Shot dead by 'Wild Bill'
Had the High Country of Western North Carolina had a newspaper in December 1861, the headline might have read "Local Man Killed by Wild Bill Hickok."
That local man was none other than Watauga County Sheriff David Colvert "Cobb" McCanless.
Apparently, Cobb McCanless lived in present-day Avery County.
Early 20th century Watauga County historian John Preston Arthur writes that there was a gap called McCanless Gap, between Linville Gap (known now as Tynecastle) and Banner Elk, and it is believed that the McCanless family lived in that area.
In the 1850 Watauga County census, McCanless was listed as a 21-year-old farmer, married to Mary Green, with a 1-year-old son named William.
McCanless served as deputy to Watauga County Sheriff John "Jack" Horton from 1852 to 1856.
In 1856, McCanless ran against Horton for the position of sheriff.
"It is said that the oral duel that then ensued ... was fierce," chronicled Arthur. "He and Horton had frequent fist fights."
McCanless won the election, and at somewhere around 26 years of age, became sheriff of Watauga County.
Apparently, McCanless was a "strikingly handsome, well-behaved, useful citizen." That was until he fell in love with Sara Shull.
In January 1859, McCanless absconded with some money (gold and silver) that he had collected against debts owed to J.M. Weath, a wholesaler, possibly to merchants.
In tow with McCanless was Sara Shull. They took a train to St. Louis, and then a steamer to Leavenworth, Kan. Their plan was to join the gold rush farther west, but after talking with some former prospectors, they chose to settle down.
They journeyed to the Nebraska Territory, eventually purchasing the Rock Creek Station, on the California Trail.
The station provided supplies and services to other sojourners and became a relay station for the Pony Express.
Improvements were made to the station, and McCanless set up a toll bridge over Rock Creek.
Before long, McCanless moved across the river and built a new home, digging a new well.
Sara Shull remained at the old home.
In late July or early August 1859, the new home was finished, and McCanless sent for his wife and children in North Carolina. They arrived in September of that year, and when Mary learned that Sara Shull lived just across the creek, she was not very happy.
According to biographer Joseph Rosa, Mary and Cobb had "long and violent ... arguments," in which she accused "her husband of being unfaithful."
Mary "threatened to drag the woman out of the house ...," and McCanless promised "not to see her again."
Just how McCanless kept that promise is unclear.
James Butler Hickok, then known as "Duck Bill" or "Dutch Bill" Hickok, was in the general area.
Hickok recalled that McCanless "was the captain of a gang of desperadoes, horsethieves, murderers, regular cut-throats, who were the terror of everybody on the border," with McCanless the "biggest scoundrel and bully of them all." Hickok had beat McCanless at both a shooting contest and wrestling contest. McCanless then swore revenge on Hickok.
When it came time to choose sides at the start of the Civil War, McCanless sympathized with the South, and Hickok with the North.
In July 1861, Hickok was leading a detachment of Federal cavalry in the area when he decided to pay a call to a Mrs. Waltman. On arriving at the cabin, alone, he learned that McCanless had just been there.
Hickok was armed with a single pistol, and the McCanless gang had spotted his horse tethered outside. They quickly surrounded the house, while Hickok surveyed his surroundings and discovered a loaded single-shot rifle.
Peering through the doorway, McCanless saw Hickok with the rifle.
"Come in here, you cowardly dog," Hickok shouted. "Come in here, and fight me."
McCanless sprang into the room, Hickok shot him, and his lifeless body fell out of the cabin door. A few seconds later, the rest of the gang rushed the cabin. Hickok took his revolver and killed a number of them, wounding the rest with a knife, while sustaining multiple wounds himself.
"There were 11 buck-shot in me. I carry some of them now. I was cut in thirteen places," he later recalled.
While the expanded version of Hickok's story reads better than most action movies today, there is probably not an ounce of truth in it. McCanless apparently sold the Rock Creek Station, but when the terms were not met, rode back to clear up the matter. Hickok had become acting superintendent of the station, and had, for a short time, worked for McCanless, which had left some bitterness between the two. Furthermore, it appears that Hickok had taken up with Sara Shull. When the representatives of the company that owed McCanless money arrived empty-handed, McCanless was enraged.
On the afternoon of July 12, 1861, McCanless, his son William, and two others rode into Rock Creek Station.
McCanless confronted Hickok and the others at the station, demanding his money. A shot rang out and McCanless was killed. Whether or not Hickok fired the shot is unknown. While McCanless' son survived, the other two men with him were also killed. McCanless' son later argued that no one in their party was armed, but others contradicted this story. McCanless and one of his men were buried at Rock Creek in a single grave. Twenty years later, they were moved to the Fairbury Cemetery in Jefferson County, Neb.
Hickok was arrested a few days later, but the plea of self-defense was accepted, and Hickok was set free. He soon left the state, eventually changing his name to "Wild Bill" Hickok. Sara Shull, who might have caused the entire fight, left the next day on a stage bound west. She eventually returned to the Shull's Mill community of Watauga County, where she died in 1932. At some point, Mary McCanless moved to Florence, Colo., where she died in 1907. She was returned to Nebraska, and her remains were interred beside those of her husband in the Fairbury Cemetery.
Much more information, including differing accounts recorded over the ensuing decades, can be found in Joseph Rosa's "They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok" (1974).
Though most people are familiar with the oft-fictionalized accounts of Hickok's life, few realize that his thrilling path also crossed that of the former Watauga County sheriff who left his name behind on our region's maps.