Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book review: The Modocs and Their War

My recent visit to Lava Beds National Monument in northern California awakened a slumbering desire to know more about the Modoc Indian War that occurred in the area just south of my long-time home of Klamath Falls, Oregon.

To that end, I followed up my visit by reading The Modocs and their War, by Keith A. Murray.  The book was first published in 1958, eighty-five years after the events it recounts took place.

Reading the book, I quickly became aware that my previous interpretation of events, which I constructed from flimsy research and common legend, ascribed a certain romance (to my way of thinking) to tragic and brutal events.  While my uninformed and naively poetic story might make for a good movie, it has only the most tenuous relations, I'm afraid, to the truth of the matter.  (My apologies for that, dear reader.)

Using documents from the federal government, as well as from the state governments of Oregon and Washington, newspaper articles of the day, and letters written by the principle actors, Murray depicts a mind-boggling, confused, and mishandled situation --a situation that was bound to end in tragedy and bloodshed.

Besides describing the bungling by government bureaucracies and how incompetence and bigotry made the war inevitable, the work provides fascinating depictions of the principles in the historic events of the day.
  • There is General Canby, the seasoned war veteran who is mildly sympathetic to the Modocs and impatient with the prejudice and superstition that ruled the day. 

  • There is Scarfaced Charlie, the dogged and decent warrior who showed mercy to Federal troops trapped in the lava at the Thomas-Wright Massacre. 

  • There is the well-intentioned and capable Alfred B. Meacham, with his high-placed connections (including President Grant), who seemed to honestly desire peace.
  • There is the good-hearted and brave Modoc woman, Toby (later known as Winema) who did her best to minimize the bloodshed and risked her own life to save Meacham.
  • There is blood-crazed Hooker Jim, one of the Modocs responsible for the murder of white settlers, who turned on his people to save his own skin.

  • There is Curly-headed Doctor, the Modoc shaman who claimed it was his medicine that held off the Federal troops in the early fighting and who kept the flames of fanaticism burning hot among the Modocs.

  • There are Modocs Schonchin John, Boston Charlie, Bogus Charlie, Ellen's Man, Shacknasty Jim, each with his own distinct role in the conflict. 

  • There are Federal soldiers Colonel Jefferson C. Davis, General Frank Wheaton, and the universally-disliked General Gillem.
  • There are various Californian and Oregonian civilians:  Elisha Steele, who befriended Captain Jack; John M. Fairchild, the rancher who hosted Federal troops for much of the conflict, Oliver and Ivan Applegate, the sons of the men who blazed the Applegate Trail that first brought the white men into conflict with the Modocs, and kind-hearted Reverend Eleazar Thomas, perhaps the least-deserving victim of Modoc treachery.

  • And, of course, there is Captain Jack, the leader of the Modoc band.  It is easy and alluring, some 150 years after the fact, to ascribe romantic notions to the legend of Captain Jack, and the man was certainly endowed with admirable qualities, among them courage and loyalty.  But there were no innocents in this conflict.  Captain Jack murdered the unarmed General Canby knowing that it was a futile and pointless act.
Murray's work does an excellent job of describing all aspects of the Modoc conflict.  Murray outlays the chronicle of events beginning with the hostilities that occurred between white settlers and the various Native American tribes (Klamath, Paiute, Warm Springs, and Modoc) in the decades before the war, the war itself, including the political, diplomatic, and military maneuvering, and the war's aftermath, including the trial and execution of the Modoc leaders, and the exile of the surviving Modocs to faraway Oklahoma.

Although Murray does at times inject his own (considered) opinions, he mostly relies on facts. At times, the narrative is hard to follow as the reader is bombarded with names and events, but considering the complexity of the subject-matter, Murray can hardly be blamed for that.

All in all, I found the book to be gripping --one of the more entertaining histories I have read.  I recommend it for anyone interested in this fascinating piece of local history.


Michael said...

Thanks very much for the summary, i look forward to reading the book. is it easily found?

Spring Thunder111 said...

And did you read The Ordeal of Captain Jack in Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee? 

BTW, Winema was her name first and then she became known as Toby. 

And Captain Jack's name was Kintpuash.