Captain Jack and the peacemaker – bound to clash

October 3, 1873

On this day, Modoc chief, Captain Jack, was hanged for the murder of General Edward R.S. Canby.  It sparked a perfect storm of revenge and retaliation. 

It was nearly inevitable the two would clash. Canby, a skilled negotiator, was considered highly principled by superiors but often not sufficiently aggressive.  Captain Jack, (above) known as Kintpuash, had remained fiercely combative and resisting incursion into Native lands, having nursed a litany of grievances for more than three decades.  

Relationships with the indigenous people of the Northwest began to fray early.  In 1843, explorer John C. Fremont and his famous scout, Kit Carson, (left) attacked an innocent village in a case of mistaken identity.

When Carson’s close friend, Basil Lajeunesse, was murdered overnight in the Fremont camp by an unknown assailant, Fremont and Carson attacked a group of innocent Klamath Lake people, igniting years of hostility.

And then it happened again.  When a group of settlers were massacred by members of California’s Pit River Tribe in 1852, their avengers nearly wiped out an entire band of peaceful Modoc, including members of Captain Jack’s family.  The two sides skirmished repeatedly over the next decade.

In an effort to end the bickering, in 1864 the Federal government convinced the Modoc, Klamath and Shoshone to sign over more than a million acres of prime land in California in exchange for a reservation in Oregon.  In another classic cultural blunder, the Modoc were shoehorned into a tight space with their traditional enemy, the Klamath.  

Despite increased unfair treatment at the hands of the Klamath, Modoc chief, Old Schonchin, (right) and his band chose to remain on the reservation.  The youthful Captain Jack and 160 Modoc, however, returned to California.  Sticking a finger in the eye of the government, they set up a toll road, charging settlers and soldiers to cross their land. 

Most of the Modoc were harassed into surrendering.  But Captain Jack and a small band of militants refused and went on the lam.

Enter General Canby, (right) the diplomat.   With no clear directive from Washington,Canby didn’t know if he was to make peace or war with the runaways and finally sent troops off to capture the young chief.  

According to most historians, Captain Jack actually surrendered without incident.  But in another snafu, one of Canby’s lieutenants and Modoc chief, Scarface Charley (below) exchanged gun fire during the surrender.  Jack and his band headed for the hills again, hiding out in “Captain Jack’s  Stronghold,”  now Lava Beds National Monument. 

Canby’s peace efforts were dealt a second blow when one of the escaping Modoc killed 18 settlers on the way to the Stronghold.

By January 17, 1873, the general believed he’d cornered Captain Jack’s band.  Instead, the Modocs decimated Canby’s detachment in the Battle of Lost River.  Nearly three dozen soldiers were killed and many more wounded.  

Depiction of Captain Jack’s Stronghold

Facts surrounding Canby’s murder ten months later remain murky to this day.  Some sources claim the Modoc were convinced that killing the “white man’s leader” would drive out the intruders.  Jack, reportedly reluctant to kill Canby, was perhaps persuaded to believe the myth. 

In the meantime, the on-again-off-again peace negotiations were stalled several times over rumors that Oregon governor, La Fayette Grover, (left) planned to hang eight of the Modoc.

And then there’s the question of “who warned General Canby.” One version says he was told of the assassination plot by his Modoc translator, Toby Winema Riddle. (Below)   Yet another claims a number of government officials, citing Modoc “volitility,” advised Canby to skip the peace parlay altogether.  

Undisputed is that Canby had promised to attend the talks unarmed.  On April 11, 1873, he kept his word despite the threats to his safety.   Midway, Captain Jack shot Canby in the head and then cut his throat.  Also killed was Methodist Peace Commissioner, Eleazer Cady Thomas.  All the attackers managed to escape. 

Three months later Captain Jack was betrayed by a colorful quartet of Modoc turncoats; Hooka Jim, (right, photographed while in prison) Bogus Charley, Shacknasty Jim and Steamboat Frank.  On June 1, 1873, Captain Jack surrendered, was taken to Fort Klamath and hanged along with three others. The remainder of the band was returned to the Klamath Reservation.

The unfortunate affair didn’t end with the executions, however.  Next came  rumors of the disposition of the bodies.  One story had Captain Jack’s body embalmed and sold to a carnival.  While proven to be untrue, the actual facts were perhaps even more sordid.  All four were sent to the Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C., and decapitated.  

Fifteen years later the remains of the four were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution.  Finally in 1984, six years ahead of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, they were returned to tribal members in California, along with the bones of an unknown woman. (Right, Captain Jack, photographed in prison)

General Canby  found his way home posthumously, as well.  Returned to Indiana, he was reinterred at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis with a brace of Union generals in attendance. A monument known as “Canby’s Cross” was erected at the site of the general’s murder in the 1880s and three towns; Canby, Oregon Canby, Minnesota, and Canby, California, bear his name.

Charles Bronson in early role as Captain Jack

Viewed as a hero by many Native Americans, Captain Jack’s legacy suffered at the hands Hollywood with the 1954 film “Drum Beat.” While historically inaccurate, Charles Bronson turn in a performance as “a memorable villain” as Captain Jack.”  The Modoc story is also featured in Terry Johnson’s historical novel “Devil’s Backbone.”   Arthur Quinn’s nonfiction work, “Hell With the Fire Out” provides a more balanced view of the Modoc struggle.

Lava Beds National Monument, 1 Indian Well Headquarters, Tulelake, California, is one of the nation’s most remote parks.  With limited facilities and sometimes challenging conditions, visitors say the trek is well worth it.  Cool in summer, guided tours of Crystal Ice Cave and Fern Cave are available.  Ten short trails from half mile to two miles in length take visitors past lava formations, petroglyphs and Captain Jack’s Stronghold.  Three long trails are available to hikers and trail riders.  

The park features one 43-site campground with one group site.  Campers are limited to eight people per site.  Pets are allowed, but must be leashed at all times and owners are warned of numerous hazards including snakes and predators.  Backcountry camping is allowed with a permit.  Private campgrounds and lodging are available within 30 miles of the park.   A $25 entrance fee is valid for seven days and campsites are $10 per night.  See the website for the Park Service listing of a number of “fee free” days at the beginning of the year.

The park is open 24 hours a day year round.  The visitor center is open 9 to 5:30 June through August, 9 to 4:30, September through November, 10 to 4 December through February and 9 to 4:30 March through May.  Some exceptions apply and visitors should call in advance for current conditions. 

 For more information go to Beds National Monument, email, call (530) 667-8113 or write Lava Beds National Monument, P.O. Box 1240, Tulelake, CA 96134. 

© Text Only – 2019  – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.