Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Old West: Wild Bill Hickok - Frontier Hero or Bushwhacking Coward?

There is a great scene in the movie Braveheart where Mel Gibson as William Wallace addresses his army. He says, "Sons of Scotland! I am William Wallace!"

Then a Scotsman calls out in disbelief, "William Wallace is seven feet tall!"

Mel Gibson as Wallace replies, "Yes, I've heard! Kills men by the hundreds! And if he were here, he'd consume the English with fireballs from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse!"

That sums up how some people see James Butler Hickok. And thanks mostly to Hollywood, he is still seen that way. In fact, his life was exaggerated, unreal, and fabricated on the most part.

He was a dime novel hero, a bragger, a gambler, a killer, a murderer, and some believe a bushwhacking coward.

His fame all started in 1861, when James Butler Hickok was employed as a stable boy at the Rock Creek Stage Station in Jefferson County, Nebraska. It was there that the famous McCanles massacre took place on July 12, 1861.

It was there that the Hickok lie started. Thanks to a "Dime Novelist," who told a great lie about a man who took on an entire gang of armed desperadoes, suffered multiple gunshot wounds, and stabbings, and who was victorious over the outlaw band. It was a sure hit!

That’s the way it was. Dime Novels sold like pancakes in the 1800s. Everyone bought them and no matter if they had a single once of truth in them or not, that's the sort of bullspit that sold books in those days. And friends, it was done all the time - and people believed it.

You see it was just a few years after the McCanles massacre had taken place, in 1867, that the very popular Harper's New Monthly Magazine ran an article written by "Colonel" George Ward Nichols.

It was Nichols who labeled James Butler Hickok as "Wild Bill". When Nichols wrote about the event, none of what he wrote was close to true. But it didn't matter to Nichols.

According to the Nichols story, Hickok single-handily killed 10 "desperadoes, horse-thieves, murderers, and regular cutthroats" known as the McCanles Gang "in the greatest one man gunfight in history".

During the battle Hickok, armed with only a pistol and bowie knife, suffered 11 bullet wounds, the story went on and on.And no, no kryptonite was mentioned. Probably just an oversight I’m sure.

Was it true? Well, there was no McCanles Gang. And honestly, most of the story in the magazine was made up.

You see Nichols visited Kansas and in 1866 interviewed Wild Bill Hickok about his exploits as a gunfighter. And after the article appeared in the February, 1867, edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Newspapers such as the Leavenworth Daily Conservative, Kansas Daily Commonwealth, Springfield Patriot and the Atchison Daily Champion quickly pointed out that the article was full of inaccuracies and that Hickok was lying when he claimed he had killed "hundreds of men".

After the heavy attacks Nichols received for his article in the Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Nichols moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and concentrated on writing about music.

But by then, other than Newspapers, the unknowing public didn't care to find out if there was or wasn't such a gang -- or if those things really happened at all.  Fact is, once the story was published, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was instantly famous.

And though Nichols story had made the victims into villains, the "Wild Bill" Hickok legend was born. As inaccurate as it was, it didn't matter because that story was what laid the basis for Hickok's reputation as a gunfighter.

So what really happened?

David Colbert McCanles
Well, as I said before, there was no such thing as a McCanles Gang.

But while that is true, even today, the lie is so prolific that if you do an Internet search -- you will assuredly come up with a supposed "McCanles Gang" which were supposedly an outlaw gang in the early 1860s involved in train robberies, bank robberies, murder, cattle rustling, horse theft and assorted other crimes which never took place.

But remember, while the so-called "McCanles Gang" did not exist other than in the mind of a fiction writer, the "McCanles Massacre" did in fact take place in Rock Creek, Nebraska, on July 12, 1861.

David Colbert McCanles was a local rancher. He was also a former County Sheriff of Watauga County in North Carolina from 1852 to 1859.

