On the Modoc War, a Small Step in the Right Direction

McNally_RobertRobert Aquinas McNally is a freelance writer and editor based in Concord, California. He is the author or coauthor of nine nonfiction books, including So Remorseless a Havoc: Of Dolphins, Whales, and Men. His book The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age (Bison Books, 2017) won the California category book award from the Commonwealth Club and was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. 

On the Modoc War, a Small Step in the Right Direction.

Now Comes the Hard Part.

First, the good news. On April 2, the Oregon Senate unanimously passed a resolution honoring those who lost their lives on both sides of the Modoc War of 1872–73 and expressing regret over the expulsion of the Modocs from ancestral lands in Oregon to Oklahoma, where they were held as prisoners of war. This is a significant legislative milestone, a rare instance where government reaches out to Native Americans to make amends for a wrongful history. And, in what it doesn’t do, Oregon’s Senate Concurrent Resolution 12 points out how much difficult restorative work yet remains to be done.

SCR 12 was drafted and introduced by Fred Girod, a Republican state senator from the Willamette Valley town of Stayton. The idea came to him after he watched The Modoc War, an hour-long documentary from Oregon Public Broadcasting. After reaching out to OPB producer/director Kami Horton, Senator Girod connected with Cheewa James, a Modoc author who has written two books on the war, served as consultant on the film, and herself appears on camera. James’s connection to the war is personal: she descends from Shkeitko, better known to non-Natives as Shacknasty Jim, a fearsome fighter who was a Modoc battle leader.

Girod’s resolution recounts key events of the war, which pitted a mere 55 to 60 Native fighters defending more than 100 elders, women, and children against 1,000 U.S. soldiers. It notes the war’s tremendous cost in money and blood and spells out how the Modoc survivors were “herded into rail cars and sent as prisoners of war” to Oklahoma Indian Territory. They were legally unable to return until 1909, 36 years after the war’s last shot was fired.

The original draft of SCR 12 also expressed regret for the hanging of four Modocs for war crimes.The version that passed out of the Oregon Senate and on to the House, however, deleted this expression of regret. Since the war crimes conviction covers the killing of Brigadier General E. R. S. Canby and another negotiator during peace talks, the amendment made SCR 12 politically more palatable but also far less pioneering.

Still, during a hearing on the resolution, Cheewa James praised Girod’s measure as “a gracious act, one deserving to those who have lived in the shadow of the Modoc War these many years.” Allen Nelson, who descends from Modoc combat commander Scarface Charley, praised the resolution as “another step forward in the healing process for the spirit of our ancestors, the Modoc families, descendants and tribes in the region.” Don Gentry, chair of the Klamath Tribes, which includes the Modocs who returned to Oregon from Oklahoma, sent a letter supporting SCR 12. “Acknowledging the truth of wrongs done,” he wrote, “is a critical first step towards healing those affected.”

Indeed it is, yet there’s much more to do. Closing the open and deep wounds left by the Modoc War is hard work that SCR 12 has only just begun.

None of the seemingly countless campaigns waged against Native Americans stands alone as a self-contained history. Rather, America’s Indian wars fall into linked patterns that depend on their time and place. In the case of the Modoc War, that pattern’s heart is the California genocide.

The war began along Lost River in Oregon, then spilled into California when the Modocs retreated to a lava fortress known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold in what today is Lava Beds National Monument. There the besieged Natives held off the military for nearly six months. In the end, superior firepower and overwhelming force defeated the insurgents and set the stage for the war crimes executions and the Oklahoma exile.

The war actually began, however, not on its conventional starting date of November 29, 1872, but more than two decades earlier. In January 1851, California’s first civilian governor, Peter Burnett, declared that the only feasible solution to the state’s Native “problem” was extermination — the 19th century’s term for genocide. The legislature then put its money where Burnett’s mouth was, passing bond measures worth nearly $40 million in today’s currency. The money went to fund militias that fanned out through California to destroy Native villages and kill their inhabitants.

Several such militia campaigns swept across Modoc territory. Numbering as many as 2,000 people in the mid 1840s, Modocs were killed at such a rate that their population fell to but 339 in 1864. More Modocs died during the war, yet the terrible public health conditions of the Oklahoma exile killed even more than did the armed conflict.

What happened to the Modocs in particular befell Native Californians in general. When California became American in 1846, the state was home to an estimated 150,000 Indigenous people. By 1873 that number was down to 30,000. In 1900 Native Californians numbered only 15,000.

Thanks to ground-breaking research begun by Brendan C. Lindsay in Murder State (Nebraska, 2012) and augmented by Benjamin Madley in An American Genocide (Yale, 2016), scholars have largely come to acknowledge that 19th-century California engineered the most extensive and destructive genocide on American soil. The next step will be to make this terrible reality public knowledge that drives political conversation toward admitting the wrongs of the past.

Thanks to Oregon for lighting the way forward. Now, California, it’s your turn to step up.


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