Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Nicknames have long been especially popular among two groups: self-promoters and those who consider themselves beyond the limits of ordinary rules of conduct. The Plains, especially in the nineteenth century, was filled with characters who were self-promoters and had a disdain for established authority. William F. Cody was first on the list of self-promoters. "Buffalo Bill" said it all; a little of the reality of the Plains and a lot of its myth and folklore is distilled in this nickname. Less well known today is his Wild West show rival, Gordon William Lillie, or "Pawnee Bill."

The great majority of nicknames, however, went to outlaws such as John Henry "Doc" Holliday (who was a real "Doc," a dentist from Georgia). The Doolin Gang (the "Oklahombres") alone boasted "Dynamite Dan" Clifton, George "Bitter Creek" Newcomb, Richard "Little Dick" West, George "Red Buck" Waightman, and William "Little Bill" Raidler. Those on the side of the law rarely had public nicknames; the Earp brothers, the most famous lawmen of the Plains, did not. Two who straddled the fence between law and lawlessness, however, William Barclay "Bat" Masterson and James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickock, were best known by their nicknames.

Since early Plains society to a degree was one of rough equality, it is not surprising that women used nicknames for the same purposes as men. Martha Canary was every bit as much a self-promoter as Buffalo Bill, and she found that calling herself "Calamity Jane" (ostensibly because she got mixed up in so much trouble) did the trick. As with the men, most of the nicknames of women in the Plains went to those who, if not exactly criminals, were at least on the fringes of proper society, especially the prostitutes and madams. Ella Watson, who earned her nickname "Cattle Kate" because she took cattle (often stolen) in payment for her services, and "Diamond Lil" Powers, the Denver madam, are two of the better-known.

Much of the nicknaming in the Plains has disappeared, but it reminds us that nicknames are means of creating images and public personae, and their bearers wear them proudly, often flaunting society's norms in the process.

Edward Callary Northern Illinois University

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