Centuries of Genocide: Modoc Indians, Part IV

In case you missed anything…

Part I describes the first generation of Modoc people to contact European-Americans, and the slow war in the Klamath Basin that destroyed the Second Generation. The Ben Wright Massacre is analyzed.

Part II encapsulates the Third Generation’s great crisis and the process leading to the Treaty of 1864, the significance of the Oregon reservation system, and Keintpoos’ years off the reservation before the US Army intervened, concluding with the escalation of tensions into full-blown war. We celebrate Thanksgiving at the end of November: at that time in 1872, Modoc people were fighting US Army from natural trenches in fiercely cold weather.

Part III covers the Modoc War of 1872-1873 as experienced by over 20 Modoc people, President Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, famous settler Lindsay Applegate, and others. It depicts the assassination of General Canby and the fall of the third generation since contact.

After the war’s conclusion, Keintpoos’ severed skull ended up in the Smithsonian. Brancho and Slolux spent life in prison at Alcatraz Island. Winema died in the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1920. And the Modoc people were halved, and one half was shipped to Oklahoma.


The Modoc who went to Lava Beds were collectively judged as prisoners of war, whether they were involved in hostilities during the War or not. A people of lakes, the Cascade Mountains and the high desert, these Modoc were punished by being transferred to eastern Oklahoma.

Article 7 of a 1994 draft of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples uses the phrase “cultural genocide” but does not define what it means.[4] The complete article reads as follows:

Indigenous peoples have the collective and individual right not to be subjected to ethnocide and cultural genocide, including prevention of and redress for:

(a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;

(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;

(c) Any form of population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;

(d) Any form of assimilation or integration by other cultures or ways of life imposed on them by legislative, administrative or other measures;

(e) Any form of propaganda directed against them.

The Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma explains how they ended up at Quapaw, and what happened to them there:

The terrible 2,000-mile winter ride in railroad cars intended for hauling cattle finally ended on November 16, 1873 when 153 Modoc men, women, and children arrived in Baxter Springs, Kansas cold and hungry.

In Baxter Springs, Captain Wilkinson conferred with Hiram W. Jones, Indian Agent at the Quapaw Agency as to where to place the Modoc. It was decided to locate them on Eastern Shawnee land where they would be under the direct supervision of Agent Jones. But Jones’ Quapaw Agency was little prepared to care for 153 persons with little but loose blankets on their backs. With Scarfaced Charley in command and only one day’s help from three non-Indians, the Modoc built their own temporary wood barracks two hundred yards from the agency headquarters. Some were housed in tents. These accommodations were to be their home until June of 1874 when 4,000 acres were purchased for them from the Eastern Shawnee

…Captain Wilkinson remained with his charges until the second week in December. When he left the agency, he reported to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, “on the cars, in the old hotel used for them at Baxter, I found them uniformly obedient, ready to work, cheerful in compliance with police regulations, and with each day providing over and over that they only required just treatment, executed with firmness and kindness to make them a singularly reliable people.”

Despite their industriousness, poverty and material loss would continue to plague the people:

Agent Jones also found he had no difficulty enforcing the strictest discipline, although one small area of friction had developed. This was the habit of some of the Modoc in gambling, resulting in some instances in losing what few possessions they had. When Scarfaced Charley, who had replaced Captain Jack [Keintpoos] as chief, refused to interfere, Jones appointed Bogus Charley as chief. He remained chief until 1880 when formal Modoc tribal government in Oklahoma came to an end for almost 100 years.

More on the dissolution of the legal tribe in a bit. For now, the hard times after arrival:

The first years following removal to Indian Territory were difficult ones for the Modoc. They suffered much sickness and many hardships due to the corrupt and cruel administration of Agent Jones. During the first winter at the Quapaw Agency, there were no government funds available for food, clothing, or medical supplies. It would be almost a year after removal that funds in the amount of $15,000 were received for their needs.

In Oklahoma, the POW population declined precipitously:

The death rate was especially high among the children and the aged. By 1879, after six years at the Quapaw Agency, 54 deaths had reduced the Modoc population to 99. By the time of the Modoc allotment in 1891, there were only 68 left to receive allotments, and many of them had been born after removal. Had it not been for the gifts of money and clothing from charitable organizations in the east, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s wish not to leave a Modoc man, woman, or child alive so the name Modoc would cease, would have become a reality.

