05 November 2012

A Horse Race and a Hanging

A reader signing himself Harley writes in response to my account of the reporters’ race to cover the hanging of the Modoc leaders in October 1873 (Dubious Documents: The Unlikely Life of William Drannan):
You suggest that according to Drannan’s story of the dispatch race he tried the route that was farther away—you suggest this as Ashland, Oregon, the closer location being Yreka Station (I can't find this on modern maps so is this just nearby Yreka?) Drannan's account of the dispatch race says that it was from Fort Klamath to either Ashland or Jacksonville. He suggests he went to Ashland because it was closer than Jacksonville. Drannan's numbers state this is 80 miles of trail to Ashland versus 100 miles of wagon road to Jacksonville, modern trails and roads suggest a trip of 70 miles versus 75 to 90 miles so his guesses were accurate enough. Modern day Yreka is not closer than either of these destinations, it is about 100 miles away. If the next account of this story was in 1960 then Drannan's account is the only account that can be considered either first hand, or second hand and alive as an adult at the time. The 1960 account is written solely as a history from someone who was probably not born at the time of the events.
Okay, reader Harley has in fact caught me out in a major inaccuracy in my account. You see, I was writing fairly quickly (and entirely from memory) when I wrote that, and I carelessly substituted Yreka for Jacksonville. Yreka, you see, was the town that carried most of the telegraphic correspondence from the front during the Modoc war: government dispatches, reporters’ accounts, and private messages all went out primarily from that location. The hanging, however, was another matter. It took place at Fort Klamath, and the main telegraph station for dispatches from that place was Jacksonville. There are other problems with the story as I related it then, and as there is, as far as I know, no full account of events available either in print or on the internet, I thought I would take a moment to relate the story as it happened, based on contemporary accounts.

But where to start? The Modoc war is not the best known of the conflicts between the invading Euro-Americans and the peoples they found in their path, and it was far from typical, so perhaps a few words are in order about the conflict. The Modoc people lived along the present-day California-Oregon border until 1864, when they were assigned by treaty to Klamath Reservation, and were required to abandon their ancestral lands altogether. Some of them moved there voluntarily in 1867, and the rest were taken there at the end of 1869, but they abandoned the reservation en masse in the spring of 1870. Many, perhaps most, refused to return. In November 1872 a small force of soldiers from Fort Klamath were sent to escort them there, the Modocs resisted, and fled to their traditional stronghold in today’s Lava Bed National Monument. There they holed up, resisting attempts by the army to force them out, and by peace commissioners to entice them to come out voluntarily.

February and March of 1873 were taken up with peace negotiations, and during that time newspaper correspondents set up bases at various army locations, covering the war from there. One of them, Edward Fox of the New York Herald, went so far as to ride into the Modoc encampment during one of the peace conferences to talk with the Modoc leaders, interviewing Captain Jack and John Schonchin among others. Another, H. W. Atwell of the Sacramento Record, spent an uncomfortable night at the Modoc encampment, under threat of death from some of the more volatile warriors, when he accompanied a peace commissioner during some tense negotiations.

These negotiations came to an abrupt end in April, when at a prearranged signal members of the Modoc delegation opened fire on the U. S. representatives, killing two of them and wounding others. When open hostilities resumed immediately after the Modocs were driven from their lava stronghold into the open, where they split up into small bands and were captured. Those who had taken part in the murders under a flag of truce were put on trial in July and six of them were sentenced to be hanged. Two of the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment at the last moment, but Captain Jack, John Schonchin, Black Jim, and Boston Charley were in fact hanged on 3 October 1873.

The major newspapers sent out reporters to cover the event. Fox and Atwell returned, and the San Francisco Chronicle sent out a newcomer to the scene, H. S. Shaw. (The Chronicle’s coverage had been somewhat inconsistent since its original reporter, Robert Bogart, was driven from the scene when his coverage was deemed too favorable to the Modocs.) The powerful Associated Press (not the current outfit of that name), usually represented by a reporter from the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, was conspicuous by its apparent absence.

None of the reporters took note of a Jacksonville teamster named William Turner who was working at the fort. Had they known his background, however, they might have smelt a rat. Turner was a former editor of a Jacksonville newspaper, the Oregon Sentinel, and he was not there by chance. The San Francisco Evening Bulletin had hired him to represent the interests of the press association.

