On This Day: 'Wild Bill' Kills in His First Gunfight


It was on this day more than 150 years ago that a legendary gunfighter was born. Well, not the man himself -- he was literally born in May 1837. But the legend was born. Um, look, what I'm trying to say is that on July 12, 1861 "Wild Bill" Hickok had his first gunfight, and at least one man paid the ultimate price for the honor of being his first foe.

There are several competing accounts of what actually happened in Rock Creek, in what was then the Nebraska territory, 157 years ago today. But easily the most entertaining is one published in Harper's magazine a few years after the incident that's attributed to the recollections of Hickok himself. Strap yourself in:

"You see this [David] M'Kandlas was the Captain of a gang of desperadoes, horse-thieves, murderers, regular cut-throats, who were the terror of every body on the border, and who kept us in the mountains in hot water whenever they were around," Hickok purportedly said. "M'Kandlas was the biggest scoundrel and bully of them all, and was [always] a-braggin of what he could do..."

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Hickok said that one day he beat M'Kandlas in a shooting competition and the man became furious, swearing revenge. Much later, Hickok was coming through the Nebraska territory when he visited an acquaintance in her home. Rather than being happy to see him, the lady screamed, "Oh my, God! They will kill you! Run! Run! They will kill you!"

"Who's a-goin to kill me?" Hickok replied. "There's two can play at that game."

"It's M'Kandlas and his gang. There's ten of them, and you've no chance," the woman said.

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Hickok later recalled to Harper's, "If I had thought of runnin before it [was] too late now, and the house was my best holt -- a sort of fortress, like. I never thought I should leave that room alive."

M'Kandlas stuck his head in the door, only to quickly retreat upon seeing Hickok with a revolver and a rifle. From Harper's account:

‘Come in here, you cowardly dog!’ I shouted. ‘Come in here and fight me!’ M’Kandlas was no coward, if he was a bully. He jumped inside the room with his guns leveled to shoot; but he was not quick enough. My rifle-ball went through his heart. He fell back outside the house, where he was found afterward holding tight to his rifle, which had fallen over his head.

Hickok said after that there were a few seconds of "awful stillness, then the ruffians came rushing at both doors."

"How wild they looked with their red, drunken faces and inflamed eyes, shouting and cussing! But I never aimed more deliberately in my life," Hickok said. "One -- two -- three -- four; and four men fell dead." Hickok said he shot the men with his revolver, meaning he only had two shots left.

He managed to shoot one more, but then the survivors crowded him and held him down.

"Then I got ugly," he said, "and I remember that I got hold of a knife, and then it was all cloudy like, and I was wild, and I struck savage blows, following the devils up from one side to the other of the room and into the corners, striking and slashing until I knew that every one was dead."

Quite the story, but according to Hickok fanatic and author Joseph Rosa (whose book includes CSI-like analysis of the purported crime scene), it's very questionable. The tale had been told around the West prior to the Harper's publication, and other versions accounted for four men, rather than ten, with three being killed. Rosa reports that family members of M'Kandlas (actually McCanles) claimed M'Kandlas and his compatriots were unarmed the whole time. The fight arose over the money related to the sale of a railway station at Rock Creek, not some shooting competition.

A harshly contrarian account was published in 1968 and is hosted on the state of Nebraska's website [PDF]. It paints M'Kandlas as the wronged party and a man of "well known strength and courage." Hickok, this account says, rather cowardly shot at M'Kandlas after M'Kandlas told him to come fight him outside if they had anything to settle.

"On this occasion, in fact at this very moment -- Hickok decided on a course which in this case was so successful that he followed it the remainder of his life on the frontier. It was to shoot to kill on his first suspicion of a physical encounter or personal danger," the account says. "From his concealed position behind the curtain he shot [M'Kandlas] using the rifle [M'Kandlas] had left at the Stage Station. This shot was not fired in the heat of a conflict or in self defense, but was deliberate and calculated and well aimed and pierced [M'Kandlas] in the heart."

The government of Nebraska posted perhaps the most accepted, vague version on its website this time last year. It just says, "During a dispute over funds from the sale of the station, Hickok killed [M'Kandlas]."

Whatever the truth, the story was enough to launch the "Wild Bill" Hickok legend and forever label Hickok as one of the deadliest men in the West. Now let's all go watch "Tombstone" again.

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