Tuesday, June 21, 2011

CwtBC (Pt. V): Captain Jack and General Canby

Camping with the Brothers Cariaga: My woodsy brothers, Eric and Calee, and our friends, Mike Bellmore and Kris Ross, have over the past six or seven years established a tradition of camping and fishing the Klamath River Canyon in late May and early June. This year, I joined them...

Read Part I, In search of the morel, here.
Read Part II, A beacon for those to come, here.
Read Part III, Rugged beauty in the lava beds, here.
Read Part IV, Fishin' the Klamath River Canyon, here.

Note To write this post, I relied on the excellent recounting provided by the Prineville Territory website.  It's a fascinating read which I highly recommend.

Update:  After writing this post, I read Keith A. Murray's excellent book "The Modocs and their War" which provides a detailed account of the conflict.  I urge this book on anyone interested in a more accurate recounting of what really happened in the Tule Lake Basin in 1873.   

Canby's Cross
The morning of April 11, 1873, dawned cool and clear on the shores of Tulelake.  At Gillem's Camp, at the base of a great bluff on the lake's western shore, General Edward R S Canby gathered together his party of peace commissioners and interpreters.

Canby was a well-respected and distinguished officer in the United States Army.  His list of military accomplishments in the War Between the States was impressive.  He drove Confederate troops from New Mexico territory.  He captured Mobile, Alabama, where he destroyed or captured the remains of the rebel navy.  It was he who accepted the surrender of all Western Confederate troops in 1865.

Captain Jack's cave within the stronghold
But on this day, he had a different mission.  He was to meet with the leaders of a band of renegade (as the white men termed them) Modocs to convince them to return to the reservation assigned to them on Upper Klamath Lake.  The agreement was that they should meet at a place between Gillem's Camp and the Modoc Stronghold a mile or two to the east to discuss terms.  Both parties were to come unarmed. 

For General Canby, the truth must have been obvious.  The way of the Modoc, moving with the demands of the seasons from place to place in the Tulelake Basin, could not be reconciled with the way of the encroaching white man.  The Modocs had no fences, nor plots of land, nor even permanent dwellings.  They had no cattle.  What harvest they took from the land --whether the wocus water lilies, whose seeds they ground into meal, or the ducks and geese that nested along the lake shore --was wild, a gift of the earth.  The white settlers who continued to arrive through the recently-blazed Applegate Trail, wanted to drain the lake and plant crops.  It was simple fact:  two incompatible cultures were crashing headlong into each other.

Major General E. R. S. Canby

And apart from the right or wrong of the matter (General Canby was a soldier, after all), it was also a plain fact that when two cultures collided in such a way, the stronger would overcome the lesser. So, when Winema (wy-NEE-ma), the Modoc woman who had married the white man, Frank Riddle, warned the General about the possibility of treachery, Canby would not believe it.  “The little handful of Modocs dare not do that—kill us in the presence of a thousand men. They cannot do it.”

Canby believed the inevitable course of events could not be clearer. He had enough respect for the Modoc chief, Kintpuash --or Captain Jack, as the white men called him --to assume that Captain Jack could see it as clearly.

But there was a deeper truth that General Canby missed.

Natural trench in Captain Jack's Stronghold
There was no question about the good fighting qualities of the Modocs.  They were very brave and very skillful also and repulsed our attacks with great loss to the troops and no particular loss to themselves. --Sgt. Michael McCarthy on the fighting abilities of Modoc warriors
Captain Jack and his warriors had spent a long winter sheltering in the caves of their lava bed stronghold.  They'd been holed up there for months.  The natural defenses afforded by the jagged ridges and lava tubes, which the Modocs knew intimately, made it possible for them to fire from concealment and then disappear, only to reappear in a new vantage.  It was ideal defensive terrain.

In January, the Modocs repelled an assault by 400 Federal troops, inflicting 60 casualties (35 dead) without losing even one of their 53 warriors.  It was a victory on a scale that the Modocs could not have imagined.

But the Federals would not leave.  In fact, after the defeat, they only renewed their efforts, moving their camps into positions that threatened Modoc access to the life-giving water of Tule Lake.

Modoc triumph must surely have turned to disquiet when they saw that, even after inflicting such a stupendous defeat upon them, the Federals were not dissuaded.  At some level, Captain Jack and his warriors --fiery Schonchin John, the shaman Curly-Headed Doctor, Shacknasty Frank, black-hearted Hooker Jim, and the rest  --could not fail to see it.  The Modoc way of life was at an end.

So even as the peace talks were progressing, the Modocs were confronting this new truth, with all its earth-shaking consequences.  A deep rift within the warrior band was exposed.

Schonchin John's cave
One faction, led by Captain Jack's second, Schonchin John, called for treachery.  Yes, go to the parley, they argued.  But bring weapons, concealed beneath clothes.  Then, when the moment is ripe, strike!  Kill General Canby and the other officers and decapitate the Federal army!  Just as with previous enemies, when the Modocs slew their leaders, the white men would withdraw. 

But Captain Jack and his faction advocated negotiations.  Although peace talks had broken down, perhaps there might be some future for the Modoc people.  Captain Jack was a tribal leader.  He had a responsibility toward all his people.  And perhaps he was tired of the killing, the murder, the atrocities that had raged all across the region for the last score of years.   He argued against Schonchin John's plan.

At council, Schonchin John and his followers rejected Captain Jack's arguments.  They dressed him in women's clothes, saying "“You’re a woman, a fish-hearted woman. You are not a Modoc. We disown you.”

