he Modoc War is a relatively obscure event in United States history. Boiled down to its essence—In 1864 the Indian department chose to assign the Modocs to live on Klamath Reservation, ignoring such complicating factors as the long and strained relationship between the two groups and Modoc economic ties to adjacent communities. In 1867 a place was prepared for them at Yainax station (on Klamath Reservation), probably because it was a common meeting-place for an annual gathering of various tribes to exchange slaves and other goods), and some of them went. Many Modocs refused. Some of the leaders, like Captain Jack, had signed the treaty agreeing to go to the reservation; others had not. All were considered to be bound by the treaty. Years went by while bureaucratic wheels turned slowly, but at last it was decided to use troops to force the refusenik Modocs onto Klamath Reservation. The attempt failed; the Modocs took refuge in nearby lava country, and after a long stand-off were dislodged, rounded up, and sent to Indian Territory (later called Oklahoma).
At the tipping point, right before the war started, it was felt necessary to make one more attempt to get the separatist Modocs to go onto Klamath Reservation voluntarily. The man in charge of this operation was Thomas Benton Odeneal, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon. A long-time newspaper man (he had been editor of the Corvallis Gazette and would go on to edit the Portland Bulletin), he had ended up with the appointment through some unfathomable twist of politics. With a domestic crisis at home (his small daughter would soon die from an unknown disease), and armed with an unshakable belief in the childlike qualities of Native Americans, he nonetheless set out to make an attempt to keep the peace in southern Oregon.
On 20 November 1872 he left Salem, Oregon, arriving at the rambunctious frontier town of Jacksonville on the 24th. The next day brought him to Klamath Reservation, where he wasted no time in sending out two messengers to contact the Modocs—James “One-Armed” Brown and Ivan Decatur Applegate. Let’s let pioneer historian Frances Victor, as channeled through über-editor H. H. Bancroft, take it from here:
… he sent James Brown, of Salem, and Ivan Applegate to Lost river to request the Modocs to meet him at Linkville on the 27th. At the same time the messengers were instructed to say that the superintendent had only the kindest feelings for them; that he had made ample provision for their comfortable support at Yai-nax, where, if they would go within a reasonable time, they should be fairly dealt with and fully protected; and if they would go there at once with Applegate, he would meet them there, but if they refused he required them to meet him at Linkville in order that a final understanding with them might be had.
On the 27th the superintendent, in company with Dyar from the Klamath agency, went to Linkville to meet the Modocs, as he had appointed, but there found only his messengers, who informed him of Jack’s refusal either to go upon the reservation or to meet him at Linkville. “Say to the superintendent,” said Jack, who with a part of his men was in camp at Lost river, “that we do not wish to see him, or to talk with him. We do not want any white men to tell us what to do. Our friends and counsellors are men in Yreka. They tell us to stay where we are, and we intend to do so, and will not go upon the reservation. I am tired of being talked to, and am done talking.”
It being now apparent that nothing short of an armed force could influence these Indians to submit to the government, the superintendent sent a report of the late conference of his messengers with Captain Jack, and of the reply of Jack to his proposals, together with the order of the commissioner, to Green, with a request that he should furnish sufficient force to compel the Modocs to go upon their reservation; and in case it became necessary to use compulsory measures, to arrest first of all Jack, Black Jim, and Scarfaced Charley, holding them subject to his orders. In reply to this demand, Green sent word that Jackson would at once leave the post with about thirty men.
And so the Modoc War was on. To recap: Odeneal sent word to Captain Jack and his people either to go with Ivan Applegate to Klamath Reservation directly or to meet with him at Linkville to talk things over on the 27th of November. (Note the date. This is a small matter, but sometimes the meaning of events hangs on small matters.) Why he thought Captain Jack would do either of these things is unknown—the facts are that the disaffected Modocs had already repeatedly declined to go to Klamath Reservation, and they were hardly likely to go to Linkville either, where the local settlers were prepared (as subsequent developments show) to lynch them on sight. Still the point is that Odeneal gave them a chance to talk things over at Linkville on the 27th, he showed up there along with Agent Dyar, the Modocs didn’t, and only when the dissident Modocs had refused this last opportunity to talk things over did Odeneal call for force to be used.
Now all this, as it happens, is absolute hogwash, though it has made it into the standard histories of the Modoc War. Let’s take a look at these same events again, this time as recorded in the November report of Agent Dyar:
On the 25th of November superintendent Odeneal sent Mr. I. D. Applegate, a man intimately acquainted with Indian character, and Mr. James Brown, department messenger, from Linkville to the camp of the Modocs, at the mouth of Lost river, with instructions to see captain Jack, and the leading men, and tell them that the superintendent wished them to meet him at Link river, about twenty miles from their camp, on the 28th [!!], or, if they would not meet him there, to come upon the reservation, and he would see them here; that ample provision had been made for their subsistance and comfort. Mr. Odeneal then came on to the agency, arriving here on the evening of the 25th, and on the 27th I went with him to Link river, to meet the Indians on the 28th, should they consent to come. On the way to Link river we met Mr. Applegate returning from the Modoc camp, and he reported that captain Jack refused to meet Mr. Odeneal at Link river; that he did not wish to see the superintendent; that he had done talking; that he was advised by his friends, white men in Yreka, to stay where he was, and that he would not go on the reservation.
