However, Hickok’s answer was a blast from a rifle, killing McCanles and dropping him to the floor. Ironically, the story tells that it was McCanles’ own rifle that he had left with Wellman to defend the station that he was killed with. 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 1880s 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 was charged for 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 pled self-defense and defense of company property, all three were acquitted.
Later, 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 was 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 Wild Bill 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, dragging 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. (The entire tale can be read in this article: Wild Bill)
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.
No one really knows the specifics of this bloody and seemingly one-sided fight, with numerous versions having been provided, including tales of jealousy, theft, and the ongoing conflict between the north and south. Some tales even allege that it was not Bill Hickok who killed McCanles, rather, it was Horace Wellman.
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. To see the interview, click HERE.
By 1866, the railroad had reached Kearney, Nebraska and trail traffic dramatically diminished, leaving the road ranchers to find other occupations.
In 1980, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission began to develop the area as a state historical park. Today, the buildings of the original Rock Creek Station and Pony Express have been reconstructed in the park that now includes some 350 acres, a visitor’s center, hiking trails, picnic areas, and a campground. The terrain includes prairie hilltops, timber-studded creek bottoms, and rugged ravines, along with the deep ruts of the Oregon and California Trails, carved more than a century ago by the many wagons that traveled westward along this path.