by lyle e davis
wish you could go back in time and be a fly on the wall, just observing history as it actually happened? To hear the way people actually talked? To see if they really talked the way historians, dime-novel authors, and newspaper reporters said they did?
I get that feeling quite often; particularly when researching the old stories from the wild, wild west. There are usually at least two versions of any stories, sometimes dozens. One such example is the shootout between David McCanles and a young kid, James Butler Hickok.
The most plausible story is this:
Back in 1857, along the Oregon and California trails, Rock Creek Station, near what is now Fairbury, Nebraska, was put together by a pioneer by the name of S.C. Glenn. The “station” consisted of little more than a cabin, a barn, and a make-shift store, where Glenn sold limited supplies, hay and grain.
Located along the west bank of Rock Creek, the station served as a supply center and resting spot for the many travelers headed westward in the 19th century.
In the spring of 1859 a gent by the name of David C. McCanles, along with his brother, James, had been on their way to the Colorado gold fields. One thing wrong with that plan. David and his brother kept meeting returning miners, all of whom had sad tales of woe. No gold, just lots of blisters and empty pockets.
David and his brother decided a right smart thing to do was avoid all that hard work and instead of prospecting for hard- to-find gold, set up a business that relieved emigrants of all descriptions, of their money. So, David bought the Rock Creek Station from Mr. Glenn in the month of March. Not only did McCanles continue to operate the store but he built a toll bridge across the creek.
He had watched as pioneers had to lift and lower their wagons down into the creek before pulling them up on the other side. McCanles figured correctly that if he built a bridge, pioneers would be glad to pay the requisite toll of 10 cents to 50 cents, depending upon the size of their load and their ability to pay.
The toll charged for crossing Rock Creek brought in a lot of money to McCanles. To the north a little ways was a good crossing but if the travelers attempted to cross there some one would appear with a gun and insist that they were trespassing and they would have to go back and pay to cross the bridge. McCanles also built a cabin and dug a well on the east side of Rock Creek which became known as the East Ranch.
The following year, McCanles leased the East Ranch to the Russell, Waddell, and Majors Company, which owned the Overland Stage Company and founded the Pony Express. They installed Horace G. Wellman as their company agent and station keeper and hired James W. “Doc” Brink as a stock tender. Later, the company made arrangements from McCanles to buy the station with a cash down payment and the remainder in installments.
The East Ranch was then used as a stage and Pony Express relay station, while the West Ranch continued to be used as an emigrant rest stop, a freight station, and the home of the McCanles family.
In April, 1861, McCanles sold the West Ranch to freighters Hagenstein and Wolfe and moved his family to another location about three miles south of Rock Creek Station. Always trying to make money, McCanles sold the toll bridge several times with a number of specific requirements in the contract. When the new owner failed to meet the stipulations, he would take it back and sell it again.
All was going pretty smoothly for Mr. McCanles until April or early May of 1861. It was then that a youngish James Butler Hickok, age 24, came along and was hired as a stock tender. McCanles and Butler didn’t hit it off from the beginning. At times, McCanles had the makings of a bully. He was, by all descriptions, very firm in his business demands . . . and sometimes became aggressive.
This didn’t sit will with Jim Hickok.
Legend had it that McCanles began to taunt Hickok about his girlish build and feminine features. He also came up with a nickname of “Duck Bill,” referring to Hickok’s rather long nose and protruding lips.
Perhaps in retaliation, Hickok began courting a woman by the name of Kate Shell, who, even though McCanles was married, apparently had his eye on.
In the meantime, the Overland Stage Company had fallen behind on their installment payments and on July 12, 1861, McCanles, along with his 12 year-old son, Monroe, and two friends by the names of James Woods and James Gordon came to the station to inquire upon the status of the installments.
Not long after their arrival an argument ensued and profanities were exchanged, soon leading to gunfire. In the melee, Hickok shot David McCanles, and both James Woods and James Gordon, who were seriously wounded. They later died of their wounds. Twelve year-old Monroe escaped to his home some three miles south of Rock Creek.
Though the details of what actually happened on the fateful day continue to be debated, the versions vary widely. Monroe McCanles, who witnessed the entire event, told a version something like this.
When David McCanles had not received full payment from the Overland Stage Company, he planned to take it up with the station manager, Horace Wellman. That very day, the station manager had allegedly gone to the company office in Brownville in order to obtain the money, he returned empty-handed. Upon hearing this, an angry McCanles soon arrived with two options in mind – either collect the money owed or repossess the ranch.
Showing up with his son, and two employees – James Woods and James Gordon, McCanles called for Wellman to come out. Instead, Jane Wellman, the station manager’s wife, appeared at the door, closely followed by James Hickok. Horace Wellman’s specific whereabouts are unknown, but he was obviously close by.