If you do a search of ‘Oregon’ in this Quapaw Agency Census from 1900, you will find some of the surviving Modoc. Modoc people are the only tribe of which I’m aware that were ever shipped to Oklahoma from far west.  Their race is indicated as “In” for Indian. Jennie Clinton, or Stimitchuas, is one of the individuals listed. It is believed that she died at age 89 in 1950, but it’s possible she was born earlier than 1861. (She was of the fourth generation after contact, having some pre-reservation and war memories but ultimately spending her adulthood in the reservation system.)

It Was the Assimilation Era

With first Americans no longer free to roam the country, European-Americans thought that the plight of Indians would be alleviated, and with that alleviation, the Indian problem for European-Americans would be solved, by educating and acculturating Indians to Western life.  Quakers had already established a Quapaw boarding school in 1871, 2 years before Modoc arrival. The school was miles to the northwest of the agency.  Isolated from their families, children would forcibly have their hair cut by missionaries, wear European-American schoolchildren garb, and become literate and converted Christians by the missionaries forbidding their language, Klamath-Modoc.

Modoc people at both the Quapaw Agency, Oklahoma and Oregon reservations displayed a strong interest in education and literacy.  In 1879, Modoc people built a church and school on the Modoc Reservation at Quapaw. Later, Modoc children attended the Carlisle School, the notorious string of Indian boarding schools, in Kansas. The families that sent children there included the Hoods, Hoover, Balls and McCartys. Schonchin John’s stepson Adam McCarty died at Carlisle, and Modoc stopped sending their children to Carlisle.

After the war, the third generation since contact passed into elderhood–if they weren’t already butchered or executed. Modoc War leader Steamboat Frank became the first Indian to become an ordained Quaker.  He died in Portland, Maine in the 1890s. The Fourth Generation became the establishment.  The Fifth Generation grew up speaking English.

Dawes, Curtis and Statehood

In 1887, the Dawes Act changed American Indian life forever. Among the most significant changes, reservation land was broken up into patrilineal, owned parcels. This change furthered the loss of Indian land that began with the early treaties and reservations.  

The plains itself had been established as a vast reservation for tribes from the midwest, south and east. But once tapping aquifers like Oglalla and cattle ranching became feasible (Chicago boomed as an inland rail-port) Indians were further reduced to the Indian Territory–Oklahoma.  But now even Indian Territory was wanted, and especially its natural resources.  Statehood for Oklahoma would mean breaking the power of Indian tribes.

Dawes opened a can of worms that, for the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma, would spiral into a loss of sovereignty and environmental degradation.  An amendment to Dawes, the Curtis Act of 1898, ended the authority of tribal courts and the tribal governments themselves in Oklahoma. (Charles Curtis himself was a Republican congressman of Osage descent, who wanted education, assimilation and opportunity for Indians through his bill, which was later botched by various committees.)  Although Oklahoma’s natural resource history is most associated with its oil-boom perhaps, in the Quapaw area, rich deposits of zinc and lead allowed for a mining boom. Multiple Indian tribes leased out their land. Today, Quapaw area residents contend with a superfund site from those mines and the environmental costs that entails.

In 1909, the US government permitted Oklahoma Modoc to return to Oregon. Twenty-nine did so. Jennie Clinton was among them; she would then divorce and live until 1950 in a cabin on Oregon’s Williamson River.  The remaining forebears of the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma were (and still are) the smallest group of American Indian people in the region.

This is how the Third and Fourth Generations lived and died in Oklahoma.

Subsequent generations of Modoc history will be described in upcoming diaries.

Centuries of Genocide: Modoc Indians, Part I

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photo credit: Aaron Huey

Prior to contact, the Modoc people inhabited an area approximately 5,000 square miles in southern Oregon and the northeastern corner of California, where today Modoc County corresponds somewhat to traditional geography. To the southwest (moowat and Tgalam) Mt. Shasta rises up, covered in shining blue ice. Modoc people would make pilgrimages to the sacred mountain every year, but would not live on it.  Sacred journeys were also made to Medicine Lake, a healing volcanic feature now used as a recreation park.  To the east (lobiitdal’) lies Goose Lake, and to the north (yaamat) in Klamath land is Mt. Mazama.  Today, Mazama is known as Crater Lake.

