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75 5 DOI: 10.5876/9781607322375.c05 “Fallen into the Hands of Hard Men in an Evil Hour” The Lynching of Baxter John McCannon of Frying Pan Gulch1 regarded himself as a leader of men. It was an opinion that may well have been justified. When he first appears in the historical record of Colorado Territory he already seems to have carried the title Captain, a rank he may have earned while supporting the antislavery side in the “Bleeding Kansas” troubles before coming west; he had served as quartermaster for the Kansas Free State Militia.2 Or it may be that the men who later wrote about his activities during 1863 conferred on him retroactively a rank he did not actually earn until the following year when, in November 1864, as a captain in the Third Colorado Regiment, he participated with unapologetic relish in what came to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre of a peaceful band of Cheyenne Indians.3 Whether he bore the title before April 1863 may be uncertain; what is sure is that he became a captain, if not a military one, shortly after the news of the murders of Fred Lehman and Sol Seyga made its way over the Snowy Range into California Gulch, where he and others were trying to eke their fortunes in gold out of the heavy red sands and stubborn granite boulders and black rock that—ironically, had anybody known it— actually concealed an unimaginable bonanza of silver that would not be discovered for another fourteen years and finally give birth to the boomtown of Leadville. “fallen into the hands of hard men in an evil hour” 76 McCannon must have offered a commanding presence. Certainly his letters , preserved in the files of the Kansas Historical Society, are full of a brash, self-assured belligerence.4 His 1864 photograph shows a high-cheekboned, dark-browed countenance with a lofty forehead and pale, penetrating eyes; the mouth and chin are concealed behind a thicket of mustache and chin-­ whiskers. Three upper buttons of his military tunic are undone, the better to slip a hand into his bosom, Napoleon-like, but on the occasion of having his likeness taken he has restrained himself from actually making the gesture, almost as if he senses it would look absurd and he has no desire to risk making such an obvious impression of vanity.5 It is tempting to call his appearance hard and uncompromising, but that might be a reading not so much of his physical being as of what we know he did, and caused to be done. On April 28 two men from Mosquito arrived in California Gulch to report that Lehman and Seyga had been cruelly slain in South Park and, according to a Rocky Mountain News Weekly correspondent in Oro City, “to request us to send out a sufficient force to cooperate with parties from Mosquito and Buckskin Joe, in pursuit of the murderers.”6 Captain John McCannon, center, with other officers of the Third Colorado Volunteers, in 1864. (Photo courtesy of History Colorado, scan no. 10039646) “fallen into the hands of hard men in an evil hour” 77 A meeting was called in Oro City at White’s Hall,7 in McCannon’s words, “for the purpose of raising men and funds to ferret out and bring to speedy justice the murderers of their comrades.”8 Resolutions were passed to raise a company of volunteers and to defray its costs. McCannon himself, in a later reminiscence, names seventeen fellows who volunteered to make up the avenging party, putting his own name at the end of the list. “The last-named,” he modestly wrote, “was selected as Captain of the company.”9 Just then California Gulch was playing out. In the fall of 1860, at the height of the rush into the then-new diggings, 10,000 men were estimated to have swarmed the place.10 However, “after the first year of the gold excitement the population decreased so rapidly that, in 1866, there were but 150 permanent residents.”11 But if the allure of the gulch was fading, the nature of the miners who stubbornly kept picking away at its scant remnants of color had not softened one whit. As an early historian wrote: [T]here was so little of the ordinary work of a public character to be performed that the officers found little to do and were not particular whether that was done or not, as the...


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