The bare bones story of the Modoc War, also known as the Lava Beds War, is one of institutionalized genocide and land theft in the name of Manifest Destiny. The fleshed-out version reveals the complexities of human nature while demonstrating what little has changed regarding relations between Indigenous peoples and the U.S. Government. Robert McNally’s version, aptly titled The Modoc War, falls into the latter category.
McNally, author and co-author of nine nonfiction books, is known for his vivid, information-laden writing style. His telling of the armed conflict between the Modoc people and the United States Army near the California-Oregon border from 1872 to 1873 is true to form, a historical thriller that reveals the intricacies of the conflict:
“A mixed-race lieutenant who kept secret the African American portion of his heritage in order to command white troopers, [Lieutenant Frazier] Boutelle knew more than a little about playing a role. He unholstered his revolver and locked eyes with the Indian whose heavily scarred right cheek pulled an otherwise strong and handsome face into a perpetual sneer. His Modoc name was Chick-chack-am Lul-al-kuel-atko, something local settlers wouldn’t even try to wrap their mouths around, so they dubbed him Scarface Charley.”
Several chapters of The Modoc War focus on the national press coverage of the time. Modocs were demonized as savage and treacherous for fighting back against those who tried to dispossess and destroy them. A New York Times editorial on the Modocs referred to the “innate ferocity and treachery of the Indian character.” Ironically, the white settlers and governmental figures perpetrated the very savagery and treachery they projected onto Natives. After having fled the shackles of British rule, Americans sought independence for all men, though, when it came to Indigenous peoples, “the United States government approached Indians with a Bible in one hand and a Sharps carbine in the other.”
The Modoc once lived in villages on and near Tule, Lower Klamath, and Clear Lakes until the intrusion of fur traders and white settlers, who demanded that the Modoc be relocated on the Klamath Reservation with the Klamath and Yahooskin Paiute nations. The Modoc and the Klamath separated in the late eighteenth century and remained distantly familial, McNally writes, though other accounts say the Modoc and the Klamath were enemies and competitors. The Modoc described in the book were composed of three groups loosely following the waning leadership of Kientpoos (nicknamed Captain Jack by the settlers). Initially convinced to move to the Klamath Reservation, Kientpoos and other Modoc left the poor conditions of the reservation for their home on the Lost River. What followed was a series of attempts by the U.S. Army and militiamen to either move the Modoc people back to the reservation or exterminate them. The war resulted in the unfair trial of Modoc fighters who were charged as war criminals and hanged. The survivors were forced onto the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma where they again found little of the food, clothing, shelter, and medicine promised by the government.
In under 360 pages, McNally’s The Modoc War uses the power of hindsight to characterize historical subjects in thematic fashion, revealing deeper motivations behind the heart-rending war in the Lava Beds.