Thousands of years ago, oral traditional states, the Modoc and the much larger Klamath peoples’ ancestors hid in caves from the catastrophic eruption of Mazama.  Beyond the terrifying images of raining ash and fire imaginable, this event affected world climate.

In between these boundaries are Klamath Lake, hundreds of marshes, many seasonally dry, pine forests, the lush Cascade mountains, high desert, and alkali flats most desolate in appearance.  The geography dictated the lifestyle: considered harsh by other Indian peoples, Modocs were nonetheless blessed with the bounty of wocas, a pond-lily seed, during the annual harvest season, salmon and suckerfish, as well as plentiful duck, pelican, goose and other waterfowl, many deer, moose, bear, elk, and delicious berries and roots like camas. Traditionally, they are a weaving and hunting people. Tule reed is the principle fabric source.

This stark land was one of the last places in the 48 where European settlers, desirous for land, timber and gold, would venture. It would become the setting for the most expensive Indian war in US history.


In the 1820s, Peter Skene Ogden, born in Quebec, became the first European trader (working for Hudson’s Bay Company) to venture into the Klamath basin.  Although the Hudson’s Bay Company operated great fur-trading in the Northwest, specifically at Ft. Vancouver, (it lay across the Columbia river from what is now Portland) and Astoria, the Klamath basin promised little. The region’s lack of pelts, and the inhospitable lands to the east, made venturing into the basin unattractive to the first wave of outsiders. In addition to being much drier than the Willamette Valley naturally, the growing season is very short with very snowy winters.

Lindsay Applegate, a British-American from Kentucky, who had fought in the Black Hawk War of the 1830s, established an alternative trail to Oregon passing through the great basin in 1846.  Previously unknown diseases, including smallpox and tuberculosis, began taking a nearly apocalyptic toll on Oregon and California natives.

The Modoc people felt both curious and offended at the sudden influx of people and cattle passing through their homeland.  Seeing these large animals on their land, some Modoc people killed cows. The bad blood was nearly instant between Modocs and some settlers.

The first generation of Modocs to contact the European intruders adopted guns, and western shoes, skirts, trousers and blouses and tools. Their cultural flexibility and openness to change would become a running theme across each generation until the present.  As Modoc people interacted with Europeans, many assumed European names.

But the offense grew quickly. Within one year of the Applegate Trail’s opening, the presence of so many settlers and cattle passing through their land alarmed and angered the Modoc. By the shores of Tule Lake, now known as Bloody Point, Old Schonchin and some warriors raided an emigrant party. Only three settlers survived the attack; two of them women, who were taken into the tribe; one man ventured the long distances over the Cascade Mountains to Yreka, California.  (Yreka is a town that prospered for three reasons: timber, mining and Indian blood: more on this later.)  Jim Crosby there raised a militia that buried the dead and fought in a skirmish against Modoc people.

The Ben Wright Massacre and the Death of Hope for Peace

In 1852, Indian hunter Ben Wright appeared in Northern California. We know that Wright wanted to keep the Emigrant Trail safe for settlers passing into Modoc land, and that secondly, he was anxious to retrieve the two white women still living with the Modoc.  (Fear of the defiling of European-American women at the hands of the Indian is a persistent theme in the American story.)

Jeff Riddle, the son of Modoc woman Toby Riddle and the settler Frank Riddle, claims that Wright set out to murder as many Modoc as possible. Wright’s inherent animosity is not in dispute.

By this point, several massacres of Modoc had been already committed.

Wright and 36 men waited at the Lost River village, one of the more populated areas in Modoc country, for the retrieval of the captive women. With the growing presence of the Modocs encamped there, the militia became gripped by morbid fantasies while waiting for the women to arrive.  Jeff Riddle claimed that Wright planned for the events to follow, telling the volunteers that their lives were in danger from the villagers.

