Memorable Mountain People - "Colb" McCanless

Watauga County has had many good sheriffs and a few bad ones over the years. But not one was quite so bad - or so colorful - as David Colvert "Colb" McCanless.


McCanless' life was a classic case of a good man who went wrong by degrees. He started out life as the son of a farmer who lived at Shull's Mills. In 1862, he became a deputy under Sheriff Jack Horton. Four years later, as deputies will do sometimes, he ran against his boss.

It was a colorful campaign. Horton and McCanless apparently compared ancestries and likely destinations in the hereafter in a verbal bout at Meat Camp. Then they continued their discussion, both being powerful men, with their fists. When the votes were tallied, McCanless was the winner.

Now McCanless was a handsome man, strong and well-built. He kept fairly much to the "straight and narrow" until he got involved with a local woman who happened to be married to someone else.

From then on, Colb went from bad to worse. As sheriff he was tax collector and also managed the collections for J.M. Weath, a Frenchman who sold goods wholesale in the region. He apparently collected Weath's money, but he wasn't eager to give it up.

Local tradition suggests some of the cash meant for Weath ended up being spent on McCanless' girlfriend. At any rate, when Weath's man appeared for the money, most of it was nowhere to be found.

When the day of reckoning arrived early in 1859, McCanless hastily sold or transferred most of his property to his brother and others and made some other arrangements. Then, on Jan. 6, he stopped by Jacob Rintels' store, where he had deposited as much of Weath's money as he did have, and took it. He told Rintels he was heading for Wilkes County.

Instead, McCanless rode only as far as Three Forks Baptist Church. Unseen, he doubled back and rode hard for Shull's Mill. There a woman (guess who?) was waiting for him. They rode together over the mountains to Johnson City, sold their horses and boarded a train for the West.

There's one detail in this we forgot to mention: McCanless was married and had a family. Acting on their behalf, his brother J.L. traveled west, found him, then returned and collected most of the McCanless family and went back to a new home in Kansas.

You might have thought all these troubles would have convinced Colb to settle down. Wrong. Kansas was a wild place in those days, torn by the tensions that would soon plunge the country into the Civil War. When war came, Colb organized a group called the McCanless Gang. They supposedly captured horses for the Confederacy; actually, they were just rustlers.

On Dec. 16, 1861, the McCanless Gang attacked a small cabin at Rock Creek, Kan., some 50 miles west of Topeka. It was evidently used as a station on a stage line. Inside, there was probably quite a bit of money. The 10 members of the McCanless Gang never found out. That was because also inside that dirt and thatch cabin was one of the stage line's guards and a few of his friends.

He wore his blond hair long, and had cold blue eyes. Most people in the West didn't know him yet, but soon people would be calling James Butler Hickok "Wild Bill." When the shooting was over, eight of the McCanless Gang, including Colb, lay dead.

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