Established in 1857 along the Oregon and California Trails, Rock Creek Station, near what is now Fairbury, Nebraska, is today preserved as a Nebraska State Park.
The history here is rich in its tales of emigrating pioneers as well as legends of the Old West. Located along the west bank of Rock Creek, the station served as a supply center and resting spot for the many travelers headed westward in the 19th century.
When it was originally built by S.C. Glenn, the “station” consisted of little more than a cabin, a barn, and a make-shift store, where Glenn sold limited supplies, hay, and grain.
In the Spring of 1859 along came a man named David C. McCanles, and his brother, James, who were on their way to the Colorado gold fields.
David became discouraged as he continually met miners returning from Colorado with nothing in their pockets but disappointment. Changing tactics, David McCanles bought the Rock Creek Station from Glenn in March, deciding to take up “road ranching” rather than gold prospecting.
McCanles continued to operate the small store and built a toll bridge across the creek. Prior to the bridge, pioneers were required to hoist and lower their wagons down into the creek, before pulling it up on the other side – quite a tedious process that could take hours for each wagon. When the toll bridge opened, each wagon paid from 10¢ to 50¢ to cross the bridge depending on the size of their load and their ability to pay. McCanles also built a cabin and dug a well on the east side of Rock Creek which became known as the East Ranch.
The following year, McCanles leased the East Ranch to the Russell, Waddell, and Majors Company, which owned the Overland Stage Company and founded the Pony Express. They installed Horace G. Wellman as their company agent and station keeper and hired James W. “Doc” Brink as a stock tender. Later, the company made arrangements with McCanles to buy the station with a cash down payment and the remainder in installments.
The East Ranch was then used as a stage and Pony Expres relay station, while the West Ranch continued to be used as an emigrant rest stop, a freight station, and the home of the McCanles family.
In April 1861, McCanles sold the West Ranch to freighters Hagenstein and Wolfe and moved his family to another location about three miles south of Rock Creek Station. Always trying to make money, McCanles sold the toll bridge several times with a number of specific requirements in the contract. When the new owner failed to meet the stipulations, he would take it back and sell it again.
In April or early May of 1861, the station hired on then-24-year-old stock tender James Butler “Bill” Hickok and he became immediately at odds with David McCanles, who had earned a reputation as the local bully. Allegedly, McCanles teased Hickok unmercifully about his girlish build and feminine features, as well as nicknaming him “Duck Bill,” referring to his long nose and protruding lips.
Perhaps in retaliation, Hickok began courting a woman by the name of Kate Shell, who, even though McCanles was married, apparently had his eye on.
In the meantime, the Overland Stage Company had fallen behind on their installment payments and on July 12, 1861, McCanles, along with his 12-year-old son, Monroe, and two friends by the names of James Woods and James Gordon came to the station to inquire upon the status of the installments.
Not long after their arrival, an argument ensued and profanities were exchanged, soon leading to gunfire. In the melee, Hickok shot David McCanles, and both James Woods and James Gordon, who was seriously wounded, later died of their wounds. Twelve-year-old Monroe escaped to his home some three miles south of Rock Creek.
Though the details of what actually happened on that fateful day continue to be debated, the versions vary widely. Monroe McCanles, who witnessed the entire event, told a version something like this: When David McCanles had not received full payment from the Overland Stage Company, he planned to take it up with the station manager, Horace Wellman. That very day, the station manager had allegedly gone to the company office in Brownville in order to obtain the money, he returned empty-handed.
Upon hearing this, an angry McCanles soon arrived with two options in mind – either collect the money owed or repossess the ranch. Showing up with his son, and two employees – James Woods and James Gordon, McCanles called for Wellman to come out. Instead, Jane Wellman, the station manager’s wife, appeared at the door, closely followed by James (Bill) Hickok. Horace Wellman’s specific whereabouts are unknown, but he was obviously close by.
Disconcerted by Hickok’s interference, McCanles alleged asked, “Jim, haven’t we been friends all the time?” After Hickok assured him that they were, McCanles, biding his time, asked for a drink of water and came inside. The other three stayed outside the cabin.
Suddenly, McCanles sensed danger, returned the dipper and moved toward the other door at about the same time Hickok moved behind a curtain partition. Unarmed, McCanles said, “Now, Jim, if you have anything against me, come out and fight me fair.”