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David Colvert "Cobb" McCanless left present-day Avery County to lead a life of adventure that
probably ended with a shot from ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok.
Photo courtesy Michael Hardy

Originally published: 2013-08-14 14:57:55
Last modified: 2013-08-14 14:58:39

Our Avery County: Local man killed by famous outlaw

Michael Hardy / (

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 one-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 further 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.

To read the complete story, please pick up a copy of your hometown newspaper, The Avery Journal-Times, available at almost 100 locations in Newland, Banner Elk, Crossnore, Spruce Pine and Roan Mountain, Tenn. To subscribe to The Avery Journal-Times, please call (828) 733-0401 or click to