|A young James Butler Hickok|
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 12th, 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 really, that 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. He supposedly suffered 11 bullet wounds, and 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 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?
That is where most "historians" agree part of Hickok's nickname "Bill" came from. Before James Butler Hickok was "Wild Bill," he was known as "Duck Bill." Imagine that!
On July 12th, 1861, Dave McCanles went to the stage station which in reality was his old cabin to see about collecting his past due mortgage money. Along with him was his 12 year old son Monroe. Dave McCanles' cousin James Wood, and a friend by the name of James Gordon. All were unarmed.
It's important to note that they were 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 toward the cabin to talk with the station manager Horace Wellman.
It was then that Hickok showed up and went inside as well passing McCanles. Hickok went into a set aside area used as a bedroom in the back of the cabin. That bedroom area was actually 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. So no, they decided that they weren't about to pay him a dime. Instead, they had other plans for Dave McCanles.
|USED BY THE STATE OF NEBRASKA, THIS RECREATION AT ROCK CREEK DEPICTS A COWARDLY HICKOK AMBUSHING McCANLES FROM BEHIND A CURTAIN.|
As McCanles stood in the doorway about to enter cabin to talk to Wellman, Hickok shot Dave McCanles him from ambush. Yes, it's true, Hickok used a rifle to shoot McCanles from behind that blanket curtain that divided the room.
The round struck McCanles directly in the chest. Some say directly in the heart. He staggered back and fell to the ground. His 12 year old son Monroe was in shock. He was standing outside the station when the shot struck his father. He was standing near their buckboard when he saw his come staggering from the doorway after the round struck his father in the chest. David McCanles is said to have looked up at his son to say something. Some say he was able to say, "Run!" Other sources say he died before he could utter a word.
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. It was there, using that hoe as his murder weapon, that 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, the young boy was in a state of shock. He was standing outside the station when his father came staggering out of the doorway 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. Sadly, 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 to blast Gordon to death.
Little did Wellman and the others know that Monroe watched as Gordon was horrifically killed before running the 3 miles to his home to tell his mother 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.
Arrested But Freed
Though the three were arrested, and later they were sent to Beatrice for trial, the trial itself was a farce. The Overland Stage Company paid for the lawyers of the defendants, and I read somewhere that the town was threatened by the stage company if they didn't acquit their employees. It's said that the townsfolk were advised by the company that they would take their business elsewhere if their employees were found guilty.
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. And yes my friends, I find it very interesting that a stock tender, a young man 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. George Ward Nichols turned the victims into villains and a back-shooting coward into a hero.
It might be interesting to note that when I visited Rock Creek Station, I was lead to I believe that Hickok was just following instructions from his boss who was Wellman. Wellman could have just as well picked Brink to do the shooting. From what I gather, and obviously I could be wrong here, Wellman is who had the trouble with McCanles over not making the mortgage payments.
Hickok and Brink were just a couple of his employees. I believe Hickok himself was 24 at the time and employed there to tend to the animals, clean up, that sort of thing. Other than being told to get behind the curtain and shoot, Hickok was not the reason for the trouble. I believe Wellman was responsible for the entire crime ever taking place. That's just the way I see it.