Disconcerted by Hickok's interference, McCanles allegedly asked, “Jim, haven’t we been friends all the time?” After Hickok assured him that they were, McCanles, biding his time, asked for a drink of water and came inside. The other three stayed outside the cabin.
Suddenly, McCanles sensed danger, returned the dipper and moved toward the other door at about the same time Hickok moved behind a curtain partition. Unarmed, McCanles said, “Now, Jim, if you have anything against me, come out and fight me fair.”
However, Hickoks answer was a blast from a rifle, killing McCanles and dropping him to the floor. Hearing the blast, Woods and Gordon rushed toward the cabin, but Woods was stopped with Hickok's Colt revolver. In the meantime, Wellman bludgeoned him with a hoe, until he died. Gordon, who was also wounded by gunfire, fled to the creek, but was followed by Doc Brink, the station’s stock tender, who killed him with a blast from his shotgun. Monroe dodged a blow from Wellman’s hoe and escaped to his home some three miles south.
McCanles and Woods were originally buried in a single crude box on Soldier Hill. Gordon was buried in a blanket at the spot where he was killed near Rock Creek. In the early 1880’s the construction of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad intersected Soldier Hill and the bodies of McCanles and Woods were re-interred at the Fairbury Cemetery.
In the meantime, James A. McCanles, David's brother, filed an arrest warrant for Hickok, Wellman, and Brink on July 15, 1861, and the trio were charged with the murders of McCanles, Woods and Gordon.
A trial was held in Beatrice and though Monroe McCanles adamantly claimed that his father and the other two men were unarmed, he was not allowed to testify because of his age. After the trio plead self-defense and defense of company property, all three were acquitted.
That is version Number One of what happened. Now, let’s take a look at version Number Two:
When Hickok's fame began to spread, he told an entirely different version of the tale, making McCanles out to be a ruthless killer and an outlaw, who was the leader of a vicious gang who were terrorizing the region.
This story, told by Colonel Ward Nichols and published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in 1867, tells a version that is embellished to the degree that Hickok had polished off ten of the West’s most dangerous desperados and was left with eleven buck-shot and thirteen knife wounds.
Hickok's tale describes himself as scouting for the U.S. Cavalry detachment when he arrived at Rock Creek that fateful day, rather than working as a stock tender.
Describing the McCanles' Gang as reckless, blood-thirsty devils, he said he came upon the station to hear a tale from Mrs. Wellman that McCanles was within minutes of the cabin, draggin’ a preacher by his neck with a rope. His tale goes on to describe how he fought off the entire McCanles Gang with only a revolver and a bowie knife, killing all of them in the end and spending weeks recovering from his own injuries.
Oh, James Butler Hickok? You probably know him better by his legendary name, “Wild Bill Hickok.”
This event, called the McCanles Massacre, by writers, was the beginning of the Wild Bill Hickok legend. Though Hickok's “legend” was already well-known by the time the article appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1867, Nichol’s glamorized version of the fighting frontier hero further perpetuated his fame.
“I don’t like to talk about that McCanles affair,” said Bill, in answer to my question. (Editor’s Note: Which, of course, he then proceeds to talk about . . . in detail).
“It gives me a queer shiver whenever I think of it, and sometimes I dream about it, and wake up in a cold sweat.”
“You see this McCanles was the Captain of a gang of desperadoes, horse-thieves, murderers, regular cut-throats, who were the terror of every body on the border, and who kept us in the mountains in hot water whenever they were around. I knew them all in the mountains where they pretended to be trapping, but they were there hiding from the hangman. McCanles was the biggest scoundrel and bully of them all, and was allers a-braggin of what he could do. One day I beat him shootin at a mark, and then threw him at the back-bolt. And I didn’t drop him as soft as you would a baby, you may be sure. Well, he got savage mad about it, and swore he would have his revenge on me some time.
This was just before the war broke out, and we were already takin sides in the mountains either for the South or the Union. McCanles and his gang were border-ruffians in the Kansas row, and of course they went with the rebs. Bime-by he clar’d out, and I shouldn’t have thought of the feller agin ef he hadn’t crossed my path. It ‘pears he didn’t forget me.
It was in ‘61, when I guided a detachment of cavalry who were commin from Camp Floyd. We had nearly reached the Kansas line, and were in South Nebraska, when one afternoon I went out of camp to go to the cabin of an old friend of mine, a Mrs. Wellman. I took only one of my revolvers with me, for although the war had broke out I didn’t think it necessary to carry both my pistols, and, in all or’nary scrimmages, one is better than a dozen, if you shoot straight. I saw some wild turkeys on the road as I was goin down, and popped one of ‘em over, thinking he’d he just the thing for supper.
