On a cold, rainy dawn in late November 1872, Lieutenant Frazier Boutelle and a Modoc Indian nicknamed Scarface Charley leveled firearms at each other. Their duel triggered a war that capped a decades-long genocidal attack that was emblematic of the United States’ conquest of Native America’s peoples and lands. Robert Aquinas McNally tells the wrenching story of the Modoc War of 1872–73, one of the nation’s costliest campaigns against North American Indigenous peoples, in which the army placed nearly one thousand soldiers in the field against some fifty-five Modoc fighters.
Although little known today, the Modoc War dominated national headlines for an entire year. Fought in south-central Oregon and northeastern California, the war settled into a siege in the desolate Lava Beds and climaxed the decades-long effort to dispossess and destroy the Modocs.
The war did not end with the last shot fired, however. For the first and only time in U.S. history, Native fighters were tried and hanged for war crimes. The surviving Modocs were packed into cattle cars and shipped from Fort Klamath to the corrupt, disease-ridden Quapaw reservation in Oklahoma, where they found peace even more lethal than war.
The Modoc War tells the forgotten story of a violent and bloody Gilded Age campaign at a time when the federal government boasted officially of a “peace policy” toward Indigenous nations. This compelling history illuminates a dark corner in our country’s past.
In this empathetic narrative history, poet and writer McNally (A Wild Idea: The Hunting Trip That Changed John Muir and Created the American Wilderness) tells the story of the decadeslong conflict between white settlers and the Modoc, Native Americans who lived in southern Oregon and northern California. Though the climax of this conflict, the 1872 1873 war, was chronicled by major newspapers that heaped praise on white combatants, McNally shows that it was a brutal, shameful, and genocidal campaign born primarily out of settlers' greed for land. Despite its narrow focus, the book's appeal won't be limited to specialists: McNally is a strong storyteller with a conversational style and an eye for telling details, such as the 300 hogs' worth of newly cured bacon that settler Jesse Applegate abandoned in his eagerness to seek riches in Modoc territory. (He would later become a major instigator of the violence against the tribe.) McNally draws out the tragedy of the fate of the Modoc: driven out of their native land through violence and treachery, they were shunted to a desolate Oklahoma reservation, their leaders were hanged and their heads exhibited in Washington, D.C., and their population was decimated. This honest accounting of the cruelty, corruption, and savagery of the settlers who believed their actions were smiled upon by God takes a step forward in correcting a sanitized and muffled history.