The Modoc War

One of the more interesting tales from the Indian Wars is the Modoc War, in Oregon and Northern California, 1872-73.  A Native friend was of Modoc descent, so the history interested me.  It’s difficult to find much justification for the US, and the Modocs had fewer than 60 warriors amid 3 bands.  $20,000 would have funded the small reservation they asked for, and the war wound up costing about $500,000.

It was a small war by today’s standards – 37 US military dead, 2 scouts and 16 civilians.  Another 67 wounded.  Either 15 or 17 Modoc warriors killed . . . and that includes four hanged after surrender – Captain Jack, Boston Charlie, Schonchin John, and Black Jim.  

The recorded names of the Modoc leaders and warriors are predominately in English – Bogus Charlie, Boston Charlie, Curly-headed Doctor, Steamboat Frank, Ellen’s Man George, Greasy Boots, Shacknasty Jim and his brother Shacknasty Frank, Mooch, and, of course, Captain Jack.  Legend has it that Shacknasty Jim and Shacknasty Frank received their names because of their mother’s housekeeping – but the linguists make a good case that Shacknasty was a corruption of the Modoc word for left-handed. 

At the end, roughly a thousand US troops, led by Colonel Jefferson C. Davis, fought less than 60 Modocs, led by Captain Jack.  As near as I can tell, the Modocs won every battle.  The largest ethical problem was that Captain Jack killed General Canby at a peace conference, and that sort of thing isn’t condoned.  On the other hand, Colonel Davis had killed General William “Bull” Nelson in a hotel lobby.  If there is another war where both sides were led by men who murdered US generals, I haven’t found its mention.

After murdering General Nelson, Colonel Davis fought his way through the American Civil War, and formal charges never caught up with him.  After the war between the states, he was sent north to Alaska as its first military commandant.  After surrendering, Captain Jack was hanged for the murder of General Canby, and 153 Modocs were sent to Oklahoma, where the descendants of Captain Jack’s band remain, the smallest tribe in Oklahoma.  In 1909, 51 surviving Modocs were allowed to return to the Klamath reservation in Oregon.  The histories do not have great details about 51 people over a century ago.  Bogus Charlie became the Chief who succeeded Captain Jack.  Steamboat Frank became a minister. 

It was not a splendid little war.

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