“Why do you force me to this coward’s act?” Captain Jack demanded.

Kintpuash (Captain Jack)

Captain Jack was no stranger to the white man.  He had been many times to nearby Yreka, had seen first hand the strength of the white man's society.  He understood the futility of treachery.  The truth that was so obvious to General Canby was no less so to Captain Jack:  two cultures in conflict; utter and inevitable defeat for the Modocs.  Jack knew that his people would never again be allowed to live along the shores of the great basin lake that defined them.  They would no longer be Modoc.

And, just as had the ancient people who carved their secrets into the cliff faces at Petroglyph Point, Captain Jack chose to etch a mark in the chronicle of human history.  Perhaps in dying, the Modocs would be heard.

Captain Jack agreed to the ambush.  I believe he relented not to the disrespectful words directed at him, but to the agony that existed behind it.

He said, “I will kill Canby, knowing it will cost me my life and all the lives of my people….”

Another jagged tragedy in the Long, Long Chronicle
The morning of April 11th, the two parties faced each other on a piece of flat ground midway between the two camps.  Winema, the Modoc woman, and Frank Riddle her white husband, were on hand as interpreters.  At General Canby's side were Reverend Doctor Eleazar Thomas, whom the Modocs called "the Sunday Doctor," Klamath Federal Agent A. B. Meacham, and Indian Agent L. S. Dyer.  Beside Captain Jack were Schonchin John and six other Modocs.

Captain Jack set forth demands:  complete pardons for all the Modoc warriors, withdrawal of all federal troops, and the right for the Modocs to choose the location of their own reservation. General Canby informed the Modocs that the Federal government would agree to none of those demands.

Then someone from among the Modocs uttered the words “Ut wvih kutt” (let’s do it) and Madam Fate stepped forward to make her irrevocable pronouncements.

Captain Jack drew the pistol hidden at his back and fired directly at General Canby's face.  The pistol misfired and for a moment time froze.  Agent Dyer and Frank Riddle turned and ran, each in a different direction.  Captain Jack fired again, hitting General Canby below the right eye.  At the same instant, Schonchin John and Boston Charley fired.  Schonchin John hit Agent Meachem, knocking him unconscious.  Boston Charley's shot killed the Sunday Doctor.  Canby turned to run, stumbled and fell.  Bogus Charley slit the General's throat as he lay on the ground.  Winema threw herself over the wounded Meacham, saving his life.

General Canby's troops saw the massacre from their observation point at Gillem's Camp, but were helpless to intervene.  The Modocs stripped the bodies of the dead (and the unconscious Meacham) and returned to their stronghold. 

Before the massacre, the Modocs enjoyed some sympathy with the public.  There was a peace movement afoot in Washington, DC, (referred to scornfully by local settlers as the "Lo! the poor Indian" bunch).  International newspapers in London and Paris had taken up the Modoc cause.  Pressure was growing on President Grant to change his Indian policy.

After the massacre, public sympathy evaporated.  The Modoc War became a case of simple, barbaric murder.

Four days after the massacre, the Federals again assaulted the stronghold and were again repelled with losses.  But the Modocs by then knew better than to expect the troops to withdraw.  Modoc destiny was set in stone.

Fifteen days after the massacre, one last military victory came to the Modocs on the field that is now called the Thomas-Wright battlefield.  A detachment of troops set forth to establish an artillery observation post on Hardin Butte, south of the stronghold, and stumbled into disaster.  They stopped to rest at midday, but sent scouts ahead.  The scouts unwittingly approached Modoc positions on the butte.  The Modocs were vastly outnumbered and, fearing discovery, opened fire on the scouts.  The main detachment of troops was caught at unawares and when one of the two commanding officers was killed, discipline collapsed.  The slaughter was terrible, with two-thirds of the Federal troops either killed or wounded.  The Modoc leader in the engagement, Scarfaced Charley, mercifully ended the battle, allowing the remaining Federals to escape.  "All you fellows that ain't dead better go on home," he said.  "We don't want to kill you all in one day."

Soon after this victory, the Modocs suffered a terrible defeat at Dry Lake, where the warrior known as Ellen's Man was killed.  For the Modocs, even more divided now than before the massacre, the defeat provided the final rift that split them into two groups, each of which attempted to escape.

Captain Jack and his faction, retreated west to Willow Creek.  The other faction, which included Hooker Jim and Bogus Charley went west and south, but were captured.  In exchange for amnesty, the captured Modocs agreed to help the Federals track down Captain Jack and his band.  On July 1st, when they captured him along the upper reaches of Lost River, Captain Jack still wore the tattered remains of General Canby's uniform.  “Jack’s legs gave out,” he said.

Captain Jack, Schonchin John, and four other warriors were put to trial at Fort Klamath.  Four of the defendants, including the two leaders, were convicted and hanged.  After the executions, the corpses were beheaded.  The detached heads found their way onto display at the Smithsonian Institution. The surviving Modocs were relocated in faraway Oklahoma on land and among people they did not know.

It seems unlikely that Captain Jack and the Modocs held out hope that the alien ways of the white man, whom they knew they had not the strength to fight, would ever work in their favor.  And so, even had they understood the complex currents that ran within the white man's world, they would have known that there was nothing on which they could stake their fate.

Captain Jack and General Canby each had seen the future.  General Canby made the mistake of seeing it as the fate of the individuals trapped in the stronghold.  Captain Jack saw it as the punctuated ending, not of those individuals, but of an entire culture of ancient people.

This concludes the Camping with the Brothers Cariaga series.

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