Fighting the Modocs: war or genocide?

Fighting the Modocs: war or genocide?

Another perspective of the still controversial Modoc War of 1872-73 is offered by Robert Aquinas McNally in his new book, “The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age.”

“It’s a book that’s been on my mind a long time,” says McNally, who “stumbled into” Lava Beds National Monument, where most of the war’s major battles were fought, in the mid-1970s. Along with the rugged landscape, he was intrigued by the history of the Modoc War.

“I was fascinated by it,” recalls McNally, 71, of his years-ago visit and thoughts of writing a book about the war.

In 2011, after raising a family, he revisited the book idea and spent months writing a novel. But “by the time I got to the end, I realized it didn’t work,” so he decided to write a history in a readable style. While he says everything in the book is factual, he wrote it “in a way that has a storytelling narrative.”

He delves into a range of topics. The Applegate family, especially Jesse, comes in for criticism because of actions McNally believes raised antagonism against the Modocs by settlers while Jesse was working to develop and expand ranch holdings with Jesse Carr.

“He saw the Modocs as obstacles he needed to get out of the way,” McNally says of Applegate.

He’s likewise critical of Army General E.R.S. Canby, who McNally says asked the Modocs to trust him while refusing to return Modoc horses and building up Army forces. McNally’s description of Canby is terse: “No one would ever have described Edward Richard Sprigg Canby as the sharpest chisel in even a small shed.”

McNally touches on a range of topics, including "sexual slavery” committed by white males against Indian women — “Prostitution became one of the few modes of survival open to Indian women pushed into poverty by the emigrant invasion” — and relates reports that “Modoc women would bed soldiers for 60 rifle cartridges per sexual favor.”

McNally also believes the use of the word genocide is appropriate, noting many referenced extermination in describing ways to handle Indian populations. Because his focus on the war is from an Indian perspective, he says the book's tone is mostly critical of white officers, soldiers, settlers, politicians and others.

“It’s a dark story,” he says.

He believes writings by Patricia Nelson Limerick, a noted historian, apply to the Modoc War.

“The history of westward expansion," she wrote, "has ended up divided into two utterly separate stories: The sad and disheartening story of what whites did to Indians, and the colorful and romantic story of what whites did for themselves.”

McNally also provides often overlooked information on the lack of legal representation when the trial of Captain Jack and five others associated with the killing of Canby was held at Fort Klamath, he discusses reasons why Army doctors decapitated dead Modocs and other Indians, explains the role played by reporters who covered the war and its aftermath, tells of ordeals faced by soldiers in getting to and living at the lava beds, and discusses the fate of Modocs who were sent to Oklahoma as prisoners of war.

Although the war was 145 years ago, McNally’s book is the second on the topic published this year, following Jim Compton’s “Spirit in the Rock: The Fierce Battle for the Modoc Homelands.”

Two other Modoc books were also recently printed: “Remembering the Modoc War,” by Boyd Cothran in 2014, and “Modoc: The Tribe That Wouldn’t Die,” by Cheewa James in 2008. Other Modoc books include “Modoc Vengeance,” a compilation of newspaper stories written during the war collected by Daniel Woodhead in 2012, and “The Fifth Skull,” a historical novel by Terrell Garren in 2008.

“There’s no one true story,” says McNally, who worked with and consulted most of those authors. “They can all be perfectly accurate but they can tell a different story.”

McNally will talk about his book and hold an open discussion at 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 16, at the Klamath County Museum. Copies of his book ($34.95, Bison Books) will be available following the free public program.

— Reach freelance reporter Lee Juillerat at or 541-880-4139.

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