Billy the Kid was born William Henry McCarty Jnr on November 23rd 1859 in New York City. He was slim, fair haired, blue eyed, with prominent front teeth and possessed a temper that could veer from charming and polite to angry violence in seconds. Legend has it that he killed 21 men in his short life, but this is certainly exaggerated. His father deserted the family when Billy was nine and his mother Catherine moved with Billy and his brother Joseph to Indianapolis Indiana where she met a William Antrim. The couple and the two boys moved around the country for a few years until they arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico where, in 1873 they married and finally settled down in Silver City. Antrim became involved in prospecting and gambling and spent little time at home and Catherine had to bake pies, wash clothes and take in boarders to support her children.
James Butler Hickok, later known as "Wild Bill", was born in Homer Illinois on May 27th 1837. He is one of history's characters whose life was more colourful than the legends that grew around him. He was a 6ft 3in tall, wide shouldered, handsome man with auburn hair worn long and down to his shoulders in the fashion of a Plainsman and contemporaries speak of his clear grey eyes that "could see right through you". Little is known of his early life apart from him being a good shot with a pistol, but at the age of eighteen he got into a fight with a Charles Hudson, during which, they both fell into a canal. Believing he had killed Hudson, he fled to Leavenworth in Kansas where he joined General Jim Lane's vigilante Free State Army, also known as The Red Legs. It was here that he first met William Cody, later to become famous as "Buffalo Bill Cody", who although only twelve years old, was working as a scout for the US Army. He also met George Custer, who was later to recall that Hickok was "A strange character, a Plainsman in every sense of the word whose skill in the use of rifle or pistol was unerring".
On September 17th 1851, a treaty was signed at Fort Laramie between the United States government and the Indian nations of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Kiowa, Crow, Assiniboine and Mandans. The treaty recognized Indian sovereignty over their vast traditional hunting grounds stretching from the Rocky Mountains to western Kansas and included large areas of Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado.
For many years, wagon trains had crossed the Great Plains on the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails, carrying emigrants westwards and were left largely untouched by the Indians, but when gold was discovered in the Pikes Peak area of Colorado, the rush of miners and prospectors greatly increased this traffic. Matters worsened when many migrants, instead of passing through Indian Territory as before, began to settle and build homes in the area, resulting in Indian raids on wagon trains, stage coaches and homesteads. With the Civil War in full swing, troops were not available to intervene and retaliation by the whites escalated the atrocities committed by both sides.
By 1866, the western expansion of American settlers had reached Montana and Wyoming, the traditional hunting grounds of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. To protect these lands that had been promised to them by the US government, "For as long as the rain shall fall and the grass shall grow". The Indians retaliated by attacking the wagon trains as they followed the Bozeman Trail westwards, this trail branched northwest from the Oregon Trail and passed through Wyoming, crossing the Powder and Tongue rivers and the Big Horn Mountains, ending in the goldfields of Montana.