John F. Miller

J. F. Miller & the Modac War

There are some wars, no doubt, that are just wars--wars that have to be fought to right an otherwise irremediable wrong, to oppose an inhuman system of government, or to repel aggression. And there are wars, perhaps, that are inevitable under the circumstances--wars that have to be fought because there is no other way of settling differences. The Modoc War was neither of these.

As far as I'm concerned our narrative begins in 1851, when a bunch of settlers took it upon themselves to start years of conflict with the Modocs. Up till then the Modocs had been fairly quiet. Even though the settlers had run a road through the heart of Modoc country in 1846 without even the courtesy of notifying them, let alone asking their permission, the Modocs had left them pretty much alone. Well, they may have stolen cattle from the settlers, or lifted various small items, but there's no proof of any of it, let alone of all the murders settlers were so fond of writing about in later years. As far as the record shows, the Modocs were a fairly inoffensive bunch--at least as far as white settlers were concerned.

But in 1851 things changed. Somebody stole some horses from a settler named Augustus Meamber, and obviously somebody had to be punished for it. The Modocs were elected. A number of settlers with time on their hands volunteered for the job, and a party led by Samuel Smith set out for Modoc country.

One of these men was Ben Wright, already a noted Indian fighter. Possessed of an undying hatred for the native peoples, the man took a fiendish glee in killing and mutilating them without regard for age or sex. He was good at his job. He knew how to work a town to get money and supplies for an expedition, he knew how to stalk his victims, and he knew how to kill them.

The Modocs may in fact have been guilty of stealing Meamber's horses--or they may not. The Modocs did steal horses--though not usually from settlers. Modoc tradition blames the theft on the Pit Rivers. This is also possible. And, as it happens, there was a ring of white horse thieves operating in the area that summer--three men who left the area one step ahead of a lynch mob and were hanged by Indians when they were finally caught. (Later on settlers would add their names to the list of alleged Modoc victims, though that's getting ahead of the story.) The possibilities are endless.

In any case, guilty or not, the Modocs were to be punished. Smith's outfit went on a murderous rampage through Modoc country, killing men, women, and children indiscriminately. There was not much the Modocs could do about it. Their technology had reached the level of bows and arrows, but guns were still beyond their grasp. The volunteers shot them down easily, and the Modocs were practically unable to retaliate. One man covered his entire body with wickerwork armor, looking to the settlers like an animated basket. It did nothing to stop bullets, and he died like the others.

The volunteers were reasonably happy with their work, though others felt they had not killed nearly enough of the Modocs. Maybe they hadn't at that. Modoc technology did not extend to newspapers, letters, or any other permanent record of their feelings, but it seems safe to assume that they weren't happy about these developments. Although frontier historians have been deliberately obtuse about this, professing to see no connection between the slaughter of Modocs in 1851 and the slaughter of settlers that followed in 1852, it seems reasonable to assume that the Modocs wanted revenge. And so when the settlers started coming along the emigrant road in the summer of 1852, the Modocs were waiting for them.

They ambushed the wagon trains at a place where the road passed north of Tule Lake. Later accounts would exaggerate these killings considerably, but they were bad enough. A few small parties were annihilated, and larger parties that successfully fought them off sustained damage and injuries at the very least. Some reports of trouble with the Modocs seem to have come to Yreka--a northern California mining town near Modoc country--fairly early, but it wasn't until a wagon train brought in a half-demented man, the lone survivor of nine packers slaughtered by the Modocs, that the town decided to call on Ben Wright. He was off mining nearby, but dropped this work in a second when the chance of doing some Indian fighting turned up. This time he was to lead the expedition. A day later he and his volunteers were on their way to Modoc country.

The party included some Indians from the Columbia River region, and these acted as scouts. They managed to find a small Modoc camp, and learned from them that the main group of Modocs were in the region of Tule Lake. Avoiding the roads, Ben Wright's volunteers made their way in that direction.

Before they got there the volunteers ran into a wagon train--actually two wagon trains joined together for protection--that was encamped. The immigrants had been through a harrowing experience. The first train had blundered into the Modoc ambush, and had fought them for hours and hours. The second train had come up behind the ambush, as its guide had left the main road out of fear of an attack, and it had joined the other. The two trains together were far too much for the Modocs, and they had given up in disgust, letting the two trains go on their way. When enough space had been placed between them and the Modocs for them to feel comfortable, they had camped and were now eating their first meal since the attack. They were happy to fill Ben Wright in on the location and numbers of their recent foe, and the volunteers quickly set off in pursuit.

