Scenes at Sand Creek
Captain John McCannon at the Sand Creek Massacre
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We'll never forget
"Scenes at Sand Creek" - A Rocky Mountain News interview of Captain John McCannon in 1881, detailing his
experiences and opinions regarding the Sand Creek Massacre.
Rocky Mountain News, January 26, 1881
SCENES AT SAND CREEK.
The Cheyenne Massacre Casually Reviewed.
Captain McCannon Fights It All Over Again.
From the Bivouac at Bijou to the Deadly Rifle Pits.
Jealousy the Cause of Chivington's Disgrace.
The presence in the city of Captain John McCannon, who came to Colorado in 1859, recalls the circumstances of the great Sand
Creek massacre of November, 1864.
The immediate causes leading to the consummation of that memorable event are but vaguely understood in this day of progress
and civilization, when an Indian fight hundreds of miles from Denver would attract great attention, to say nothing of such an
engagement within a few miles. The history of the Sand Creek massacre, which will live when the men who participated in it have
passed away and their children have grown old, was the culmination of a long continued series of Indian outrages perpetrated
upon the pioneer settlers and upon the emigrants crossing the plains between 1860 and 1861. These Indians were a band of
Cheyennes of about one thousand in number, and the diabolical character of their depredations will never be forgotten by any one
who witnessed any of the results attendant. There were times - and not infrequently either - when an attempt to run the gauntlet of
these savages across the untraveled (sic) plain was as much as a life was worth and the stories of the savages butcheries were
horrible and well calculated to arouse the ire of the people on either side of the great desert.
The stages, which in those days furnished the only rapid mode of conveyance, were repeatedly attacked and plundered and the
hapless passengers put to the torture before being finally despatched (sic). Trains of emigrants en route to the newly discovered
gold fields were attacked and plundered in the same way, until in the course of time the matter became past forbearance. Several
freight trains had been stopped, the drivers butchered, and the wagons plundered and subsequently burnt. The result was that
freights were cut off and at times the people, who then so scantily populated this region, were threatened with famine.
But the last straw which broke the camel's back and exhausted the forbearance of the hardy pioneers was the notorious butchery
of the Hungate family, on Running creek, some miles east of Denver. The mutilated bodies were brought into this city and so
revolting was their appearance that those who looked upon them forgot not the sight then, nor will they ever. The family consisted
of several persons, among them two children, and their bodies were virtually chopped into pieces and left at the ranch to fester in
This horrible atrocity so roused the people that immediate action was decided upon. Hon. John Evans, who was then governor of
Colorado-territory, sent to the national capital for troops with which to protect the frontier from these savages - but there were no
troops at hand and hence the scheme failed. But authority was given Governor Evans to raise a regiment of cavalry, and, with the
express purpose of avenging the atrocities of the past, men enrolled rapidly into the new ranks. In six weeks time the regiment was
About the first of October, 1864, the regiment started from Denver, headed toward Bijou basin, en route to the scene of action, and
remained there for a short time, awaiting accoutrements, after which the line of march was taken up for Fort Lyon.
"We stopped at Fort Lyon only long enough to get supper," said Captain McCannon, "and then we made a forced march that night
for the Indian camp at Sand creek, about 45 miles away. It was a hard march, and it was highly necessary that we reach the
evening's camp before daybreak. Well, we made it. From the peculiar position of the camp we saw it before coming upon it. All
were wrapped in a deep sleep. The ponies were quietly grazing on the hill sides, and took but little notice of us. We moved along
as quietly and rapidly as we could, and when we got at the proper distance, the hushed order to "charge" was given. Every man in
the line fell to with a will, and before we knew what we were about we were engaged in a terrible and deadly struggle. The Indians
had been surprised, it is true, but were nevertheless defending and attacking with the greatest fury and desperation.
They opened the fight. The first man killed was killed by them - his name was Rice or Price. After the onslaught the Indians ran to
their rifle pits and began firing in on us with great rapidity. The arrows flew lively, let me tell you, and the air was just filled with them
- they looked just like little blue streaks. But the rifle pits did not hold them long, for our boys rode them down before they knew
were (sic) they were. Then the fight changed.
"From a regular charge and attack the business got down to a single-handed style and then it was man for man.
"The battle waged all day until nearly four o'clock in the afternoon, when the earth for a mile and a half was covered with dead
bodies of slain Indians. Then some of the survivors contrived to get to their ponies - we had cut them off before - and made off with
the rapidity of the wind.
"That was the great battle of Sand creek. Colonel Chivington was brigade commander and Colonel Shoup had command of the
"How many Indians were killed, captain?"
"Well, I think there were between 600 and 700."
"Did the fight end there?"
"After the remaining Indians had cut out, Colonel Chivington recalled the command into camp to prepare to follow the fugitives, but
it was not done. It was nearly night when the battle ended and we couldn't very well do anything more then."
(It will be seen that the soldiers had had neither sleep nor food since the previous day.)
"You remember, captain, that Chivington was always greatly blamed for that action?"