There is ambiguity over the details of everything that happened, but the Ben Wright Massacre followed.

During what was supposed to be a meeting to broker peace, which the Modoc were eager to achieve, Wright laced the banquet food with strychnine. However, the intended felt suspicion and refused to eat the food.  Wright’s men began firing pistols at the villagers. The Modoc with their bows retreated into the sage brush.

In Chapter 9 of Reminiscences of a Pioneer, Colonel William Thompson, himself biased against the Indian, describes the massacre:

It was now no longer a battle. The savages were searched out from among the sage brush and shot like rabbits. Long poles were taken from the wickiups and those taking refuge in the river were poked out and shot as they struggled in the water. To avoid the bullets the Indians would dive and swim beneath the water, but watching the bubbles rise as they swam, the men shot them when they came up for air.

Wright’s company killed at least 43, possibly up to 80 Modoc people, and cleared the village from the face of the earth.

One year later, Wright successfully demanded payment from the California legislature for his actions.

Forever Broken, Omens of Destruction

How great was this toll on the Modoc people? Riddle claimed that ever-after, the Modoc were forever broken, indicating an event devastating on the small population, and that the later Modoc War of 1872-1873 (Toby and Frank Riddle had a critical role in the events of the final war) was never the original intention of an already butchered and weary people.  In 1928, ethnologist Mooney estimated a pre-contact population 480 people.  Assuming the effect of disease, bloodshed and the very limited potential for population growth in the region kept the population at least flat, (if not much less) about 8-10% of the people died that day; much more if the higher number of casualties is to be believed.  The famous anthropologist Alfred Kroeber assumed twice as many living Modoc before contact; if in that somewhat improbable ballpark in 1852, about 5% of the population died in the Ben Wright Massacre. Population would continue to decline from disease, fueled by hunger and exposure but also more bloodshed. The 1910 Census recorded less than 300 Modoc, over 50 of whom lived in Oklahoma on the Quapaw Reservation (more on this later).

That is a dramatic population decline within one century.

Considering the specialized economies of American Indian peoples, where individual agents assumed responsibility for memorizing oral history, genealogy, custom, ethnobotany and medicine, language, spirituality, mysticism and religion, agriculture, tracking and food production skills, the sudden loss of so many people in one event undeniably produced a great cultural loss in addition to the deaths themselves.

That the massacre happened in the context of a supposed peace deal provides an essential understanding of the much more widely known, somewhat fetishized and poorly interpreted assassination of General Canby (of whom Canby, Oregon is named after) during the US Army war against Modoc.  The Modoc War was fought by the children of the 1850s generation.

The following generations of Modoc history will be described in subsequent diaries — Nulwee.


Indians as Enemy Combatants

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Following the 1873 Modoc War, the army had locked thirteen warriors in the cells in the guardhouse at Fort Klamath, a military post near the Klamath Reservation. Initially, the army intended to simply execute eight or ten of the leaders without a trial. The War Department, however, wanted no action taken until the Attorney General decided whether the captives were to be tried in civilian or military courts. The army commander replied:

“Delay will destroy the moral effect which their prompt execution would have upon other tribes.”

Six of the Modoc warriors-Captain Jack, Boston Charley, Black Jim, Schonchin John, Slolux, and Barncho-were tried in a military court martial for war crimes. The formal charges stressed that two peace commissioners had been killed during a suspension of hostilities. In justifying the charge of war crimes, the Attorney General stated:

“According to the laws of war there is nothing more sacred than a flag of truce dispatched in good faith, and there can be no greater act of perfidy and treachery than the assassination of its bearers after they have been acknowledged and received by those to whom they are sent.”

In order to try the defendants under military rather than civil law, the United States had to classify the conflict as a “war” and thus to define the Modoc as a sovereign nation as only sovereign nations can engage in war.

In 1907, the War Department officially enumerated 1,470 incidents of military action against American Indians between 1776 and 1907. According to the War Department, only two of these actions had the formal status of “war” under U.S. Army terminology: the 1877 Nez Perce War and the 1878 Bannock Indian War. The Modoc War, according to the War Department, was not, therefore a war.