They pitched into the Modocs near Tule Lake, but to their fury the Modocs refused to meet them in open fight where they could easily be slaughtered, and instead took to canoes on the lake and rowed out of reach of their guns. The men found that when they shot into the canoes, the Modoc women and children would fall out into the lake and drown, but this wasn't nearly enough for them. The volunteers only managed to kill some fifteen or twenty people, not anywhere near a good enough result to justify the expense Yreka had gone to in outfitting the expedition.

The volunteers passed the summer escorting wagon trains, burying the dead, and taking occasional potshots at Modoc women unwary enough to get within range of their guns. When the last wagon train passed, most of the Volunteers went home. Not Ben Wright, though. He and a small group were determined to remain out until they had made peace--and their idea of making peace, apparently, meant killing some more Modocs. They tried various ploys to get the Modocs into rifle range, even--according to one story--creating a dummy wagon train in the hopes that the Modocs would attack it. Everything failed.

As interest waned in Yreka Ben Wright sent word that the Modocs were holding white women captive--a favorite story of those who wished to stir up trouble with the Indians. (It would be used again a bit later to stir up a lynch mob against the Rogue River peoples, with considerable success--if by success you mean mindless slaughter.) He also sent for a large quantity of strychnine.

In later years it would be claimed that the Volunteers never intended to poison the Modocs--supposedly that wouldn't have been sporting. This is open to doubt. What is not open to the slightest doubt is that Ben Wright invited the Modocs to a big feast to make peace between their peoples, and that a large number of Modocs accepted. The Volunteers themselves said that one of their Indian allies, a man called Swill, who was enamored of a Modoc woman, warned her not to eat the meat as it was poisoned, and she passed the word on to the others. Obviously under the circumstances the plan to poison the Modocs, if it existed--and why else would the Volunteers send for strychnine?--had to be abandoned.

Even so the peace talks continued. Apparently Ben Wright convinced the Modocs that the report was unfounded--most of them, anyway. Old Schonchin (later chief of the tribe) and a few others left in disgust, Schonchin observing that the Volunteers promised too much to be believed. But time and provisions were running short, and the Volunteers could hardly expect Yreka to send them supplies forever. A new plan was in order.

The new plan was simple, and was carried out the morning of 8 November 1852. Ben Wright hid some of his men outside the Modoc camp, while he and the rest went in to talk peace. This time Wright was brusque and spoke sharply to the chief, who responded in kind. Mary, a Modoc woman who lived with one of Wright's men and acted as interpreter, tried to make peace. She pointed to a young man, the brother of the Modoc woman Wright was living with, and said, "See your brother-in-law." Wright responded by drawing his gun and shooting at the young man. His pistol misfired, but it didn't matter. This was the agreed-upon signal for the attack, and the Volunteers all began shooting the unarmed Modocs. Figures differ, but only a handful of the Modoc peace negotiators survived the attack. And Wright and his men returned to a hero's welcome in Yreka--though in fairness it should be said that the Yrekans were not told exactly how Wright had won his great victory over the Modocs.

Ben Wright went on to receive his just reward for his labors, and maybe his just deserts as well. Believe it or not, he was appointed an Indian Agent for the tribes of the Southern Oregon coast. Some authors insist that as an Indian Agent he was as fierce in the defense of his charges as he had been on the warpath against them, but on the other hand, some of the people he represented took arms against him and murdered him. Perhaps they had a different view of the value of his services.

Troubles between the settlers and the Modocs apparently continued through the 1850s. At least the pioneer historians say they did, and I haven't researched the period myself yet, so I guess I'm stuck with whatever they say. The way they completely loused up the Ben Wright business doesn't exactly inspire confidence, however. But, right or wrong, they tell of conflicts in 1853, 1856, 1859, and 1861.

In 1853 John F. Miller led an expedition into Modoc country to protect the immigrants, much as Ben Wright did in the previous year, though without the pretense of a peace treaty. Or maybe it was Mack Bushy who led the expedition. The historians disagree. In any case the volunteers came into conflict with the Modocs again. Apparently the volunteers saw smoke rising in the direction of Tule Lake, and they took out after it. They found a small group of Modoc families in the lake, either on an island or in their canoes; the Modoc children were dressed in blood-stained clothing taken from murdered immigrant children. In spite of this, says one historian, they were well-treated, merely being held captive until the volunteers left. But another says they "were made to pay the penalty of blood without the process of law, or the law's delays"--a fancy way of saying that the volunteers slaughtered them. At this point your guess is as good as mine as to what really happened. If anything.

The next recorded conflict (if we exclude the killings of Daniel Gage in 1854 and Granville Keene in 1855, allegedly by Modocs) came in 1856 when a force under J. D. Cosby (and possibly D. D. Colton) proceeded against the Modocs and came to some kind of agreement with them; no details of any kind are given by the pioneer historians. At least the agreement seems to have meant something; no further armed conflicts are recorded till the start of the Modoc War.

