event.

It was on that day, America’s first documented one-on-one gunfight and quick draw took place.

Moreover, I believe it was on that once-peaceful afternoon where the Wild West was truly born.

In fact, the aftermath of that one shootout still has a significant impact on those of us still living in America today.

Although it is certainly not my intention to make this post about politics, it must be stated that whenever someone hysterically talks about legal gun ownership might lead to gunfights in the streets over simple fender-benders, whenever someone says legalization of concealed carry will turn our streets into “Dodge City,” they are often-unknowingly referring to this one deadly incident in Springfield.

And on a brief personal note: With all due apologies to Marshal Matt Dillon, it has long been my observation that people generally know a lot less

about Dodge City than they think they do.

Despite what television and the film industry have

given us, one-on-one, face-to-face gunfights didn’t

occur often in the Old West. In truth, they were rather

uncommon, and therefore, noteworthy.

That is primarily why this one remarkable incident

has given birth to legend.

This is what happened on that day, July 21, 1865:

Davis K. Tutt and James Butler Hickok, often known as “Wild Bill,” had been playing poker, when a dispute rose between them over the amount that Tutt was owed from their card game.

Tutt claimed that Hickok owed him $35; Hickok said it was $25.

Now before you say that nobody should ever die over that small amount of money, you must remember that $25-35 was a month’s wages for many of those in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.

When Hickok said they could go and settle up on the money, he laid his watch down on the table. Tutt quickly snatched it up and resolved to keep the watch until their dispute over the money was settled to his satisfaction.

Apparently, there was an impasse over the exact amount owed and a satisfactory compromise was never reached between those two determined men.

When Davis Tutt defiantly wore Hickok’s watch out onto the town square that evening, Wild Bill called out to him and warned him not to wear his watch in public.

Taking some umbrage at Hickok’s warning, Tutt reached for his

revolver.

Hickok went for his gun as well.

There were approximately 75 yards between the two men as they

started their duel with death.

Tutt missed. Hickok didn’t.

Wisely choosing to steady his gun on his opposite forearm,
Hickok also fired but one time, the slug striking Dave Tutt in the chest. The bullet staggered the man, before Tutt fell graveyard dead in front of the courthouse.

In court testimony over the incident, witnesses later said that the two gun blasts were so close together, they sounded almost as one.

After the shooting, Dave Tutt would leave nothing behind other than a headstone and a fresh mound of dirt, but James Butler Hickok would become “Wild Bill,” a living legend.

Even with the best, modern firearms, shooting seventy-five yards with accuracy, especially with someone already shooting at you, is still quite a formidable feat of skill with a handgun today.

And as a Western writer, I had both a duty and a desire to pay homage to this famous, almost-sacred spot in Western history.

It is also why I felt so privileged to visit this town square in Springfield, to walk where Hickok and Tutt walked, to stand where these men once stood, the place where one of them fell and the other rose to Old West immortality.  

Man, I love this job!