The Modoc defendants were not represented by legal counsel and the government held them to a higher standard than its own soldiers. Any U.S. soldiers who violated the laws of war during the Modoc and other Indian wars were never tried and punished as war criminals. During the trial, Captain Jack and Schonchin John were shackled and chained together as were Boston Charley and Black Jim. The two younger defendants-Slolux and Barncho-were not shackled. Uniformed soldiers holding rifles with fixed bayonets stood guard in the court room.

The trial was carried out in accordance with the rules of a military court-martial. The judge advocate asked the defendants if they had any objection to any member of the military commission. It is likely that the Modoc defendants did not understand the significance of what was happening, for if they had understood, they almost certainly would have objected. There were ample grounds for challenging four of the five commission members for just cause, but the trial record shows that this was not explained to the defendants. Thus, the Modoc defendants raised no objection and the trial was allowed to continue. Four of the five members of the commission had been involved in the war and three had fought battles against the accused Modoc warriors.

With regard to the lack of legal counsel, the U.S. Army considered defense counsel a privilege, not a right. The prisoners, who had been confined to jail cells and shackled since their capture, were unable to find counsel.

Since the Modoc defendants spoke little English, Frank and Toby Riddle, the interpreters who had warned General Canby of the attack, translated the proceedings into Modoc. Frank Riddle also testified against them. It is doubtful that the interpreters understood the complex legal jargon of the trial and may not have translated these concepts.

As expected, the court found the six men guilty and sentenced them to be hung. President Ulysses Grant, however, commuted the sentences of Slolux and Barncho to life imprisonment at Alcatraz Island.

All of the Modoc prisoners, including the children of those to be hung, were forced to witness the executions. Their bodies were allowed to hang for 30 minutes following the execution. After the execution, the Modoc leaders’ heads were severed from their bodies and shipped to Washington, D.C. where they were examined by phrenologists who believed that criminal behavior was governed by cranial characteristics.  

The Modoc War

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The Modoc homeland is the Tule Lake area on the border between California and Oregon. In 1873, the U.S. Army engaged a small band of Modoc under the leadership of Captain Jack in what has been called the Modoc War. There were many things which lead up to this war, including governmental intolerance of Indian cultures, particularly Indian religions.  

In 1864, Elijah Steele negotiated a treaty with the Modoc in which the United States agrees to obtain a reservation for the Modoc along Lost River. However, the government did not submit the treaty to the Senate for confirmation as it had not been authorized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Modoc felt that the government had unilaterally cancelled their treaty.

Following the cancelled treaty, the U.S. government held a treaty council with the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahuskin (a Shoshone band affiliated with the Paiute) at Council Grove, Oregon. The government proposed that the three groups share a reservation in eastern Oregon. The Modoc were less than enthusiastic about this treaty as it meant moving away from their traditional territory. However, they felt that they had little choice, so they signed the treaty.

In the treaty, the American government agreed to pay annuities and to pay for reservation improvements. The government, however, also reserved the right to place other tribes on the reservation.

In 1865, Captain Jack (Kintpuash) led the Lost River Modoc off the Klamath Reservation because the superintendent of Indian affairs refused to recognize him as chief.  Four years later, he moved back to the Klamath Reservation. He brought with him 43 men, women, and children.

In 1870, Captain Jack led a larger group of 371 of his people off the Klamath Reservation and returned to the Modoc homeland. Once back in the Modoc homeland, Captain Jack steadfastly refused to budge.

In 1871, Captain Jack killed an Indian doctor for failing to cure one of his children-an action which was acceptable in Modoc culture. The Indian agent, however, ordered the military to arrest him for murder. Captain Jack, alerted that the army was going to arrest him, hid in the mountains and avoided capture.  

After returning to the Klamath reservation briefly, Captain Jack once again left the reservation with a group of about 50 Modoc. At this time, one of the primary functions of the reservation was to convert Indians to Christianity. In doing this, all traditional Indian religious practices, including shamanism, were not allowed. Being upset at not being able to practice their traditional ways, the Modoc intended to return to their homelands in the Tule Lake area of Northern California.