According to Watauga County records, the whole McCanles family was in Law Enforcement in one way or another for many generations. From Judges and Justices of the Peace, to Sheriffs and Deputies, they were all upstanding citizens.

Like many, Dave McCanles had decided to go West to California during the Gold Rush. But during the journey, he changed his mind and by the time he reached Rock Creek, Nebraska, he decided that was as far as he was going and settled there..

It is said that he changed his mind after hearing the stories of many of the dejected Miners coming back from California with nothing to show for their trouble.

All in all, McCanles was a man's man of good pioneer stock. He was a physically strong man, who was know for having a sense of humor, and who tended to take matters into his own hands when he thought he was being wronged.

He was not one to back down from anyone, and he had a reputation for not being a man to mess with.

Some have tried painting McCandles as a bully and even a tormented lover of a young woman who supposedly shared the affection of a young James Butler Hickok. The problem with that assessment of David McCanles is that there is nothing to support it other than the contrived story of a fiction writer who was not known for telling the truth.

As for being a bully, McCandles was assertive in his demands to recover money owed. If that makes him a "bully" and not merely someone frustrated and angry about being wronged, than so be it.  

McCandles' Frustrations 

The Overland Stage Company was renting land from Dave McCanles which included his old cabin that the company used as the station. They had only paid their down payment.

McCanles was angry and frustrated over the fact that he had not received any more money from the stage company in accordance with the payment schedule that was set up. That's according to bank records.

In 1861, the Overland Stage Company hired Horace Wellman to manage the stage station. Wellman hired a 23 year old James Butler Hickok as a stable boy.

McCanles knew Hickok from going to do business with Wellman. McCanles thought Hickok had a funny look because his nose almost touched his upper lip. So McCanles jokingly nicknamed Hickok "Duck Bill."

That is where most historians agree Hickok's name "Bill" came from. Before James Butler Hickok was "Wild Bill," he was known as "Duck Bill." Imagine that!

On July 12, 1861, Dave McCanles went to the stage station which in reality was his old cabin to see about collecting his past due money. Along with him were his cousin James Wood, his 12 year old son Monroe, and a friend by the name of James Gordon.

All were unarmed!

McCanles must not have thought anything bad would happen as all four were completely unarmed. He brought his 12 year old son Monroe along to help gather up any loose stock if they had found any.

James Wood, James Gordon, and his son Monroe waited a few feet away outside the cabin while Dave McCanles started to go inside the station to meet with the station manager Horace Wellman.

It was then that Hickok showed up and went inside as well passing McCanles. Hickok went into the bedroom in the back of the cabin. The bedroom area was separated from the front of the station by a blanket curtain partition.

Something that Hickok did inside the cabin caught Dave McCanles' attention and he wasn't sure what Hickok was doing. McCanles became suspicious though and called for Hickok to come out. Then words were had and McCanles told Hickok that if he wanted to fight him that he can come outside and settle it like men.

Apparently, Hickok had moved into position to bushwhack the unsuspecting McCanles. Both Hickok and the station manager Wellman knew that they would be no match for the bigger and stronger Dave McCanles. And no, they weren't about to pay him a dime.

The Ambush

Hickok shot him from ambush, as McCanles stood in the doorway about to enter cabin to talk to Wellman.

Yes, it's true, Hickok used a rifle to shoot McCanles from behind a curtain. The round struck McCanles directly in the chest. Some say directly in the heart.

A young James Butler Hickok
Monroe McCanles was in shock. He was standing outside the station when his father came staggering out the door after being shot in the chest by Hickok.

David McCanles looked up at his son to say something but died before he could utter a word.

According to records, the gun that was used to kill McCanles was ironically one of his own shotguns that he had left there from when he occupied the cabin.

McCanles left it there so that Wellmen would be able to protect the stage station.

When both James Wood and James Gordon heard the shot, they both started running toward the station to see what had happened.

But that was their downfall, because it was then that Hickok stepped into the doorway and fired twice at each of them with a pistol.