Fox’s coverage was probably the most thorough, including a review of the major events of the war and final interviews with the Modoc leaders, in addition to an account of the execution itself. But the execution was the notable event, and all reporters wanted to be the first to get the news out. Being first was critical in more than one sense; it took time to telegraph information, and there was only one key available at Jacksonville; whoever got there first would quite possibly keep possession of the key long enough to keep his rivals’ stories out of the papers till the next day.

Fox’s preparations were formidable: he had nine horses spaced out along the ninety-mile road to Jacksonville, and three couriers to carry the message. He also had a secret weapon the others didn’t know about; he planned to send a dispatch describing the preliminaries first, before the execution, to seize control of the key, to which his account of the execution would be added, so that even if another reporter’s courier got their before his second message, his account would still go out first. (He had not reckoned on the local power wielded by the Associated Press, however, as we will see.)

Against this the other two reporters openly on the scene sought alternatives. Atwell decided to try for Ashland, which was closer, but the road was little better than a trail in some places, and it would be difficult to make good time. Like Fox, he set up a chain of horses and couriers along his route, and prepared for the event. Shaw decided to try for Yreka, sending his account there by carrier pigeon.

Turner kept his preparations as private as possible. He arranged secretly to clear an old trail, once used to bring supplies to the fort from Jacksonville, but now abandoned. Like the others he had multiple horses and couriers to carry his report of the execution along his chosen path. Unlike the others, he was not concerned with creating a comprehensive report, but only in getting the news of the hanging out first.

The hanging of the Modoc leaders has been described many times since then, both by eyewitnesses and by those attempting to make sense of events, but these four reporters were among the first to attempt it, and certainly were the first to get their versions into print. The events were simple enough. The troops assembled to escort them at 8:30 in the morning, at 9:30 the prisoners were brought forth, by 9:50 they were placed on the gallows, at 10:00 the sentence was read, at 10:18 the ropes were adjusted, and by 10:25 it was all over.

The reporters wrote rapidly, standing by their horses, and within minutes the reports were handed to the various couriers and the race was on. Shaw’s pigeons were launched, but seemed clueless about what they were supposed to do, and circled aimlessly about, finally settling on some nearby branches. The rest, however, were more or less successfully on their way.

Fox’s first courier, sent out well in advance with a report covering the previous day’s activities including the complete military orders for the execution, arrived first, and thus gained control of the key as he had planned. He had written “more to come” at the end of the dispatch, to indicate that this was not the complete transmission, and seemingly felt confident that that would be enough to hold the wire for him. The trouble was, Western Union was hopelessly entwined with the Associated Press; its operators had been acting as local stringers for it throughout the war, and operator had orders to send its dispatch through first if at all possible. Both Turner’s agent and Fox’s arrived before Fox’s first dispatch had been concluded, but as Turner’s agent had arrived some thirty minutes before Fox’s, the telegraph operator used that as an excuse to terminate Fox’s story at the “more to come” point, and to send Turner’s account before resuming Fox’s. The result was that Turner’s brief story became the first news of the execution to reach the outside world.

Atwell, who had tried to get his story out via Ashland, fell victim to some extremely bad luck. One of his couriers had an accident on the road and fell off his horse. (According to one account he was inebriated at the time.) This mishap caused his story to be delayed for a further day, putting him squarely behind the others in the race. And to finish things off, Shaw’s pigeons never did make it to Yreka, and his story was apparently lost. He and Fox, however, had an arrangement by which Fox’s courier carried a version of his story to go out on the Jacksonville line. It took the operator there twenty-two hours to transmit all the material provided by the various reporters.

And this, dear readers, is the story of how the news of the Modoc executions first reached the outside world from Fort Klamath. The sources include the reporters’ own accounts in their respective papers, as well as a number of pieces in the Yreka Journal, the Yreka Union, and the Oregon Sentinel. As I said in my original piece, this did make a considerable local stir at the time, but it was barely reported outside the region. In a later piece I intend to cover William F. Drannan’s account with a bit more detail, but this is as much as I can stand to do at the moment. Drannan will have to wait.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like this clarification. Poor Atwell, eh? rfh

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