One hundred forty years ago today, just south of the line that divides Oregon from California, tense negotiations were under way. The United States (represented by General Canby) was at war with part of the Modoc tribe (under the leadership of Captain Jack), and people on both sides thought that with a little effort further bloodshed could be averted. They were wrong, in hindsight, but the attempt seems worthy, noble even, something that could have paid off.
By many accounts Captain Jack believed in peace between the Modocs and the settlers. His people lived on the fringes of civilization, so to speak, hunting, gathering, and fishing on the one hand, while working as ranchhands and selling small items on the other. Some accused them of extortion and prostitution as well. The point is, they were part of the economic system, and for the most part they lived quietly on their traditional lands. It was to his advantage to keep the peace, and he usually succeeded in keeping things under control.
General Canby took the peace policy announced by President Grant seriously enough to pursue it past the point that many observers considered prudent. If there were any two men who could have reached some sort of agreement between the two sides, you would think that it would be Captain Jack and General Canby. Which, when you think about it, makes it all the more surprising that one of them should shoot the other under a flag of truce.
The thing is, the Modocs and the government were not on the same page when it came to two key issues: amnesty for all, and relocation of the Modocs. They were actually the same issue, and went back to the circumstances of the Lost River Fight, when a small detachment of soldiers and a handful of local citizens took on two villages on either side of Lost River. Modoc casualties on the side attacked by settlers inspired retaliation, and of course, as might be expected, the injured didn’t do anything halfway sane, like go after the settlers who had attacked them. No, they took their revenge on unsuspecting neighbors along the lake, murdering people who had no idea what was going on or for what cause they were dying.
At least two of the participants in the revenge attacks were men of influence—John Schonchin, spoken of as a chief among the Modocs, and Hooker Jim, who was married to the daughter of an influential shaman. Absolutely core to the Modoc position, then, was a general amnesty for all involved in the hostilities, including the settlers who had killed during the first attack, and the Modocs who had killed in revenge for it.
It would appear that the Federal authorities had no trouble with this as a concept; the trouble was that such a general amnesty was beyond the reach of their authority. Murder was (and is) an offense handled at the state level, and Oregon fully intended to prosecute some Modoc or other for the murders committed along Tule Lake in November 1872. Governor Grover made it quite clear to the Federal authorities that he had no intention of signing off on any deal that left those who murdered the settlers free and unpunished. (He was, however, apparently indifferent to the issue of justice for the Modoc dead.) Further, he was opposed to any peaceful solution to the Modoc Difficulty anyway.
Military officials had an alternative plan that would accomplish much the same thing, though without any legal amnesty. If the Modocs surrendered as prisoners of war they would be under military jurisdiction, and Oregon couldn’t touch them. They could then be transferred somewhere outside of Oregon’s reach, and so go free. The catch was that bit about going out of Oregon. The country the Modocs were fighting for lay in Oregon. The whole point of the exercise was not to give it up.
The Modoc leaders may have been willing to go further than their followers on the issue of moving. In a conference in early March, attended by both Elijah Steele (a local lawyer Modoc leaders looked to for advice) and John Fairchild (a local rancher who often employed young Modoc men as ranchhands), the two men brought back opposing reports. Steele, who had spoken mainly with the Modoc leaders, said that they were prepared to move to Arizona rather than surrender their men to settler justice. Fairchild, who had spoken mainly with the rank and file, said that the Modocs had no intention of leaving Oregon.
So, on the one side, amnesty was out of the question because of the intransigence of the Oregon authorities—faithfully reflecting the attitude of their constituents, as far as the available record shows. And on the other side relocation was out because of the intransigence of the Modoc leaders—apparently reflecting the will of their constituents. The impasse was perfect.
General Canby believed he had a way through that impasse. The Modoc leaders had to be aware that they would not do well in any all-out conflict with the troops; while they had driven them back from their stronghold in January, there were a great many more troops now, and they were much better armed and equipped. Canby decided to opt for a show of force. He moved the troops closer to the Stronghold, and kept them there. This policy of gradual compression, as he called it, was bound to bring the Modocs to their senses.
The thing is, if you put too much pressure on something, it may blow apart. The Modoc Difficulty blew apart fairly spectacularly on 11 April 1873. Negotiations seemed to be making some sort of progress; Captain Jack gave up all claim to the Modoc traditional lands in Oregon, but argued that the Modocs should retain the lava beds in California. Talks resumed that morning; present were General Canby, A. B. Meacham, the Reverend Thomas, and Commissioner Dyar, representing the Federal government, along with Frank and Toby Riddle as translators. On the other side were the Modoc chiefs, Captain Jack and John Schonchin, along with such prominent leaders as Boston Charley, Hooker Jim, Black Jim, and Bogus Charley. Negotiations lurched along slowly, with General Canby trying to emphasize his role as a peacemaker. Abruptly Captain Jack gave a signal, pulled out a gun, and fired at Canby. His first shot misfired, but the second was successful. Canby died on the spot, the only regular general to be killed in action during any of the Indian wars. At the same time Boston Charley killed the Reverend Thomas, John Schonchin shot Meacham repeatedly, and Black Jim and Hooker Jim took shots at Dyar. Dyar escaped and Meacham was left for dead, but ultimately recovered.
Postmortems would go on for at least a hundred and forty years, but neither General Canby, who died abruptly in what should have been his retirement, nor the Reverend Thomas, who had the briefest of walk-on parts in this war, would take part. The two of them died nobly, perhaps, warriors in the cause of peace. But I can’t help but feel that they didn’t have to die, that, you know, common sense might have warned them, as Frank Riddle did, not to trust any in them Indians.
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