James Wood was severely wounded and staggered around the corner of the cabin and fell close to death. Gordon was wounded as well, but was able to run for the trees along a nearby creek.

Once there Gordon tried to hide himself because he knew they would be coming. Like Dave McCanles and James Wood, he too was unarmed and defenseless.

It was then that Wellman came out with a garden hoe in his hands. He quickly rushed around the corner of the cabin, and there he found a dying James Wood. And there, using that hoe as his murder weapon, Horace Wellman hacked James Wood to death.

But Wellman wasn't finished yet, because it was then that he turned his focus toward Dave McCanles’ 12 year old son Monroe.

Remember, Monroe McCanles was in shock. He was standing outside the station when his father came staggering out the door after being shot in the chest by Hickok. 

Seeing Wellman coming at him, Monroe instinctively realizing that he was in mortal danger and started running away from Wellman who was now after him. The boy soon out distanced Wellman and got away.

The whole time this was happening Horace Wellman's wife came out and stood at the doorway. She started yelling, "Kill them! Kill them all!"

Hickok, the station manager Wellman, and another stock tender and supposed pony express rider named “Doc” Brink, headed for the creek to look for the man who got away.

Doc Brink had a shotgun with him and the search was on. And yes, it wasn't long before they found James Gordon hiding in the trees on the bank of the creek.

There before them was James Gordon begging for mercy, but to no avail because Brink used his shotgun and at close range blast Gordon to death.

Little did Wellman and the others know that Monroe watched as Gordon was horrifically killed before running home to his mother and telling her what had happened at the station.

Once Mrs. McCanles heard about the murders of her husband and the others, she sent word to Dave McCanles brother James in Johnson County to come quickly.

James McCanles came as quickly as he could but first stopped in the town of Beatrice to alert the Sheriff. After hearing what had happened in Rock Creek, the Sheriff swore out arrest warrants for James Butler "Duck Bill" Hickok, Horace Wellman, and J.W. "Doc" Brinks.

Arrested But Freed

The three were arrested, and later they were sent to Beatrice for trial.

The trial was a farce. The Overland Stage Company paid for the lawyers of the defendants, and I read somewhere that the town was threatened. The townsfolk were advised by the company that they would take their business elsewhere if their employees were found guilty.

To make things easier for the defense, the only eyewitness to the massacre was Monroe McCanles and he was banned from testifying as to what he saw first hand. The court's excuse was that because of Monroe McCanles' young age, he was not permitted to testify.

In fact Monroe was not even allowed to take the stand to testify, nor was he even allowed in the court room even though he was the only eyewitness to all three murders.

The verdict was quick, and the jury found the three innocent of "self defense" even though all three were unarmed and that they tried to kill a 12 year old boy.

Yes, that's right! The Court actually dismissed the case after determining that the killing of three unarmed men was a clear cut case of "self defense."

Even though one was shot in the chest at close range, and two others who were both shot before being were finished off with a shotgun blast at close range and hacked to death with a garden how -- the court release those involved.

"Duck Bill" becomes "Wild Bill" 

As stated earlier, a few years after the McCanles Massacre had taken place, in 1867, the very popular Harper's New Monthly Magazine ran an article written by "Colonel" George Ward Nichols.

It was Nichols who labeled James Butler Hickok as "Wild Bill". When Nichols wrote about the event, none of what he wrote was close to true. But it didn't matter to Nichols.

The McCanles Massacre and the subsequent trail of "Wild Bill" Hickok are ancient history now, but court documents are available to the public. If anyone wants to see some of them, go to this link below.


There was an effort to say that McCanles was angry with Hickok over a woman. But honestly, I think that the whole "killed over a shared mistress" thing was brought up by people who wanted to wag the dog and get the focus off of the crime and real criminals.