Well, I rode up to Mrs. Wellman, jumped off my horse, and went into the cabin, which is like most of the cabins on the prarer, with only one room, and that had two doors, one opening in front and t’other on a yard, like.
Mrs. Waltman Warns Hickok
“How are you, Mrs. Wellman?” I said, feeling as jolly as you please.
The minute she saw me she turned as white is a sheet and screamed: ‘Is that you, Bill? Oh, my God! They will kill you! Run! Run! They will kill you!’”
“Whos a-goin to kill me?” I said. “There’s two can play at that game.”
“’It’s McCanles and his gang. There’s ten of them, and you’ve no chance. They’ve jes gone down the road to the corn-rack. They came up here only five minutes ago. McCanles was draggin poor Parson Shipley on the ground with a lariat round his neck. The preacher was most dead with choking and the horses stamping on him. McCanles knows yer bringin in that party of Yankee cavalry, and he swears he’ll cut yer heart out. Run, Bill, run! But it’s too late; they’re commin up the lane’”
While she was a-talkin I remembered I had but one revolver, and a load gone out of that. On the table there was a horn of powder and some little bars of lead. I poured some powder into the empty chamber and rammed the lead after it by hammering the barrel on the table, and had just capped the pistol when I heard McCanles shout: ‘There’s that d---d Yank Wild Bill's horse; he’s here; and we’ll skin him alive!’”
If I had thought of runnin before, it war too late now, and the house was my best holt --a sort of fortress, like. I never thought I should leave that room alive.”
The scout stopped in his story, rose from his seat, and strode back and forward in a state of great excitement.
“I tell you what it is, Kernel,” he resumed, after a while, “I don’t mind a scrimmage with these fellers round here. Shoot one or two of them and the rest run away. But all of McCanles' Gang were reckless, blood-thirsty devils, who would fight as long as they had strength to pull a trigger. I have been in tight places, but that’s one of the few times I said my prayers."
“’Surround the house and give him no quarter!’ yelled McCanles. When I heard that I felt as quiet and cool as if I was a-goin to church. I looked round the room and saw a Hawkins rifle hangin over the bed.
“Is that loaded?” I said to Mrs. Wellman.
“’Yes,’ the poor thing whispered. She was so frightened she couldn’t speak out loud.
“Are you sure?’ I said, as I jumped to the bed and caught it from its hooks. Although may eye did not leave the door, yet I could see she nodded Yes again. I put the revolver on the bed, and just then McCanles poked his head inside the doorway, but jumped back when he saw me with the rifle in my hand.”
“’Come in here, you cowardly dog! I shouted. Come in here, and fight me!’
McCanles was no coward, if he was a bully. He jumped inside the room with his gun leveled to shoot; but he was not quick enough. My rifle-ball went through his heart. He fell back outside the house, where he was found afterward holding tight to his rifle, which had fallen over his head.
His disappearance was followed by a yell from his gang, and then there was a dead silence. I put down the rifle and took the revolver, and I said to myself: ‘Only six shots and nine men to kill. Save your powder, Bill, for the death-hugs a-comin!’ I don’t know why it was, Kernel,” continued Bill, looking at me inquiringly, “but at that moment things seemed clear and sharp. I could think strong.
There was a few seconds of that awful stillness, and then the ruffians came rushing in at both doors. How wild they looked with their red, drunken faces and inflamed eyes, shouting and cussin! But I never aimed more deliberately in my life." One—two—three---four; and four men fell dead."
Continuing to be scrutinized years after the incident and long after Bill Hickok's death, a man named F.G. Elliott was interviewed by a WPA writer in 1938. His tale, though not supporting the glorified story told by Nichols in Harper's Magazine, does support Hickok's rightful killing of David McCanles. It may or may not add more light on the actual events of that fateful day, depending upon your point of view.
The first account of the affair we take from an old history published about 1882, the author says: "The facts are from S. C. Jenkins and S. J. Alexander, who arrived at the ranch within two hours after the trouble took place and before the bodies were removed and from many others, and reports of Wild Bill's trial.
The facts the author gives are these: Wild Bill at this time was tending stock for the Ben Holiday State Company at Rock Creek Station. James McCanles, once owner of the station did not have an enviable reputation, was a southern sympathizer, and was trying to raise a company to assist the south. He came to Wild Bill and tried to persuade him to join and turn over the stage company's stock. On his refusal, McCanles threatened to kill him and take the stock. That afternoon McCanles returned with three other men and started to enter the house. Wild Bill shot him. Two of the other men were killed and one got away. At Wild Bill's trial, which was held in Beatrice, no one appeared against him. His plea was self-defense and he was cleared. The historian closed with the following: "It was evident that the design of the men was to take Wild Bill's life or it is most probable that the man who got away would have appeared against Wild Bill at the trial."
