McCanles Gang

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Wild Bill Hickok
C. early 1860s

The supposed McCanles Gang or McCandless Gang was known as an outlaw gang in the early 1860s that was wanted for alleged train robbery, murder, bank robbery, cattle rustling, and horse theft. However, there are questions surrounding the veracity of not only the allegations, but the existence of any such gang. On July 12, 1861 some of its alleged members were killed by "Wild Bill" Hickok although many claimed they were innocent and their only crime was to cross paths with Hickok.[1]

McCanles incident background[edit]

David C. McCanless 1860

The legend of "Wild Bill" Hickok began, as reported in Harper's Monthly, at Rock Creek Station, a stagecoach and Pony Express station in southern Nebraska, near present-day Fairbury, Nebraska. According to the story, Hickok single-handedly killed the nine members of "desperados, 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, a rifle, and bowie knife, suffered 11 bullet wounds, the story went.[2]

However, the McCanles Gang legend seems to be traceable to an incident between "Duck Bill" Hickok, as he was then known, and a local rancher David Colbert McCanles, a former sheriff of Watauga County, North Carolina who was known as a local bully and had earlier had an argument with Hickok over the latter "stealing" his mistress Sarah (Kate) Shull. McCanles, who had recently sold his ranch to the Russell, Waddell and Majors freight company to be used as a relay station, arrived with his 12-year-old son, his cousin, and another employee at the ranch demanding to see the relay station manager Horace Wellman. McCanles had come to collect a long overdue instalment from the company, which was having financial difficulties at the time, and was arguing with Wellman when he was apparently shot by then 24-year-old stock tender Bill Hickok who was hiding behind a calico curtain. McCanles's son immediately rushed into the building, where he ran to his father. The two other men who, like McCanles, were unarmed, attempted to flee but Hickok threw the rifle he had shot McCanles with onto a bed and stepping from the cabin, wounded both with his pistols. The two men, James Woods and James Gordon, were then killed by other members of the relay station; one was killed by station employee J.W. (Doc) Brink with a shotgun blast and the other was hacked to death with a hoe, supposedly by Horace Wellman but there is evidence his wife had used the hoe.[3] Hickok was not reported as wounded. During the attack McCanles' son (William) Monroe was able to escape via a dry creekbed.


Hickok, along with Wellman and J. W. "Doc" Brink, were charged with the murders.[4] When the case was brought to trial Monroe McCanles was not permitted by the judge to testify and the court heard only the account given by the station employees. The judge ruled the defendants acted in self-defense.[2]

From the DeWitt Times News as told by the foreman of the company stations:
"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 ($919 as at 2015) 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".

After this tragedy, some of the McCanles family moved to Florence, Colorado[5] and changed the spelling of the name to McCandless.[1] Hickok, making use of his new notoriety also changed his name after this incident. After growing a moustache to hide his protruding upper lip, he encouraged people to call him "Wild Bill" instead of "Duck bill".[3]

Witness accounts[edit]

The first account was published around 1882 by S. C. Jenkins and S. J. Alexander who had arrived at the ranch within two hours after the trouble took place and before the bodies were removed. Their story was that David McCanles' brother James was a Southern sympathiser and had tried to persuade Hickok to join him and turn over the stage company's stock. After Hickok's refusal James threatened to kill him and it was later that afternoon that David and three others arrived with the intention of carrying out the threat.

In 1883 D.M. Kelsey published Our Pioneer Heroes and Their Daring Deeds which contained a biography for "Wild Bill" based on Hickok's own accounts. Hickok claimed he had killed six of the ten members of the McCanles Gang who had rushed in after using a log to batter the station door down, including two in a knife fight after he was wounded.

"I remember that one of them struck me with his gun, and I got hold of a knife, and then I got kind o' wild like, and it was all cloudy, and I struck savage blows, following the devils up from one side of the room to the other and into the corners, striking and slashing until I knew every one was dead."

The remaining four attackers now fled, Hickok picked up a rifle and shot one dead (another later died of his wounds).

"All of a sudden, it seemed like my heart was on fire. I was bleeding everywhere. I rushed out to the well and drank from the bucket, and then tumbled down in a faint."[6]

The dead, according to Hickok, included David McCanles's brothers James and Jack LeRoy McCanles however, according to records Jack LeRoy McCanles was still alive in 1883 and was a "good citizen" of Florence, Colorado.[7] The story as told by the son of David McCanles, William Monroe McCanles appeared in the Fairbury Journal of September 25, 1930. Monroe maintained that he had gone with his father to the station to collect money, and that they had been unarmed:

"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".

The McCanles Incident[edit]

Buffalo Bill’s visit to Major Israel McCreight at The Wigwam in Du Bois, Pennsylvania, on June 22, 1908, was an event in Wild West history. On this occasion, Monroe McCanles was McCreight’s houseguest and told Buffalo Bill about his father Dave McCanles having been shot by Wild Bill Hickok. The "McCanles Incident” was the subject of controversy and debate by Wild West historians. Monroe McCanles disclosed that at the age of twelve he had stood beside his father Dave McCanles when Wild Bill Hickok shot him dead behind a curtain. For the first time, Buffalo Bill heard the facts of the historic event and remarked that he would include the story in his projected autobiography. McCreight wrote articles about the "McCanles Incident" the rest of his life.[8]


Another son of David Colbert McCanles, 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.[2]


  1. ^ a b "Wild Bill Hickok collection" at Nebraska State Historical Society. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  2. ^ a b c Sifakis, C. (1982) The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Facts on File Inc.
  3. ^ a b Martin, George (1975). "Guns of the Gunfighters". Peterson Publishing Company ISBN 0-8227-0095-6. 
  4. ^ "Wild Bill" Hickok Court Documents Nebraska State Historical Society 1861 Subpoena issued to Monroe McCanles to testify against "Duck Bill, Dock and Wellman (other names not known)"
  5. ^ Florence was named after the daughter of David McCanles' brother, James A. McCanles.
  6. ^ D. M. Kelsey Our Pioneer Heroes and Their Daring Deeds Kessinger Publishing, (1883) 2004 Pg 362-364 ISBN 1-4179-6305-0
  7. ^ John Preston Arthur A History of Watauga County, North Carolina Overmountain Press 1992 Pg 196 ISBN 0-932807-66-6
  8. ^ “The driver in the front seat is Donald McCreight. The small boys are Don's twin younger brothers, Jack & Jim. The man standing is Monroe McCanles, son of Dave, whom Wild Bill Hickok shot. Monroe was twelve years old at the time and saw the shooting. Dave stood in the doorway while Hickok hid behind a blanket hanging to divide the room into two sections. Bill took down Dave's rifle from the wall and shot through the blanket. Monroe saw his father fall. Then Hickok started after the boy and actually killed two other men. Monroe, in desperation, ran to his home several miles to tell his mother. Monroe is reciting to Cody the details which he had never heard before. The photo was taken in front of my home in DuBois. This rare scene was caught in the camera, and has become a noted picture, the Saturday Evening Post having paid $50 for a copy.” The Nebraska Historical Society later published a volume on the details.