Note this: the proposed meeting was not on the 27th, but on the 28th. And Odeneal didn’t wait for that meeting—he sent his letter requesting that troops be sent out on the 27th. Now in all fairness there’s no special reason why he should have waited, given his presuppositions. He clearly never had confidence in negotiations with the Lost River Modocs. And really, what was there to negotiate? The authorities had decided that the Modocs were to be confined to Klamath Reservation; Captain Jack’s Modocs were dead set against it—there was no middle ground. No room for compromise. But the point here is that history has somehow simplified the process. Odeneal supposedly demanded a meeting on the 27th; the Modocs didn’t show up; the war was on. But in fact Odeneal demanded a meeting on the 28th, and when he received word on the 27th that the Modocs refused to come, immediately called for the troops. He did not wait for the date of the proposed meeting.
So where did Victor, Bancroft, and subsequent historians get the notion that it was only after the Modocs failed to show up for a meeting on the 27th that Odeneal sent for the troops? They probably got it from Odeneal. Here is the letter he wrote the commander of the District of the Lakes on 25 November 1872 as it appears in Odeneal’s official report:
Sir: I am here for the purpose of putting the Modoc Indians upon this reservation, in pursuance of an order from the honorable commissioner of Indian affairs, a copy of which is as follows: “You are directed to remove the Modoc Indians to Klamath Reservation, peaceably if you can, but forcibly if you must.”
I have requested the head men of the tribe to meet me at Link river on the 27th instant, at which time I shall endeavor to persuade them to return to the reservation. If they shall refuse to come voluntarily, then I shall call upon you for a force sufficient to compel them to do so. They have some eighty well armed warriors, and I would suggest that as large a force be brought to bear against them at once as you can conveniently furnish, in the event it shall be determined that they cannot be removed peaceably.
Immediately after the conference referred to I will inform you of the result thereof, and in the meantime I have to request that all necessary preliminary arrangements be made for concentrating the forces at your command, and having them ready for active operations.
The catch is, the letter actually received at the fort was different. In it Odeneal had written that he had called for a meeting with the Modoc leaders on the 28th, not the 27th, “at which time I shall endeavor to persuade them to return to Yainax at once. In the event they shall refuse to meet me, or shall refuse to come upon the reservation voluntarily, then I shall call upon you for a force sufficient to compel them to do so.” And after the sentence about the size of the force he had written, “This will, I think, overawe them, and probably render the shedding of blood unnecessary.” (The portions in bold have been excised from the doctored letter.) After the doctored letter Odeneal’s report continued blandly:
On the day appointed, in company with agent L. S. Dyer, I went to the place designated for the meeting, and there met the messengers, who reported that they had been to the camp of captain Jack’s band of Modocs, and had informed the head men of everything contained in my instructions, and besides had used every argument in their power to persuade them to meet me, or go upon the reservation. That they peremptorily declined to do either.
Of course this never happened. By the 28th (the day actually appointed) Odeneal was on his way back to Salem, not waiting for Modoc emissaries. But Odeneal clearly thought he could get away with it—and he did get away with it for over a century.
The military authorities apparently expected a bit more from Thomas Odeneal. Specifically, they expected him to go out to Captain Jack’s village himself to talk with the Modocs directly, in the event that they failed to come to Link River to talk with him there. Major Jackson, who led the troops in the failed attempt to arrest the Modoc leaders, wrote that Odeneal had done so: “The Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Mr. Odeneal, visited their village and tried to induce them to comply with the orders he had received…” Of course that never happened, as we know. Another officer involved in that same attempt wrote: “…Mr. Odeneal … sent word to Captain Jack of the Indians that he was at Linkville and to meet him there. Jack not responding, he was informed that Odeneal would be at Lost River two days later to talk to him. Instead of making preparations for his suggested meeting he despatched Mr. I. D. Applegate to Fort Klamath asking that troops be sent to move the Indians.”
The Modoc leaders likewise expected Odeneal at their camp in a few days. As they told reporters later on, Ivan Applegate had told them to expect somebody (presumably Odeneal) to show up and talk further with them. The previous Superintendent, Alfred Meacham, had in fact done just that a few years before in a partly successful attempt of the same sort. (The disaffected Modocs had in fact gone to Klamath reservation, but after a few months of constant conflict with the Klamaths the Modocs left en masse, including those who had already settled there.) The expected course of events by all concerned seems to have been that if the Modocs failed to show up at Linkville, Odeneal would go to their village on Lost River, and only if negotiations failed at that point would the troops be called in. Instead, however, Odeneal threw in the towel at the first report from Agent Dyar and Ivan Applegate that the Modocs declined to meet with him, and immediately wrote out a request to send in the troops.
Obviously something happened to change his mind. Conceivably Odeneal coolly and rationally concluded that further negotiations were pointless, and that keeping his word to the Modoc leaders would be counter-productive, and in a moment of clarity dashed off the note that started the war. But I don’t think so. What I think happened is that Odeneal, on receiving the Modocs’ refusal to talk with him, just flat out lost his temper. I think he saw red, and from then on the course of action was determined. Like South Park’s Cartman he basically said Screw you guys, I’m going home. And that’s what he did.
Only afterwards, when the attempt to bring the Modocs to the reservation ended up in bloodshed and a protracted siege did Odeneal review his actions. I suspect that’s why he left out the part about calling for the troops if they refused to meet with him; in retrospect that may have seemed a bit petty. And I suspect that his belief that a show of force would overawe the disaffected Modocs was omitted because his prophecy proved so disastrously false, though he also insisted afterwards that he had expected a much larger force to be sent out. And in any case how the military elected to carry out their job was not his department, so to speak.
But this part at least is speculation. His reasons for changing the date of the projected meeting from the 28th to the 27th—the detail that has confused historians—though unrecorded, are obvious. The guy was covering his ass, like other bureaucrats appointed through political patronage to a job they were manifestly unsuited for. Michael D. Brown, when confronted by the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, would have understood.