Orders were then issued to the 1st Cavalry to compel the Modoc, by force if necessary, to return to the Klamath Reservation. The troops arrived at the Modoc camp at daybreak, taking the Indians by surprise. The orders of the Indian superintendent to return to the reservation were explained to them. The interpreter realized that the Modoc were not going to comply and notified the army officer. The troops then fired several volleys into the tipis.

The Indians took refuge in the lava beds near Tule Lake, California. The lava beds are a maze of twisted stone, hidden caves, lava flows, and natural trenches. The Indians killed 12 settlers on their flight south.  

The spiritual leader of the group was Curley Headed Doctor. In the lava beds, he had a rope of tule reeds woven, dyed red, and stretched around the campsite. He claimed that no American soldier could cross this rope. Since no soldiers cross this rope during the conflict, the Modoc assumed that it worked.

In 1873, a peace commission met with Captain Jack. The area of conflict was clear: the army wanted Captain Jack’s band removed to the Klamath reservation, while Captain Jack wanted a reservation set aside for his band on their ancestral lands.  

While the truce between the army and the Modoc called for no hostile movements during the peace negotiations, the army moved its soldiers and canons forward in violation of the truce. In desperation, the Modoc made plans to kill General E.R.S. Canby, the army field commander. While Canby was warned of the plans by an interpreter, he insisted that the Modoc would not dare to carry it out with so many soldiers around. However, the Modoc carried out their plans and General E.R.S. Canby and the Reverend Eleazer Thomas were killed. The Indian agent, Alfred B. Meacham, was wounded. This intensified the Modoc War in which Captain Jack’s 50 Modoc warriors eluded 1,000 pursuing soldiers for a month.

From an Army perspective the Modoc War was fought by an inexperienced army of poorly trained and poorly supported soldiers led by incompetent officers. The Modoc, on the other hand, were led by Captain Jack who proved to be a fine military strategist and tactician.

In one encounter, the 400 soldiers who were sent in to subdue the Modoc encountered a thick fog and soon retreated in panic and disarray. From the Modoc perspective, Curley Headed Doctor’s medicine had worked. He had brought a fog to confuse the enemy, and then he turned the soldiers’  bullets so that no Modoc was hurt.

In another instance, a large patrol blundered into a carefully planned ambush. The army and the press labeled this a massacre. The soldiers had left on the maneuver as though they were going to a picnic rather than a battle. One of the Modoc leaders, Scarface Charley, had called down to some of the survivors: “We don’t want to kill you all in one day” and through this generosity several soldiers escaped.

In one incident, the army soldiers found an old woman-described as being 80 or 90 years old-in the rocks near the stronghold. The lieutenant asked: “is there anyone here who will put that old hag out of the way?” A soldier then placed his carbine to her head and shot her. One of the witnesses to the event, Maurice Fitzgerald, later wrote:

“This incident goes to show that humanity is about the same the world over and not to any great extent affected by religion, language, or national boundaries.”  

Captain Jack finally surrendered and in the peace negotiations, he told the Americans:

“This is my home; I was born here, always lived here, and I don’t want to leave here.”

The captured Modoc were then marched under heavy guard to Fort Klamath, a military post near the Klamath Reservation. Thirteen of the warriors are locked in cells in the guardhouse. The other 140 men, women, and children are confined to a stockade that measures 150 feet by 50 feet.

One group of 17 Modoc men, women, and children peacefully surrendered to the army. They were loaded into a large wagon and transported toward the Klamath Reservation without a military escort. The wagon was stopped by the Oregon Volunteers. A little later, masked men approached the stopped wagons and killed four of the captive Modoc men and wounded a Modoc woman. The army made no effort to catch the killers.

Following the Modoc War, 153 Modoc were shipped from the Klamath Reservation in Oregon to the Quapaw Agency in Oklahoma. The Modoc were sent to Oklahoma as prisoners of war.

The commission investigating the Modoc War reported:

“The causes leading to war were the dissatisfaction of Captain Jack’s band of Modocs with the provisions and execution of the treaty of October 1864 and refusal to abide thereby” and “The immediate cause of hostilities was resistance by the Indians to military coercion.”

The Modoc War cost the lives of about 200 American soldiers and volunteer militia. Only 13 Modoc were killed.