An expedition went into Modoc country in 1859; troops under Lieutenant Piper searched for allegedly stolen stock. At one point they ran into difficulties with somebody, maybe a group of Modocs, but the Modocs (if they were Modocs) didn't have the stock and the soldiers weren't looking for trouble, and that was the end of that. A similar misunderstanding happened in 1861 when a group of Modocs under Old Schonchin ran into a group of Volunteers under Lindsay Applegate near Bloody Point. Both sides were suspicious of the other. Old Schonchin asked whether the Volunteers had come out to fight. He was told that the Volunteers had come out with provisions to meet an immigrant train that was expected to come in. The Modocs said they hadn't seen it, but they could show the Volunteers a shortcut that would save them many miles of travel. The Volunteers decided to try it, and the Modocs continued on their way. The trouble was that the train was quite a bit closer than the Volunteers realized, and so the Modocs came to it fairly quickly, and realized that the Volunteers, by taking the shortcut, were going to miss it. The Modocs now tried to approach the train to let them know that the Volunteers, with provisions, were behind them. But the immigrants wouldn't let the Modocs get anywhere near them. They weren't taking any chances; when a Modoc approached they held him off at gunpoint. This went on for some time, apparently, as the Volunteers had time enough to reach the road, realize that the train had already gone by, and then to catch up with it. Lindsay Applegate and company found the immigrants and the Modocs locked in mortal state of confusion, and quickly cleared things up. The immigrants were happy to get their provisions, as they were at the end of their supplies, the Volunteers were glad to get their mission accomplished, and maybe the Modocs were pleased too. If for nothing else, they were probably happy to see the Volunteers and the immigrants leave their country.

In later years it would be said that Lindsay Applegate's men had rescued a wagon train about to be wiped out by hostile Modocs.


Context -- the 1850s

Of course the Ben Wright affair didn't happen in a vacuum. As a matter of fact, it happened in a frontier region saturated with conflict among its various peoples. Ben Wright himself had been involved in an expedition against the Rogue River people earlier in 1852; its object was to arrest two men who had murdered a settler. Although the affair could have resulted in out and out war, in the end the peace was kept, the two men were arrested, and amazingly were not even lynched. In fact, one of them was actually acquitted, as the evidence showed he had not been involved in the crime.

Or again, consider the Galice Creek affair. Some time about December 1852--not that long after the Ben Wright business--seven miners disappeared. Miners disappeared all the time, usually to wander on to some other claim where the gold glittered brighter, so apparently nobody thought anything of it, until Chief Taylor, a Rogue River Indian, showed up at Vannoy's Ferry with gold dust. It was now obvious to the settlers that the Indians must have murdered the missing miners and stolen their gold dust, and a lynch mob (dignifed by a pioneer historian with the title of "citizens jury") took out after him.

They caught up with Taylor and a few friends and the "citizens jury" arrested them, tried them, convicted them, and hanged them, the whole process taking about half an hour. (The "citizens jury" later claimed that the men had confessed to the murders before being hanged, but none of the pioneer historians have given us any reason why we should believe them.) The "citizens jury" then somehow reached the conclusion that two white women were being held captive at nearby Table Rock, and headed in that direction to rescue them. No white women turned up there, but the "citizens jury" did manage to kill six villagers while investigating the matter.

Or again, consider the matter of Hiram Hulen et al a couple of years later. Two miners along the Klamath lived with Shasta women who, upset by what they regarded as bad treatment, left them and went back to their own people. The miners chased after them, but their relatives wouldn't let the miners take the women back. So the two miners went to Cottonwood and, claiming that the Indians had stolen horses from them, raised a company of volunteers. The Indians were prepared for the attack, however, and the company rode into ambush, and four of them--Hiram Hulen, John Clark, John Oldfield, and Wesley Mayden--were killed.

Well, obviously, this wouldn't do, so the volunteers sent to nearby Fort Jones for assistance. Troops joined the volunteers and followed the Shastas to their refuge, a cave high in a cliff that served as their fortress. When several shots from a mountain howitzer failed to bring them out, an envoy was sent in to talk with them. When the soldiers found out what the cause of the trouble was, they were disgusted, and advised the Shastas to stay in the cave where the volunteers couldn't get at them. The settlers were infuriated, but there wasn't much to be done; the soldiers were not in the business of supplying miners with local women. Of course the pioneer historians engaged in their usual game of rewriting history, and eventually, when time had passed, these names were added to the ever growing list of victims of the Modocs.