Rock Creek Station might have faded into obscurity, like so many other stage and Pony Express stations, except for one fateful day in 1861. On that July afternoon, one James Butler Hickok killed David McCanles there and began his bloody career as a gunfighter.
Today, Rock Creek is a state historical park being developed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. It encompasses some 350 acres of prairie hilltops, timber-studded creek bottoms, and rugged ravines and draws about 6 miles southeast of Fairbury, off of Nebraska Highway 8. Deep ruts, carved by the many wagons that traveled the Oregon Trail, are plainly visible there. They bear mute testimony to the rich history of the area.
Established in 1857 by S.C. Glenn, Rock Creek Station evolved from a small cabin with a lean-to and barn, situated on the west side of Rock Creek. This road ranch catered to stages freight lines, and emigrant traffic on the Oregon Trail. The lean-to was set up as a primitive store, where hay, grain, and supplies could be bought sold, or traded.
In the spring of 1859, Dave McCanles was on his way to the Colorado gold fields. He became discouraged as he met returning miners and heard their tales of disappointment. He decided to take up road ranching instead and bought Rock Creek Station. That summer and fall, he built a log cabin and dug a good well on the east side of Rock Creek. Later, he built a toll bridge across the creek, eliminating the crude rock ford. His normal fee ranged from 10 to 50 cents, depending on a person's ability to pay.
The following year, he rented the East Ranch to Russell, Majors and Waddel, owners of the Overland Stage Company and founders of the Pony Express. Rock Creek was used as a stage station, as well as a swing station where Pony Express riders could quickly change their mounts. Overland used its own men to run the station; Horace Wellman as company agent/station keeper and Dock (sic) Brink as stock tender. Early in 1861, James Butler Hickok was hired as stable hand.
Later, Overland bought the East Ranch from McCanles, apparently making a cash down payment, with the remainder in installments. The company fell behind on payments, and Wellman went to Brownville for supplies and to get the money due McCanles. He was accompanied by Monroe McCanles, David's 12-year-old son. When they returned, Monroe saw his father's horse at a neighboring ranch and went to greet him, while Wellman went on to the station. The date was July 12, 1861.
Monroe then accompanied his father and two hired men, James Woods and James Gordon, to the station to ask Wellman about the payments. At the house, McCanles was confronted by Mrs. Wellman and then by Hickok. Wellman did not come out of the cabin. After talking with Hickok, McCanles went to another door. Hickok shot him from ambush, as he entered the doorway . . . ironically with McCanles' own rifle. He had left the gun for Wellman to use to defend the station.
When they heard the shot, Woods and Gordon came running from the barn to the house. Hickok stepped into the doorway and wounded both men with a handgun. Woods ran around to the north side of the house, where he fell and was killed with a grub hoe, presumably wielded by Wellman. Although wounded, Gordon tried to escape in the brush of Rock Creek but was tracked down and killed with a load of buckshot. Monroe dodged a blow from the grub hoe and escaped death by fleeing into a ravine.
Wellman, Brink, and Hickok were arrested and tried for murder in Beatrice, but they were all acquitted after pleading self-defense. Monroe stoutly claimed that his father and the other two men were unarmed, but he was not allowed to testify.
No one really knows why Hickok fired the shots that began this bloody and seemingly onesided fight. Many explanations have been offered, including romantic versions of love, hate, theft and even the conflict between the North and the South. Probably the best known version of the story was written by Col. Ward Nichols and published in the February 1867 issue of Harpers Magazine. His story glamorized Hickok, now dubbed "Wild Bill", as a fighting frontier hero. In Nichols' account, Hickok single-handedly fought and killed 10 men with a gun and Bowie knife, "The M'Kandlas's Gang . . . reckless, blood-thirsty devils who would fight as long as they had strength to pull a trigger." Although supposedly carrying 11 buckshot and 13 knife wounds, Hickok emerged the victor.