Centuries of Genocide: Modoc Indians, Part I

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American-Indian-Heritage-Month

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.

Contact

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.

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