The story of the affair, as told by Wm. McCanles, Jr., son of David McCanles, killed by Wild Bill, appeared in the Fairbury Journal of Sept, 25, 1930, states this:
"Probably the motive for killing was fear. Father had told Mrs. Wellman to tell her husband to come out. The Wellmans were the folks who lived there and kept the station. She said he wouldn't and father said if he wouldn't come out he would go in and drag him out. I think rather than be man-handled, he killed father."
It would seem McCanles intends to pound up Wellman. When he said if he didn't come out he would go in and drag him out. This brings out a point that justified the killing of McCanles when he started to force his way into another man's home."
This part of the story by Wm. McCanles bears out the stories told around Fairbury by those whose parents knew David McCanles to be brutal and overbearing. Now the question comes up -- why did not William McCanles, Jr. appear against Wild Bill at the trial? He was an eye witness and perhaps 12 years of age.
We had a long talk with a man whose folks were neighbors of the McCanles family. Mrs. McCanles often visited with his folks and he had often heard her speak of the affair. She never blamed Wild Bill. He told about Kate Shell who lived at the west station and kept a store where she sold food, supplies and whiskey to those going over the old Oregon trail. Mrs. McCanles did not like her but every once in a while she had to get up a dinner and invite Kate over. Then Kate would have a big dinner and McCanles would have to go over there, just had to go!
A while ago, a writer for the Dearborn Independent, Henry Ford's paper wrote up the whole affair, told a lot about the part Kate played and there were never any denials.
The Sunday Post. In one of the articles appears the following, written by a Mr. Blancett:
"In 1860, my father, my brothers and I were keeping the stage station at Ashpoint, Kansas. He said Wild Bill was inclined to be reticent, talked little of himself or about others, he was a man of action not words. His duty was to guard the cash box on the coach that carried it. I never saw him without his feet off this box. This box was the particular trust of the guard and he was under orders to guard it with his life. Bill handled a pistol with the speed of lightning. When talking, wishing to emphasize something he had a way of throwing his right or left hand towards you with the trigger finger pointed at you. His hands moved with incredible swiftness and I believe he practiced this mannerism with such purpose that it became a part of his nature and probably resulted in making him the fastest two-gun man of his day. He was not a wanton killer and used his guns only in line of duty. He had plenty of opportunity to kill oftener than he did, knowing that he could start a graveyard at any time and the government would pay all funeral expenses. We never knew him to be intoxicated and never knew him to kill but one man except in line of duty. The exception was a man named McCanles who kept the Rock Creek Station near the Little Blue river. The two men got into a dispute, no one seems to know for sure [why] and Bill drew his gun first. My father and McCanles were friends and were both station keepers. In closing, Mr. Blancett says: ‘Anyone who wanted to make the acquaintance of Wild Bill, and would mind their own business, not get too inquisitive, would find him a perfect gentleman in every way.’ In those days he was not known as "Wild Bill," that name did not become general until in the early ‘70's at which time I had lost track of him."
From the Fairbury Journal of sometime ago we take the following:
"George Jenkins of Bellingham, Washington was in Fairbury this week accompanied by his wife visiting places of interest with which he was familiar [with] in an early day. George Jenkins was born in the house where Wild Bill killed McCanles, year of birth, 1864. Referring to the McCanles tragedy, he recalls hearing his father and mother tell about it many times. Jenkins says his father told him McCanles had made threats to run off livestock from the ranches of the settlers for the benefit of the Confederacy and that the settlers were organized to resist such attempts, that his mother expressed extreme relief when the news reached them that McCanles had been killed, that his father helped bury the bodies of McCanles, Woods and Gordon, that the talk always was at the Jenkins home that McCanles was a wild reckless man and a Southern sympathizer."
Another story published in the DeWitt Times News, a few years ago covers a little different phase and was told by the foreman of the state stations. This man tells it about this way:
"At the time of this affair I was at a station farther west and reached this station just as Wild Bill was getting ready to go to Beatrice for his trial. He wanted me to go with him and as we started on our way, imagine my surprise and uncomfortable feeling when he announced his intention of stopping at the McCanles home. I would have rather been somewhere else, but Bill stopped. He told Mrs. McCanles he was sorry he had to kill her man then took out $35.00 and gave it to her saying: ‘This is all I have, sorry I do not have more to give you.’ We drove on to Beatrice and at the trial, his plea was self-defense, no one appeared against him and he was cleared. The trial did not last more than fifteen minutes.”
By 1866, the railroad had reached Kearney, Nebraska, and trail traffic dramatically diminished, leaving the road ranchers to find other occupations.
Ruts from the pioneer days remain still on this road approachig Rock Creek Station