Nebraska opened to legal settlement with the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May of 1854. The settlement of the territory was shaped by the growing conflict over slavery embodied in that legislation, by waves of immigration, first across the Oregon Trail and then to the state itself, by Indian wars and raids, and then again by new waves of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe. There was much in these origins that could be expected to leave a legacy of violence: Veterans of the Civil War would carry its horrors with them forever. Every wave of immigration included far more young males than women, and gatherings of unmarried young men are a prime source of wildness that may explode into violence. There were conflicts between farmers and ranchers, and there was a new gold rush to the Black Hills just to the north of the state.
In reality, however, the crime rate per capita on the Nebraska frontier was no greater than it was in those same years in the more settled cities of the Eastern United States. The homicide rate was slightly higher, the prevalence of other crimes, especially robbery, rather lower, than in the East. Perhaps those differences reflect the fact that so many men (and some women, too) carried guns.
Sometimes, in Nebraska, violent incidents and violent men are remembered with peculiar intensity. We may speculate about the reasons why this should be so, and perhaps see, in different kinds of fascination, evidence of a changing society. Mari Sandoz thought that after the Civil War, the country was unwilling to give up the emotionalism of the bloodletting, and so, in escapist fashion, the public took special interest in and made heroes of the most irresponsible of men, gunslingers and outlaws.
The killing of David McCanles by James Butler Hickok, at Rock Creek Station near Fairbury in July of 1861 earned Hickock (Fairbury legend says) his famous sobriquet as "Wild Bill." Some say the killing was over a debt that McCanles tried to collect from Hickok, though local legend mentions differences over a wild woman who "was commonly known" as Kate Schell. McCanles was a family man who died in the arms of his nine year old son. He ran a profitable station for the Overland Stage Company, and gained a local reputation as a great practical jokester, albeit one whose high spirited jokes ran into bullying those with whom he had differences. Yet he was also a southerner believed to be keeping his sympathies hidden because his business would suffer. That he was known as a bully and thought a southern sympathizer may help account for Hickok having been acquitted of the killing.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show celebrated in some of its most famous scenes a certain version of the settlement of the West and the Indian Wars, part of a struggle that the Poet John Neihardt sometimes compared to the Trojan War in its epic force. The show usually ended with a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand. Cody’s Native American employees seemed to enjoy the show as much as anyone, and certainly profited by participating. If his show offered a romantic vision of the Indian Wars and the conquest of the West, Buffalo Bill proved, surprisingly perhaps, to be a defender of Native American rights. He once said "every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government."
Doc Middleton—the "travelling name" of outlaw James Riley—was a Sandhills horsethief and sometime killer who made a reputation as a local Robin Hood, while selling horses stolen from Kansas to the Sioux and horses stolen from the Sioux in Kansas. Eventually he made peace with the law, settled down to have a family, and was supposed to win the great 1000 mile Chadron to Chicago horse race in 1893, but his horses gave out, and the anticipated cowboy operetta ending failed.
Finally, not to be overlooked, because present day fascination for him runs so deep (books about him are among the most frequently requested in this library), is mass murderer Charlie Starkweather. His appeal feeds on the sickness of the vacant soul. It manifests the suspicion that the only genuinely gratifying escape from the social and personal dilemmas of modern society is inward, in allowing our anger to make us sick. Interest in Starkweather only deepens the fog in the mind of his spellbound enthusiasts; poor empty headed Charlie had nothing inside worth the time already spent on him. --dsc