Edward R. S. Canby, Modoc War, 1873

Author(s): J. F. Santee

Oregon Historical Quarterly, Mar. 1932, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Mar. 1932), pp. 70-78 Published by: Oregon Historical Society

Source: Santee, J. F. (1932). Edward R. S. Canby, Modoc War, 1873. Oregon Historical Quarterly, 33(1), 70–78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20610699

EDWARD R. S. CANBY, MODOC WAR, 1873 By J. F. SANTE

CANBY, OREGON, and Fort Canby, Washington, perpetuate the name of a gallant officer who played a significant part in the development of the west. General Canby’s sphere of action, of course, was not confined to a single region. In the west, nevertheless, much of his work was accomplished, and in the west he met a heroic death.

Born in Kentucky in 1817, Edward Richard Sprigg Canby

was appointed to West Point from Indiana. He completed his

course Just in time to participate as a second lieutenant in the Seminole War of 1839-1842.

As a captain in the Mexican War, Canby distinguished himself at Contreras, Cherubusco and Belen Gate. For his services in this war, he was successively breveted major and lieutenant-colonel.

The year of the California gold rush found Canby promoted to the assistant adjutant-generalship of the Pacific Division.

From 1851 to 1855, the youthful officer acted as adjutant general for the above-mentioned area.

In 1857 Canby was a member of the Utah expedition, which

had Salt Lake City as its objective. Difficulties had arisen with the Mormons, who felt that they should receive great consideration, particularly as they had fled from persecution to win

their homes from the desert, while Utah was still a part of Mexico. Fortunately, the rather tense situation passed without

actual warfare resulting. 

In 1860 Canby was sent to the southwest as leader of a military force operating against the Navajos. 

But our great fratricidal conflict was now imminent. The

Confederacy was organized and began to lay its plans regarding the far west.1 A convention which met at Tuscon in 1861 declared the area, now included within the limits of New Mexico and Arizona, to be a part of the Confederacy. This convention, acting for the “Territory of Arizona,” elected a delegate to the Confederate congress.

EDWARD R. S. CANBY, MODOC WAR, 1873 71

Colonel William W. Loring was assigned to the command of the Union forces in New Mexico early in 1861. A little later, Loring entered the service of the Confederacy, and Canby succeeded to this command. The war department manifested appreciation of Canby’s services in New Mexico in 1862, by promoting him to the rank of brigadier-general.

Canby was ordered east in September, 1862, and it became his disagreeable duty to command the city and harbor of New

York, during the sanguinary draft riots of 1863. Subsequently, Canby directed the Mobile campaign to a suc cessful termination. This won him a brevet major-generalship. Following the Civil War, in July, 1866, Canby was made a brigadier-general in the regular army.

The reconstruction period had now begun, and Canby was prominent as a participant in the work of restoring the broken south. From September, 1867, to September, 1868, Canby commanded the military district of the Carolinas. Then, after an assignment in Texas, he served in Virginia, until he was sent to the Pacific northwest in 1870, to replace General Crook as commander of the Department of the Columbia.

Assignment to military duty in the far west in the 1870s was likely to mean actual campaigning. This was the decade which witnessed the Nez Perce uprising, under the leadership of the justly renowned Chief Joseph, the far-flung operations of Ger onimo and his Apache raiders, the destruction of Custer and his cavalry by Sitting Bull’s recalcitrant Sioux, as well as the Modoc War, with which the name of General Canby is inseparably connected.

The first transcontinental railroad had been completed in 1869, westward expansion thereby receiving a new impetus. The aboriginal lords of the land were about to be dispossessed. A barbarian folk, proud and free, found themselves faced with the prospect of being thrown back to the waste spaces where only a precarious living was possible, or forced to drag out an existence of cruel monotony upon some reservation as prisoners of the dominant race.

A tribe given to retaliatory measures was the Modoc, of the Klamath Lake region. The Modocs, by the way, were originally members of the Klamath tribe.

Misunderstandings with the whites had occurr 1850, when the first Modoc uprising took place. Although severely defeated, the spirit of the tribesmen was years later the Modocs killed some members of race. A band of miners, following the leadership oious Ben Wright,” determined upon a great revenge.

“Under guise of a peacemaker, Wright invited to visit his camp and treacherously murdered 42 of the number.”‘2

This “lesson” was so seriously taken to heart by the Modocs that, for some years after this event, they contrived to make extremely awkward situations for such white men as had the hardihood to venture into the Modoc country. However, in 1864, after being defeated, the 250 remaining members of the tribe consented to retire to the Klamath reservation. The Modocs became dissatisfied, accusing the Klamaths of domineering tendencies, and, finally, following two of their chiefs, Captain Jack (Keintpoos) and Sconchin John, about one-half the deci

mated tribe returned to the old camps at Lost River.