I find it very interesting that a stock boy, who was guilty of the Capitol Crime of murder, was "made" into a so-called "Frontier Hero" by a Dime Novelist who never traveled West of St Louis. A writer who the victims into villians, and a back-shooting coward into a Hero.

From what I've read on the McCanles Massacre, it sounds as if there are two camps: One group which supports Hickok no matter what the truth is and who are whole-heartily against McCanles.

Then there is the other group who seems to feel that the legend of “Wild Bill” will live on no matter what the truth really is.  

The facts are that it was there at Rock Creek that James Butler Hickok, “Wild Bill” Hickok, killed an unarmed Dave McCanles and two other unarmed men. He and the others were acquitted of the murders of those men in Gage County District Court.

Yes, that was the event that catapulted James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok to fame - coward or not. 

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. In my opinion Sir, the only liar here is you! You offer no evidence whatsoever for your allegations against Hickok. You sound like someone who might be a bit jealous of another man's exploits and courage because you lack both. Hard to believe a man who was admired by some of the most famous men of the Old West, including Bill Cody and George Custer was just a liar and braggart. Are you sure you're not related to the victims of this particular event or are you just an uninformed idiot?

  2. hmmm, lacks courage? As a McCanles decendant, I think you would be hard pressed to find any of us lacking in courage, although I did notice you signed anonymous :) We have our family history, and a witness, and records, you are taking the word of those who did the deed.

    1. Hello Julie,
      I discovered the true story of what took place at Rock Creek Stage Station in Jefferson County, Nebraska, when I made a trip there. The rifle that Hickok used to cowardly bushwhack David McCanl was donated years later to the Nebraska State Historical Society.

      David McCanles does have an awesome legacy. Besides Monroe, his other Julius McCandless, was the father of Commodore Byron McCandless (United States Navy), recipient of the Navy Cross in World War I; David's great-grandson was Rear Admiral Bruce McCandless (also USN), recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II, and his great-great-grandson is Captain Bruce McCandless II (also USN), a now-retired NASA astronaut who made the first untethered spacewalk. Not a bad legacy for a man murdered in cold blood by a wannabe hero.

      And by the way, it's also true that Buffalo Bill visited Major Israel McCreight at The Wigwam in Du Bois, Pennsylvania, on June 22, 1908. During his visit, Buffalo Bill met Monroe McCanles who was Major McCreight’s houseguest. Buffalo Bill asked about his father Dave McCanles, his gang, and having been shot by Wild Bill Hickok. Monroe McCanles disclosed that, at the age of twelve, he was with his father Dave McCanles when James Butler Hickok shot him dead from behind a curtain. Monroe also told Buffalo Bill how there never was a "McCanles Gang," just 3 unarmed adults and himself that day.

      For the first time, Buffalo Bill heard the true facts of what took place there that day. He remarked that he would include the story in his projected autobiography.

      This is all true, no matter if Hickok fans want to accept it or not. Hickok was a coward for shooting unarmed men, but even moreso for shooting a man while hiding behind a curtain.

      And no, it's not the image that I had of "Wild Bill" when I was a kid and believed anything ... even if it were a lie.

  3. I'm going to agree with the other anonymous gentleman up there. And Julie, the reason my comment, and most likely his, are anonymous is because I don't have a suitable account to link to.

    That aside, I have to disagree with the allegations of cowardice against Hickok. The McCanles massacre did happen as stated above, though you've done your best to put the most negative spin possible on it. The whole situation is quite a bit more complicated than what was presented here, and I recommend to anyone reading that the find a neutral source that details the account.

    Hickok himself didn't think Nichols was worth a damn. You have to remember that sensationalist writers wrote those dime novels, and they were going to write whatever would sell best.

    However you might personally feel about that man, it can not be denied that almost all that met him found him to be of a humble and courteous disposition. Henry M. Stanley reported that he was pleasantly surprised at Hickok's refined nature upon their first meeting. He had expected a tactless ruffian "as you find in the south and west". And it's worth mentioning that he was also regarded by many other wildly talented pistol shots as the most capable in his time when performing in combat.

