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The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America's Gilded Age

Robert McNally's brilliant book The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America's Gilded Age is now available in paperback from Bison Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, IndieBound, or your favorite local, independent bookseller.


When Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, and Ned Buntline brought their Scouts of the Prairie show to the big eastern cities of Boston and New York in March of 1873, the citizens of those cosmopolitan towns were primed to receive exactly what the western scouts were peddling. A little context explains why urbanites far from the nation's western frontier were at that very moment experiencing a kind of existential dread concerning the western Native American tribes.

In the months preceding The Scouts theatrical debuts in Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Washington D.C., Army troops and Modoc warriors had been facing off in the lava beds of northern California. This 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 would 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, their leader Kintpuash (known in English as Captain Jack) 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 the 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!”

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.

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

Whatever the case, with the death of General Canby, any chance of peace was off the table. Canby's death occurred just before Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill ended their two-week-long run of shows at New York's Niblo's Garden. Advertising that followed shows that the Scouts of the Prairie deliberately played upon the public's concerns over the events at the lava beds:

The Baltimore Sun April 27, 1873.

Soon, newspapers asserted (with varying levels of sincerity) that if Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill had been sent to remedy the "Modoc Situation" rather than General Canby, that man would still be alive and the Modoc threat would have been eliminated in rapid order. "Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack ought to have been put at the head of five thousand prairie scouts and allowed to fight the redskins in their own fashion," reported te Buffalo, New York, Morning Express. "If these distinguished persons could have been induced to throw up their lucrative engagement with Mr. Ned Buntline, and to take the field, the Modocs would all have been in the Happy Hunting Ground long before this."

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 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, which has just become available in paperback for the first time. 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 the success of Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro, as well as both the military and native mindsets going into the Great Sioux War of 1876 and the Apache conflicts of the 1870s and 1880s. Grab your copy of this incredible book today. I promise it is well worth your time.

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