This was the situation in 1872, about two years after General Canby succeeded General Crook as commander of the Department of the Columbia. Regarding this disaffected band, one

historian writes:

The Modocs, who were led by Captain Jack, a resourceful member of the tribe, were a degraded people, by common standards, whose men forfeited all claim to local esteem by profit

ing from the immoralities of their women… .3

This historian neglects to specify the source of the profit. A spirit of fairness might lead one to inquire as to the racial identity of those who participated with the Modoc women in their alleged immoralities.

The Modocs have their own version of their final struggle against the whites. Peter Sconcion (Sconchin), a son of Sconchin John, says: “We believed the country belonged to us rightfully. We had been deceived by the whites, and we were determined to fight for our country.”4

Schonchin John and Captain Jack pose for this photograph taken a to the U.S. Army on June 1, 1873

Chief Keintpoos, or Captain Jack, as the whites called himy, set forth an economic reason for the Modoc War of 1872-73. His reported words are: “Kill with bullets don’t hurt much; starve to death hurt a heap.”

Hostilities began soon after Colonel Green, in command at Fort Klamath, dispatched a force to bring in Captain Jack and his band. The troops held a short parley with the tribesmen about daybreak, November 29, 1872. This parley, at what seems an unearthly hour, broke up in a fight. One cavalryman was killed and seven wounded. The Indians also sustained

losses.

Captain Jack and his remaining followers escaped. Burning

with revenge, they moved upon certain settlers who occupied lands to which the Modocs had previously laid claim. The settlers were entirely at the mercy of the Indians, but only a few were killed.

Emissaries were now sent by Captain Jack to Chief Sconchin

(Not Sconchin John), of the reservation Modocs, urging that all the tribe unite in fighting the whites. Foreseeing this contingency, Captain Oliver C. Applegate had hastened to Chief Sconchin, at Fort Yainax, and had requested that the reservation Modocs refrain from assisting Captain Jack.

Chief Sconchin, after deliberating upon Applegate’s words, implored his people to remain loyal to the whites. In making this momentous decision, Chief Sconchin was necessarily torn by conflicting emotions. He could not forget that Captain Jack was his brother, and that Captain Jack’s second in command, Sconchin John, was a half-brother.

Captain Applegate says: “Chief Sconchin was as wonderful’ a man as ever lived.”6

Soon after Chief Sconchin’s decision, Applegate organized the loyal Modoc warriors into a defense corps. A stockade of logs was built around a spring near Straight River, not far from Fort Yainax. 

This was done to guard against an unexpected attack from the hostiles. The attack occurred, and warriors were repulsed.

On January 17, 1873, pursuing troops came upon the hostiles in the lava beds of northern California. This encounter resulted in the defeat of the troops, with a loss of nine killed and 30 wounded.

It now became apparent that subjugating Keintpoos’ Modocs would be no small task. Besides, the news of the Indian band was likely to increase the restlessness of other tribes. Accordingly, General Canby, then at Fort Vancouver, was urged to send additional troops to the theater of War. Reinforcements were dispatched immediately. 

From the present-day viewpoint, transportation facilities in Oregon in 1873 left much to be desired. The contingent dispatched from Fort Vancouver traveled to Portland by water. From Portland to Roseburg, the journey was made by rail. Roseburg was then the southern terminus soldiers found it necessary to march the remainder of the way.

The troops in the field now numbered about 600. By way of contrast, it is well to consider that Captain Jack had fewer than 100 men and boys capable of bearing arms and that he was further handicapped by having to consider the welfare of the women and children of the band.

On January 30, 1873, the secretary of war directed William T. Sherman to notify Canby that military operations against the Modocs should cease. General Wheaton, in command of troops in the field, was superseded by Colonel Alvin C. Gillem.

Canby, who felt that the new order of the war department implied censure of himself, sent word to Sherman that hostilities could not have been avoided. Sherman replied:

Let all defensive measures proceed, but order no attack on the Indians until the former orders are modified or changed by the president [Grant], who seems disposed to allow the peace

men to try their hands on Captain Jack.7

Three commissioners, A. B. Meacham, Samuel Case, and Jesse

Applegate (an uncle of Oliver C. Applegate, before-mentioned), had been appointed by the Government to negotiate with the hostile Modocs. Canby met with the commissioners at Linkville (Klamath Falls), in the Modoc country, on February

18.

Captain Jack now pursued a vacillating policy, with regard to the peace overtures. This is commonly attributed to his being a “wily savage.” The fact that eight of his fellow tribesmen had been indicted for murder before a Jackson County grand jury, may have had something to do with his actions. Captain Jack no doubt thought that surrender might mean putting his head in a noose. He was inclined to take the white men’s promises with a large grain of salt. Early in March Sherman wired Canby:

All parties here have absolute faith in you, but mistrust commissioners. . . . If you can effect the surrender to you of the hostile Modocs, do it, and remove them under guard to some safe place, assured that the Government will deal with them liberally and fairly.8

Canby now disagreed with the commissioners. In case the Modocs could be induced to surrender, Canby considered that

general amnesty should be granted. The commissioners wished to make an exception in the case of eight Modocs indicted in

Jackson County.

