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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society
Vol. 33 No. 1 (Mar. 1932), pp70‑78

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p70 Edward R. S. Canby, Modoc War, 1873

By J. F. Santee

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 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, Cherubuscoº 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 assist 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 Tucson 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.

p71 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 successful 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 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.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 , under the leadership of the justly renowned Chief Joseph, the far-flung operations of Geronimo 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.

p72 Misunderstandings with the whites had occurred as early as 1850, when the first Modoc uprising took place. Although severely defeated, the spirit of the tribesmen was unbroken. Two years later the Modocs killed some members of the intruding race. A band of miners, following the leadership of "the notorious Ben Wright," determined upon a great revenge.

"Under guise of a peacemaker, Wright invited 46 warriors 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 decimated 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 profiting 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. p73We had been deceived by the whites, and we were determined to fight for our country."4

Chief Keintpoos, or Captain Jack, as the whites called him, 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."5

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 p74Yainax. This was done to guard against an unexpected attack from the hostiles. The attack occurred, but Captain Jack's 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 success of this 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. As Roseburg was then the southern terminus of the railroad, the 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 General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.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 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.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 [Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.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 p75Applegate (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 should be induced to surrender, Canby considered that general amnesty should be granted. The commissioners wished to make an exception in the case of the 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 p76make such use of the military force that no other Indian tribe 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 about the Modocs, 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 reorganized peace commission, now consisting of A. B. Meacham, E. Thomas, a Methodist minister, of Petaluma, California, and L. S. Dyar of the Klamath agency, that he desired a general amnesty granted, and that he wished his people settled on Lost Creek. Two days later, Captain Jack let it be known that the Modocs would consider being settled on a reservation including Willow, Cottonwood and Hot creeks in California.

Canby's instructions would not permit him to accede to those demands. Consequently, the Modocs, fearing that they would be treated with severity in the event of 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 a cousin of Captain Jack and Sconchin John, succeeded in getting the hostiles to agree to a meeting. However, Winema warned the white leaders 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 in 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 p77in 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.

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.13 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 Charley)14 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

p78 Meacham recovered and lived for many years after the Modoc 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


The Author's Notes:

1 Smiley, Whitford's Colorado Volunteers in the Civil War, 13.

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2 Jessie Gould Olds, Portland Telegram, January 1, 1931. But see William Thompson, Reminiscences of a Pioneer, 80‑3.

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3 Carey, History of Oregon, 676.

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4 Portland Telegram, January 1, 1931, 3.

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5 Bancroft, History of Oregon, II, 601.

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6 Dudley McClure, Oregon Journal, December 29, 1930, 13.

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7 Bancroft, already cited, II, 596.

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8 Same, 602.

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9 Same, 603.

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10 Same, 605.

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11 Same, 610.

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12 Same, 611.

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13 Horner, Days and Deeds in the Oregon Country, 160.

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14 Same, 160‑61.

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15 McClure, Oregon Journal, December 29, 1930, 13.

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16 Bancroft, already cited, 613‑14.

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17 McClure, Oregon Journal, December 29, 1930, 13.


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