"Yes, but there was a very good reason why. You see Shoup's appointment as colonel of the Third regiment caused great jealousy.
"Shoup had only been second lieutenant of the First and his being jumped to a colonelcy (sic) all at once made the boys mad.
Governor Evans had to appoint somebody before a regiment could be formed, and Shoup had been south after guerrillas with
great success, and the recruits came voluntarily. The whole matter of Chivington's blame may be attributed to Sam Tappan and
Ed. Wynkoop, whose jealousy caused it. After the war General Sherman came to Denver and Sam was with him. They talked
about an investigation, but the feeling was too hot and Sam had to hide himself. Why, sir, they would have taken him out and
lynched him at sight."
McCannon commanded Company I, Colorado Third Volunteer Cavalry.
Read more about the Hungate family, massacred by Indians in June 1864.
McCannon says, "We stopped at Fort Lyon only long enough to get supper." No mention is made, however, regarding the heated
arguments that ensued all day at Fort Lyon, regarding First Regiment officers’ objection to attacking the Indian prisoners at Sand
McCannon refers to the first man killed, identifying him as “Rice” or “Price.” The soldier was actually Private George W. Pierce,
attached to Company F, Colorado First Cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Cramer. McCannon makes obvious reference
to Pierce, insisting the Indians killed him, due to accusations made at the time of the massacre alleging that Pierce was killed by
friendly fire. Some members of the First Cavalry reported that Pierce, during the initial attack, spotted Indian Interpreter John Smith
waving a white kerchief and running toward the soldiers. Pierce reportedly rode out to save Smith, but his horse stumbled and fell.
When he tried to remount, he was killed. Pierce was obviously caught in a crossfire, but many Sand Creek critics insisted he was
killed by Third Regiment soldiers angered at his attempt to save Smith, whom many considered to be an Indian sympathizer (Smith’
s son, Jack, was half Cheyenne.)
McCannon reiterates his opinion on the controversial topic of rifle pits. Chivington and his supporters insisted the Indians dug the
pits ahead of time in obvious anticipation of an attack. Sand Creek critics claim no such pits existed, and the Indians burrowed in
only after the attack commenced.
After 17 years, McCannon still insisted that 600 to 700 Indians were killed. The official count made two weeks after the fight put the
number around 160 to 170. The Rocky Mountain News interviewer does not ask McCannon about the number of women and
McCannon points to jealousy over George L. Shoup’s promotion from Lieutenant to Colonel as the primary reason for the
controversy regarding Chivington’s attack at Sand Creek. He further accuses Lt. Col. Sam Tappan and Major Edward Wynkoop as
the primary detractors. Chivington did recommend Shoup for the promotion, some say because of Shoup’s political support of
Chivington and Governor Evans. Shoup’s promotion was indeed unusual, and there was undoubtedly jealousy among officers with
and without political motivation. The controversy over Sand Creek, however, ran much deeper, as many officers and soldiers
present at the attack based their criticism on both the impropriety of attacking Indian prisoners, and the barbarous scalping and
mutilation of the dead following the attack.
In addition to Tappan and Wynkoop, other "high officials" rumored to be involved in the push for an investigation of Chivington
were State Attorney S. E. Browne and Colorado Chief Justice Benjamin Hall.
Hoig Stan, The Sand Creek Massacre
Roberts, Gary L. Sand Creek: Tragedy and Symbol
Go to bibliography for citation.
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Rocky Mountain News Editorials After the Sand Creek Massacre, including:
The Battle of Sand Creek – praises the Colorado third regiment. December 17, 1864.
The Third – 3rd Regiment soldiers not paid for their service at Sand Creek. December 29, 1864.
The Fort Lyon Affair – Indignation over criticism of the Sand Creek attack. December 30, 1864.
Its Effect – The consequences of a congressional investigation. December 31, 1864.
Arrival of the Third Regiment - Grand March Through Town - Details Third Regiment return to Denver after the Sand Creek Massacre.
Rocky Mountain News, December 22, 1864.
High Officials Checkmated – Letter to editor criticizes “High Officials” rumored to be pushing for an investigation into the Sand Creek
Massacre. Rocky Mountain News, January 4, 1865.
Rocky Mountain News archives available at the Denver Public Library Western History Dept.
Appeal to the People, authorizing the organization of civilian militias, under the rules of militia law, to fight hostile Indian bands; Rocky
Mountain News, August 10, 1864.
Proclamation – After receiving approval from the War Department, Governor Evans calls for volunteers to join the Colorado Third
Regiment to fight Indians for a period of 100 days; Rocky Mountain News, August 13, 1864.
To Fight Indians – Rocky Mountain News editorial urges Colorado citizens to form militias at the request of Governor Evans; to
organize under the rules of militia law, and fight hostile Indian bands, Rocky Mountain News, August 10, 1864.
The Reynolds Band – Editorial defends the killing of five members of the notorious James Reynolds Gang by Colorado soldiers; Rocky
Mountain News, September 9, 1864.