t’s a gray, foggy November day, which suits my gray foggy mood perfectly. I could write about many things, but today I feel the call of the dead. I hear voices calling to me through the void of time, and I feel impelled—at least encouraged—to heed their words.
It was on this very November day in 1852 that one of those events occurred that would have significance past anything that its participants could have seen. Ben Wright, professional Indian fighter, headed down in the gray dawn to talk with the leaders of the Modoc tribe about establishing peace between them and the Euro-American settlers that were passing through their land. In a short while most of the Modoc negotiators would be dead, and Ben Wright would be riding back to the California town of Yreka in triumph.
These are facts. What actually happened in between is a matter of conjecture. Participants and other interested parties have left us a variety of inconsistent tales, and from them we can weave as we like whatever story pleases us.
There are some details that are all too clear. One of Wright’s men, in town to pick up supplies and vote, bought strychnine from a local druggist, for example. (It was believed by those who sold it to him that the poison was intended for the Modocs.) On the night of 7 November Wright sent beef over to the Modoc camp for them to have a feast, and one of his men (a native American) warned a friend of his in the camp not to eat the meat. And the next day during a talk that turned angry Wright pulled out his gun and started shooting, His men followed suit, and the Modoc negotiators ended up dead. Somehow things had gone wrong. These are facts.
Well, probably—as certainly as things ever get in history. What exactly went wrong? Decades later Captain Goodall, who bought the strychnine for Wright, told a regional historian
when at length it was found necessary to close the campaign on account of approaching winter and snow, a final talk was had, in which a beef was killed and well dosed with strychnine which I bought in Yreka and sent out to Wright. This was given to them and by them eaten half raw. But the plan failed of killing all of them off, for the heat of the fire deprived the poison of its strength. However it was successful thus far, that it made them all very sick with the “jerks,” and actually killed five of them—that is, made good Indians of them; or in other phrase “sunned their moccasins.”
On the other hand, George Gilless, who sold part of the strychnine to Wright, wrote:
Captain Ben Wright, in the Fall of ’52, sent to Yreka for strychnine, with which to poison the Modocs, who had been invited to his camp to treat for peace. A portion of the poison was supplied by the house in which I was then a partner in. We gave all the strychnine we had. A gentleman now living in San Francisco (Captain William Clarkson) assisted my partner in obtaining an additional quantity, that which we contributed not being deemed sufficient. Swill, the Oregon Indian, did object to this mode of warfare, and his objection frustrated the attempt to poison the Modoc Peace Commission. The Modocs were afterward invited into camp to treat for peace, and Ben Wright and his troops did assault and kill nearly all of them. This information I had from Wright himself and it was the talk of the men generally belonging to his command on their entrance into Yreka after the close of their campaign. [According to other accounts Swill informed his Modoc girlfriend of the plot to poison them; presumably this is what Gilless is referring to when he wrote “his objection frustrated the attempt to poison the Modoc Peace Commission.”]
John Hallick, one of Ben Wright’s men, contradicted Gilless. In an 1873 interview with a local newspaper he told a story of long patient negotiations with the Modoc representatives. Eventually a woman serving as interpreter warned them that the Modocs intended to kill them all during the next day’s talks, and urged them to flee. Wright and his men, however, instead went secretly armed to the talks, and before the Modocs could carry out their treacherous plan, turned the tables on them by shooting them first. Another of Wright’s men is said to have confirmed the story.
A major problem with this story is that the weeks of negotiations never happened, as shown by the contemporary record. The key to understanding this is that the interview didn’t occur in a vacuum. Context matters. In this case the context is the then-ongoing Modoc War, in which negotiations with the besieged insurgents had in fact gone on for weeks. Hallick, or the interviewer, wanted to draw a parallel between current events and this twenty-year-old incident. Wright’s negotiations had taken no more than a few days, but to make the parallel better they needed to be strung out. To my mind, this casts doubt on a second parallel the interview makes much of. Supposedly the interpreter warned Wright of impending treachery. This was parallel to a warning given in the then-current 1873 conflict by an interpreter, a warning that proved all too accurate.
At least one old resident of the region, Elijah Steele, expressed his doubt about this new version of the story. He was out of town at the time of the event, so as he says
all I know of that was hearsay; but I know it was generally known that Ben Wright had concocted the plan of poisoning those Indians at a feast, and that his interpreter Indian, Livile [=Swill], had exposed to the Indians, so that but few ate of the meat, and that Wright and his company then fell upon the Indians and forty out of forty-seven, and one other, died of the poison afterward. There is one of the company now in the country who gives this version, and I heard Wright swearing about Dr. Ferrber, our druggist (now of Vallejo), selling him an adulterated article of strychnine, which he said the doctor wanted to kill the cayotes. That the plan was concocted before they left Yreka defeats the claim now made for them, that they only anticipated the treachery of the Indians.
What actually happened? I wasn’t there, and neither were you or anyone else living today, and the people who might have told something useful were busy grinding axes. But here’s what I think. I think that when Ben Wright gave the beef to the Modocs for a feast, it was adulterated with strychnine. Wright had gone to a great deal of trouble to secure it; it is difficult to believe that they would not have gone ahead with the plan. But Swill’s timely warning, at least to his girlfriend, probably did, as Steele wrote, discourage many of the Modocs from eating it, and the result was that the mass poisoning never came off, even if some did become sick or die. We know that Wright and his men kept watch on the Modoc camp all night, and when dawn came that some of them went down to the camp to continue their negotiations—or maybe to investigate exactly what had happened. If they were expecting to find only dead people, they were severely disappointed. They were instead confronted by an angry head man and his enraged followers. It is not clear why they were angry from the available accounts, but a failed attempt to poison them all would certainly fill the bill. Wright drew his concealed gun and shot one of the men, and Wright’s men started shooting at others. Early reports say that 31 Modocs were killed, and that two of Wright’s men were seriously injured. (How isn’t stated—the Modocs didn’t have firearms and their bows were supposedly unstrung.)
An unknown writer in Yreka gave the earliest account of events:
On Monday morning last, three persons arrived from Capt. Benjamin Wright’s camp, with information that a fight had taken place on Monday morning previous with the Indians, and that thirty-one Indians had been killed, and two of our citizens wounded and wanted medical aid. [21 November 1852, printed in the Shasta Courier of 27 November 1852]
On 10 December a courier informed the Oregon Weekly Times “that Capt. Wright with his company of 25 men, near the great Tule Lake near the Southern trail, had a fight with the Indians, in which he was completly [sic] victorious, having killed forty-seven—and brought in 47 scalps, several horses, bows and arrows and various Indian ictors [sic]. Two men only were wounded.” By March of the next year the Indian Department was receiving reports that “A party of citizens under the conduct of Captain Ben Wright last fall massacred over thirty Indians out of forty-eight, who had come into Captain Wright’s camp by invitation to make a ‘peace.’” This same report indicated that the peace talks were only a ruse on Wright’s part to get the Modocs into a place where he could kill them.
Now we are often told that we shouldn’t judge historical figures by modern standards; they were men of their time and culture and lived according to their own codes. Fair enough. But by the standards of their day, as well as ours, murdering peace negotiators under a flag of truce is reprehensible. Even if we accept the later version of some of Ben Wright’s men, that they only committed treachery to forestall treachery, it is nothing but an attempt to claim that two wrongs—one of them only meditated—somehow make a right. And if it is true that they invited men to a peace conference with the intention of killing them en masse—then there is no excuse for their actions. Not by our code, certainly, but also not by theirs. It is an abomination, poison or no poison.