Students of the history of the American West—and the wars of the United States government against the indigenous American Indian tribes in particular—will be familiar with the early 1870s action against the Modoc Indians. This was the last of the conflicts with native American tribes in California and Oregon and came about when the Indian leader, ‘Captain Jack,’ led a party of 150 Modocs, including over 50 warriors, away from their Klamath reservation to take up defensive positions in the lava beds south of Tule Lake, on the California/Oregon border. The guerrilla war they waged endured for months, with the Modocs resisting attempts to defeat them in battle, or to dislodge them from their stronghold, by the U. S Army and native Indian and volunteer forces. The murder of General Canby and another peace commissioner by ‘Captain Jack’ and others during a truce negotiation has made the conflict infamous. The author of this book, Alfred Meacham, was the U. S Superintendent for Indian Affairs in Oregon; he knew the principal characters and leaders of the Modocs well and was engaged closely in the events of the war. He was wounded in the famous incident which took the lives of two of his colleagues, so his account provides the reader with a uniquely informed and comprehensive account of the war and is a primary source on the subject. The war may be familiar to some readers as the background for the movie ‘Drum Beat’ (1954), starring Alan Ladd which in the character of ‘Captain Jack’ also gave Charles Bronson his first movie role.
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Captain Jack, seeing that “he was cornered,” began to quibble about what part of the Reservation he was to go on to. This was met with the proposition that he could have any unoccupied land. Finding his objections all fairly met, he finally said, that, if he could live near his friend, Link-river Jack, he would go. We began to “breathe easy,” feeling that the victory was ours, when the Modoc medicine-man arose, and simply said, “Me-ki-gam-bla-ke-tu,” (We won’t go there); when, presto! from exultation every countenance was changed to an expression of anxiety, and every hand grasped a revolver.<br>
The moment was fraught with peril. The least wavering then, on our part, would have precipitated a fight, the result of which would have been doubtful as to how many, and who, of our party would have come out alive. It is quite certain that, had a fight ensued, what has since startled our people would have been anticipated, and that the name of Captain Jack would have passed away with but little notice from among the savage heroes.<br>
It was there I first heard those terrible words, a part of which have since become famous, uttered but a moment before the attack on the Peace Commission, on April 11, 1873—“Ot-we-kau-tux-e,”—meaning, in this instance, “I am done talking;” or, when used in other connections, “All ready!” or, “The time has come!” or, “Quit talking.” The vocabularies of all Indian languages are very small; hence, a word depends, to a great extent, on its connection, for its meaning and power. It was just at this point that the woman, Tobey Riddle, who has since proved her sagacity and her loyalty, arose to her feet, and said in Modoc tongue to her people:“Mo-lok-a ditch-e ham-konk lok-e sti-nas mo-na gam-bla ot-we,”—(“The white chief talks right. His heart is good or strong. Go with him now!”)Frank Riddle joined the woman Tobey in exhorting the Modocs to be quiet, to be careful, using such words as tend to avert, what we all saw was liable to happen any instant, a terrible scene of blood.<br>
Dr. McKay, whose long experience had given him much sagacity, arose quickly to his feet, saying in English, “Be on your guard! Don’t let them get the drop on us.” Captain Jack started to retire when I intercepted him, saying, “Don’t leave me now; I am your friend, but I am not afraid of you. Be careful what you do! We mean peace, but are ready for war. We will not begin; but if you do, it shall be the end of your people. You agreed to go with us, and you shall do it. We are ready. Our wagons are here to carry your old people and children. We came for you, and we are not going back without you. You must go!”<br>
He asked “what I would do, if he did not.” I told him plainly that we would whip him until he was willing. He then wanted to know where my men were that was to whip him. I pointed to my small squad of men. I shall never forget his reply. “I would be ashamed to fight so few men with all my boys.” I replied, that it was force enough to kill some Modocs, before we were all dead; that when we were killed more white men would come.<br>
Not having very strong faith in his pride about fighting so few men, I informed him that I had soldiers coming to help us, but that we came on to try talking first, and then when that failed we would send for them to come; finally stating to him that he could make up his mind to go with us on the morrow, or fight, and that in the meanwhile we would be ready at any time for him to begin, if he wished to. He said then what he repeated many times to Peace Commissioners on last spring,—that “he would not fire the first shot,” but if we did, “he was not afraid to die.” It was finally agreed that he should have until the next morning to make answer what he would do, and that at that time he should report his conclusion.<br>
This ended my first official council with the Modocs. Captain Jack withdrew to his lodge to have a grand “pow-wow,” leaving our party to determine what was the next thing for us to do. We realized that we were “in great danger.” No one dissented from the opinion that peril was menacing our party. Our only hope was to put on a brave front. Retreat at that hour was impossible, with even chances for escape. We despatched a messenger, under pretence of hunting our horses,—we dared not send him boldly on the mission without excuses,—with orders for our military squad at Linkville, twenty-five miles from Modoc camp, to rendezvous at a point within hearing of our guns, and that, in the event of alarm, to “charge the camp,” but in no other event to come until the next morning.<br>
Having despatched the courier, we carefully inspected our arms, consisting of Henry rifles and navy revolvers. Captain Knapp’s experience as an officer of the rebellion and McKay’s longer experience as an Indian fighter, together with the frontier life of the remainder, made our little party somewhat formidable, though inadequate to what might at any moment become a fearful trial of strength.<br>
In this connection it should be understood that at that time the Modocs were very poorly armed with old muskets, and a few rifles and old-fashioned pistols.<br>
The Indians have great reverence and unlimited faith in their “medicine-men.” This is peculiar to all Indians, but to none more so than the Modocs. While our party were invoking Almighty aid and preparing for the worst that might come, the Modoc medicine-man was invoking the spirits of departed warriors for aid. While the medicine-man was making medicine, Captain Jack was holding a council with his braves, discussing the situation, depending somewhat on the impression to be made from the medicine camp, and fully trusting therein. I have since learned that the same man, who subsequently proposed the assassination of the Peace Commission in the “Lava Bed,” in 1873, made the proposition to kill our party in 1869, which, to the credit of Captain Jack, he promptly opposed at that time as he did the other.