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The Modoc War

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

On October 3rd, 1873, the Army executed Modoc chief Kintpuash, called Captain Jack, for the deaths of General Edward R. S. Canby and Reverend Eleazar Thomas. Captain Jack, and his tribesmen Black Jim, John Schonchin, and Boston Charley, were each found guilty in a military trial, the first Native Americans to be executed in connection to charges of war crimes since 38 Dakota men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862.

The conflict between the Modoc and the American military was the tragic consequence of what historian Robert Aquinas McNally calls "a decades-long campaign of extermination and removal that symbolizes all too much of European America's treatment of Native America and the continent." The Modoc had largely ignored the white settlers who streamed through their lands in pursuit of gold after its discovery near Yreka in 1851. Another nearby tribe, the Pit River Tribe, attacked a white settlement, and an angry militia retaliated by killing the men, women, and children of a Modoc village, not knowing the difference between the two distinct groups. The Modoc retaliated by attacking and killing members of a California-bound wagon train. A peace parley was arranged—a ruse that lead to the deaths of 41 more Modocs.

Eventually, an uneasy peace was purchased at the price of confinement to the Klamath Reservation, where the Modoc shared the land with their ancestral enemies but were provided food, blankets, and clothing. When the food proved scarce, the blankets and clothing insufficient, and the government unable to keep the Klamath from stealing Modoc lumber, Kintpuash lead a group of Modoc back towards the Lost River, where hunting could provide the food that the reservation system had failed to yield.

Kintpuash and the Modoc took refuge in what is now called Captain Jack's stronghold in present-day Lava Beds National Monument. A series of conflicts followed, with the powers-that-be in Washington appointing General Edward Canby to convince, coerce, or compel the Modoc to return to the Klamath Reservation. The Lava Beds proved a formidable defensive position, and the conflict drug out for months, with national interest focused on what would come to be called the Modoc War.

General Edward Richard Sprigg Canby, the highest ranking American officer to lose his life in conflict with Native Americans.

The two famous Indian-fighters, Texas Jack Omohundro and Buffalo Bill Cody were touring the country in their first dramatic show and were often asked for their expert opinion on the situation. Buffalo Bill said to one reporter, “Give me old ‘Nancy Ann’, my breech-loader there, and let Jack have a lasso and scalping knife, and I’ll bet every cent I own we can clean out every bloody red son-of-a-corkscrew of ‘em inside of thirty days, and do our own scouting and cooking too!” Texas Jack would later add to his own touring combination a Warm Springs scout named Donald McKay, who was then working with the government against the Modoc.

Donald McKay, of the Warm Springs Tribe, would tour with the Texas Jack Combination four years after he served as a scout during the Modoc War..

At a gathering to ostensibly discuss terms of peace, the Modoc ambushed and killed General Canby and Reverend Thomas, severely injuring several others. Perhaps the Modoc remembered the peace parley that had turned deadly years before. Perhaps they believed that killing the commanding officer of the force that stood against them would convince the federal government that it wasn't worth fighting a war with the Modoc. Whatever the case, with the death of General Canby, any chance of peace was off the table.

A wood engraving titled "The Modocs - Murder of General Canby and the Rev. Dr. Thomas.” From Harper's Weekly. New York, May 3, 1873.

The Modoc War seems both a consequence of easily avoidable misunderstanding and the inevitable outcome of a deliberate and determined strategy by the state of California to wipe out Native American life—a quite literal state-sponsored genocide. After the Battle of Dry Lake, it was obvious to Kintpuash and the Modoc that their struggle was unwinnable. On September 10, President Grant approved the death sentence for Captain Jack, Schonchin John, Black Jim, and Boston Charley. Two others, Brancho and Slolux, were committed to life imprisonment on Alcatraz island. On October 3rd, Kintpuash and his comrades were hung at Fort Klamath. The remainder of his band was sent to the Quapaw Agency in Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma, to live the rest of their lives as prisoners of war.

The Modoc War by Robert Aquinas McNally

The Modoc War is an incredibly complicated and important piece of American history that is seldom spoken of today. Author Robert Aquinas McNally masterfully covered the conflict and its consequences in his 2017 book, The Modoc War, a Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America's Gilded Age. In McNally's hands, the story of Kintpuash (Captain Jack) and the Modoc people is a page-turning piece of history, full of action, conflict, and character. It is also unique in making understandable the cultural context of the conflict on the sides of both natives peoples and white settlers and soldiers. I really can't recommend this book enough. Understanding this 1872-1873 conflict is key to understanding both the military and native mindsets going into the Great Sioux War of 1876 and the Apache conflicts of the 1870s and 1880s.

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