Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A Duck Bill Story

Friday April 15th   A view along the line of the Pony Express trail across  Rock Creek Station Historical Park towards our next destination of Rock Creek Pony Express Station, only a short morning ride from my overnight stop....
..though I had to approach by a less direct route.  You can see swathes of the prairie grass have recently been burnt off.  This would have been by permit in a prescribed fire rather than a wildfire, though the latter are always a risk in dry conditions. Fire as a means of promoting new growth was also used by American Indians in the past. 
 The ubiquitous signs sporting bullet holes are an uncomfortable indication of American gun culture in a country where one is not twice, but fifty times more likely to be killed by gunshot than in the UK..
....and in this case a reminder of the violent history of Rock Creek station itself, which was the scene of one of the most infamous events in Pony Express history.
Arriving at East Rock Creek Station. These ranch buildings have been faithfully reconstructed on the original site from old photographic evidence, and lie to the east of the creek.  

I arrived 'by the back door' from the northeast, or top right of the map below, along a section of abandoned railway line not shown on the map.   The station was established in 1857 on the west bank of the steep-banked Rock Creek as a supply and rest stop for emigrants at a point where the wagons had to negotiate a particularly awkward and time consuming creek crossing.  In 1859 the station was bought by David McCanles and his brother James.  They built a toll bridge across the creek and a ranch bunkhouse, barn and corral on the east bank.  The locations of these buildings and toll bridge can be seen on the map..
Russell, Majors and Waddell (of the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Company) subsequently rented and then bought the East Rock Creek buildings for use both as a stage and Pony Express station. The horses in front of the reconstructed station, showing the barn and corral on the right. The main ranch bunkhouse is off to the right, just out of the picture...
The main house is off to
 What happened on July 12, 1861 is still shrouded in controversy.   It seems that David McCanles turned up at Rock Creek with two men (James Wood and James Gordon) and his 12year old son Monroe to collect money still owed by the COC&PP, from the station keeper Horace Wellman.  McCanles entered the house to speak with Mrs Wellman. But hiding behind a curtain was a youthful James Butler Hickok, later more commonly known as gunfighter 'Wild Bill Hickok'.  He was acting as a stock tender for the COC&PP while recovering from a bear attack.  It appears there was already bad feeling between Hickok and McCanles, rumours suggesting this was due to a shared love interest and/or McCanles's habit of referring to Hickok as 'Duck Bill'.  Judge for yourself...
With such a derisive nickname it is not surprising that Hickok later began calling himself 'Wild Bill' and with his sharpshooting reputation, who was going to dictate otherwise?    At any rate, Hickok stepped out, shot and killed McCanles, and a gunfight developed in which McCanles's companions Woods and Gordon were also killed.  The young boy Monroe McCanles managed to flee unharmed cross country.  Hickok and Horace Wellman faced murder charges as did substitute pony express rider James Brink who joined in the fight (apparently anyone who was anyone called their son James in those days).  However the only witness for the prosecution was Monroe who was judged too young to give testimony, thus the accused managed to get off scot free on a plea of self defence.  In a demonstration of Pony Express 'the show must go on' spirit, rider Harry Lamont arrived soon after the shooting, but sorted out his next mount himself and galloped on.
Interestingly, a great grandson of victim David McCanles is NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless who made the first untethered space walk in 1984.
I was met at the visitor's centre by Park custodian Jeffrey Bargar, who guided me to the very well thought out horse camp on the other side of the valley. This is provided with several separate groups of pens, water hydrants, picnic benches and a covered picnic area, as well as toilet facilities.  Showers were available at the RV camp ground a short walk away, though the one in the women's washroom seemed more intent on spraying cold water on my clothes several feet away than hot water on me.
I was told bales of hay were available, but was rather stunned when Jeffrey turned up on the tractor with this haystack which was about four times the size of my tent...  
Mo was slowly gaining weight but still quidding his food, so I took full advantage of the afternoon off to get his teeth rasped, or 'floated' as they strangely say in the USA...

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