    Thanks for reading,


    1. As for me putting a negative spin on how someone shot an unarmed man, I reported the facts no different than any other crime scene or incident report that I've ever written. I wrote it as objectively as possible while knowing that nothing excuses soemone killing another who is unarmed, not a threat, and from ambush.

      No sir, there was no spin here. But if there were, should I have put a "positive spin" on the killing of unarmed men who were slaughtered from ambush -- one even hacked to death?

      The problem with the legacy of Hickok is that "fiction writers" and "fans" who claimed to be objective Historians spun the truth to make McCanles the bad guy when he wasn't even armed!

      The problem is that Hickok's fans, like Henry M. Stanley who is said to have been in "awe" of Hickok when he met him, have spun the truth so much that this tragedy, as with other incidents in Hickok's life, became nothing but a huge cover-up, a lie, a falsehood, made-up, a fabrication, a work of fiction.

      Read what some Newspapers of the times wrote about him.

      Even then, some were very objective while others gussed over his celebritiy status.

      I try to report history as I would report what I find at a crime scene, the scene of an accident, as a witness in court trying to be objective as humanly possible.

      The problem that I have writing about Hickok is the same as I have writing about the Muslim Terrorists who killed thousands on 9/11. No matter how many people come out of the woodwork to say how good those Muslims were, or how (as you said) "the whole situation is quite a bit more complicated than what was presented here" -- I cannot get pass the fact that they killed those who were unarmed and no threat.

      I just can't accept the actions of supposed great men when their actions are not honorable, and are in fact criminal. And no, all the excuses in the world won't make it right.

      If Hickok and McCandles really were at odds over a woman as some have tried to say, does that justify murdering him by ambush?

      That is not different than what Muslims said after 9/11 to justify their attack. They said that America has did something-or-other and that justified the attack on 9/11.

      In both situations, their excuses simply don't wash.

      And no, I don't believe he was that good in a "combat situation." As an old Marine, and an Instructor, I can say with certainty that he was not very good in combat simply because he shot his own deputy in such a situation.

      There are thousands of law enforcement officers, as well as thousands of men and women who have served in the military and seen combat. All will tell you that to be good "when performing in combat," you don't shoot your own people. Besing a great shot means nothing if you screw up like that in the heat of a situation.

  4. Its an enjoyable read nevertheless. To say Wild Bill was a coward seems to be a disservice to a Wild West legend. With that said, I doubt anyone will fully know the circumstances of this quarrel, however it seems this particular event does tarnish Bills legacy. Most of these legends rode a fine line between outlaw and law-abiding citizen which is what I believe sensationalizes the gunslingers of this period.....but that's just me.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The reason that I labled him a coward was the way he killed David McCanles. Something that I myself did not know about until I visited the place where it happened and watched a play put on by local actors who wanted to spread the true story of what really took place. The information is out there as to Hickok's true character - but the fantasy that Hollywood and television and books have told is stronger than the truth. From the amount of hate mail that I have received, especially from would-be family members 100 times removed, my little article will do little to tarnish his legend. We must remember that Hickok was a Celebrity in his day, and many talked very highly of him simply in the same way that a fan talks about their favorite movie star today. Away from the false glamour, America has her true Old West legends. And honestly, many did, as you say, ride a line between outlaw and law-abiding citizens. And yes, maybe that's why I love researching? I love reading about the legends. But, I also realize that it's my nature to see something that doesn't seem right and explore it. If it proves the legend right, great. If not, so what, I write about them either way - look at what I wrote about one of America's true legends John Browning for example. The way I see it, a small blog like mine can't really change the legends out there. Realistically, the only thing my article can do is to give a different aspect of the person's character, Thanks for visiting, I hope you enjoy some of my other articles. Respectfully, Tom

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