McCanles Massacre - A WPA Interview
Interview with F. J. Elliott in 1938
a long time now many people have been very much interested in getting the
straight of this famous mix-up of the long ago, which occurred at the old
home just southeast of what is now Fairbury, Nebraska
on July 11 [sic], 1861. [editor note: the incident actually occurred on
We, like others, were interested too and
for some time have been gathering every account we could get, talked to
people whose fathers and mothers lived there at the time, visited the
scene of the conflict several times, and read old history. But for all
that, the absolute certainty of the facts are lacking and our honest
opinion is that the real facts never will be known.
last living witness of the affair, William Monroe McCanles, a son of the
one killed, was then 12 years of age (He, too, has just passed on). Just a
few years ago, he first brought out the story as he told it. In our
opinion, his waiting until all those who knew the facts and the character
of these two men had passed on, has hurt his story we believe.
The ones who take the
other side are all honest upright people. They get their story from
their fathers and mothers who knew both McCanles
Wild Bill Hickok.
The sons and daughters of
are fine people and we do not wish to hurt them, neither do the folks
who know them. They say
Wild Bill was a good law
abiding man but all say McCanles
was a bad man.
David C. McCanles was killed by Wild Bill Hickok
at Rock Creek, Nebraska in 1861.
The first account of the affair we take
from an old history published about 1882, the author says:
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
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 probably 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."
James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok allegedly killed David McCanles. This
image available for photographic prints
This part of the story by William 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.
had a long talk with a man who's name we can not now recall. His 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
would have to go over there, just had to go!
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.
about the toll bridge. We visited the place where it stood, only a few
stones are left now. The logs of which it was made had crumbled to dust or
been carried away.
Rock Creek is just a little
stream and in crossing, one hardly knew that they had crossed a creek. It
wasn't a bad place at all -- just a little work without a bridge would
have made it far better than hundreds of other places on the old trail
that they had to cross. But the toll charged for crossing 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.
Out in Canon City, Colorado, where an old
friend of ours lives, Blancett by name, who's father had a station on the
Oregon Trail farther east from the McCanles
station. He knew both
Wild Bill and McCanles
and knew of the
Wild Bill, McCanles
affair. Later he became a plainsman and a scout. To help pass the time
away, he tells of his early day experiences to a friend who writes them up
for a Colorado paper, The Sunday Post. In one of the articles
appears the following:
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
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 names McCanles
who kept the Rock Creek Station near the
Little Blue river. The two men got into a dispute, no one seems to know
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. Mr. Jenkins is a son of the late [?.C.]
Jenkins, who came through here in 1858 and brought his family out here to
live in 1859, remaining until 1884. His family was the first to
permanently locate in this country. George Jenkins was born in the house
Wild Bill killed McCanles,
year of birth, 1864. His father,. C. Jenkins, was the second county
superintendent of schools, Justice of the Peace, a county commissioner,
and member of the Legislature. 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, what the talk always was at the Jenkins home that
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
"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."
an old history of La Salle County,
Illinois we take the following:
W.A. Hickok, father of
Wild Bill, came here from
Grand Isle County, Vermont to Union Grove, Putnam County,
1833. On June 16, 1834 they went to Baileys Point with Reverend Gould and
Isaac Fredenburg, then to Troy Grove, La Salle County in November, 1836.
He was deacon of the Presbyterian Church and opened the first store kept
at Homer. He was a worthy man and died on May 5, 1852.
His widow, a much respected woman, had
three sons left -- Lorenzo, Hiram and Bill. James P. "Wild
Bill," born and raised at Troy Grove, became notorious on the
western frontier and won the name of "Wild
Bill." A man over six feet tall, lithe and active, he was more
than a match for the roughs he met on the debatable ground between
civilized and savage life and is said to have often killed his man. At one
time he is said to have killed four men in 60 seconds--they were on his
track seeking his life. He served with Jim Lane in the
was elected constable while a minor in Kansas, was for two years, a U. S.
Marshal at Abilene, Kansas,
and was regarded as a very efficient and reliable officer. He was
killed at Deadwood, South Dakota on August 2, 1876 while playing
cards. His assailant came silently behind him and shot him in the
head. His murderer was tried by a mob jury and acquitted, but later
was arrested under forms of law, convicted and hung.
Rock Creek, Nebraska Kathy Weiser, July, 2006. This image available for
of America, updated March, 2017.
interview of F. J. Elliott was conducted by George Hartman, a Work
Projects Administration (WPA) Writer WPA writer from Lincoln, Nebraska on
November 26, 1938. Elliott was from Wilbur,
The article as it appears here; however, is not verbatim as it has been
edited for corrections and ease of the modern reader.
Rock Creek Station, Nebraska. Kathy Weiser
Alexander 2009. Available for photo prints and downloads
Wild Bill -
1867 Harper's Weekly Article
Hickok & the Deadman's Hand
Station and the McCanles Massacre