Evidently, Canby resolved to have his own way, for, after

March 6, “no board really existed, and everything was in the hands of Canby.”9

From reports reaching him, Canby understood that the Modocs would surrender on March 10. Wagons were sent to a designated place, but no Modocs appeared. The tribesmen were not ready to place themselves at the white man’s mercy.

Sherman began to lose patience. In a somewhat lengthy telegram to Canby, he advised that negotiations be continued, but concluded thus:

“Should these peaceful measures fail, and should the Modocs presume too far on the forbearance of the government, and again resort to deceit and treachery, I trust that you will make such use of the military force that no other will imitate their example, and that no reservation for them will be necessary except graves among their chosen lava beds”10

Canby tightened the cordon of soldiery abo their northern California stronghold and advanced to a point only three miles from the Modoc in their northern California stronghold, and advanced headquarters to a point only three miles from the Modoc outposts.

On April 2, Captain Jack informed the commission, now consisting of A. B. Meacham, E. Thomas, Methodist minister, of Petaluma, California L. S. Dyar of the Klamath agency, that he desired a general a and that he wished his people settled on Lost Creak. Two days later, Captain Jack let it be known that the Modocs would consider being settled on a reservation including Willo, Cottonwood, and Hot creeks in California.

Toby “Winema” Riddle (1848–1920) was a Modoc woman who served as an interpreter in negotiations between the Native American Modoc tribe and the United States Army during the Modoc War (also called the Lava Beds War).

Canby’s instructions would not permit him to accede to these demands. Consequently, the Modocs, fearing that they would be treated with severity in the event of a surrender, became morose. About this time, Canby’s interpreter, Winema, the wife of Frank Riddle, was instructed to arrange for a council between the Modoc leaders and Canby and the peace commissioners. Winema, herself a Modoc, and cousin of Jack and Sconchin John, succeeded in getting the hostiles to agree to a meeting. However, Winema warned that the Modocs had sinister intentions. Canby and Thomas affected to treat this information lightly, but Meacham and Dyar seemed more impressed.

Winema’s husband, Frank Riddle, was so disturbed that the presence of General Canby, Colonel Gillem, and the peace commissioners, he made a formal protest against the proposed meeting. Riddle admitted that he was consenting to go to the rendezvous, rather than to suffer the imputation of cowardice. He advised that concealed weapons be carried. “To this proposition, Canby and Thomas punctiliously objected, but Meacham and Dyar concealed each a small pistol. . .”11

On the morning of April 11, the fatal conference took place. The place selected by Captain Jack for the meeting was a depression in the rocks, not a great distance from the Modoc stronghold.

“Canby offered the Modocs cigars, which were accepted, and all smoked for a little while. The general then opened the council, speaking in a fatherly way…. Meacham and Thomas followed, encouraging them to look forward to a happier home, where the bloody scenes of Lost River could be forgotten.

In reply, Jack said he had given up Lost River, but he knew nothing of other countries, and he required Cottonwood and Willow creeks in place of it …” 12

The Modocs began to be disrespectful when Canby did not promise to grant their requests. Thereupon, “Meacham looked toward the general and inquired if he had anything more to say.'”

Canby, who had been sitting, arose. Continuing to talk pleasantly, Canby related how a certain tribe had made him a chief and had given him the name of “Indian’s Friend,” and how another tribe had paid him a similar honor, naming him “the Tall Man.”

Sconchin John then reiterated the Modoc demands for Willow and Cottonwood creeks. While Sconchin John’s words were being interpreted, Captain Jack began moving about restlessly. As he took up a position opposite Canby, two Indians appeared carrying a number of guns.

Murder of General Canby and the Rev. Dr. Thomas, an 1873 print

At Captain Jack’s “Ut wih kutt” (“All ready” or “Let’s do it”), every man sprang to his feet. Almost simultaneously Captain Jack drew a revolver which had been concealed and fired at the general. The latter fled, wounded, but was killed by Bogus Charley.”3 Thomas met his death at the hands of Boston Charley. Thomas met his death at the hands of Boston Charley. 

“Sconchin John shot Colonel A. B. Meacham five times, but did not kill him. As Meacham lay unconscious, another Indian drew a gun. “Don’t shoot a dead man!” screamed Winema. The shot was not fired. As another Indian (Boston Charley14) started to scalp Meacham, Winema . . . (cried out), “The soldiers are coming!” The Indian delegates ran away, and Riddle, Winema, and L. S. Dyar . . . escaped, taking Colonel

Meacham with them. 15

Meacham recovered and lived for many yea trouble.

The entire country was stunned upon receiving the news of the disastrous culmination of the efforts of the peace commission. “At Portland the funeral honors paid to Canby were

almost equal to those paid Lincoln.16

Operations were carried on against the Modocs with renewed

vigor, but the whites sustained severe losses before Captain Jack finally surrendered on June 1.

“Captain Jack, a half-brother, Black Jim, Barncho, Slolux, Boston Charley, and Sconchin John were all captured, court-martialed, and found guilty of murder. Barncho and Slolux were given life sentences in Alcatraz Island penitentiary . . . and the others were hanged (October 3, 1873).17