The Modoc War: A Story of Geno­cide at the Dawn of Amer­ica’s Gilded Age

Robert Aquinas Mcnally

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Nonfiction - BRADLEY A. SCOTT

Bi­son Books (NOVEM­BER) Hard­cover $34.95 (432pp) 978-1-4962-0179-9 Mcnally pro­vides a bru­tally frank and damn­ingly well-doc­u­mented ac­count of the war’s sor­did back­ground.

The 1873 Modoc War pit­ted the small but fierce Modoc tribe against the United States gov­ern­ment, which sought to ex­pel them from their homes near the present-day California/ore­gon bor­der. Af­ter ini­tial hos­til­i­ties, the Modocs took refuge in the rugged wilder­ness of south of Tule Lake. In the months of siege and guer­rilla war­fare that fol­lowed, they in­flicted ma­jor losses and ex­pense be­fore be­ing de­feated and cap­tured.

The Modoc War was ex­ten­sively doc­u­mented, not only in of­fi­cial mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment records, but in first­hand ac­counts, in­clud­ing mem­oirs, letters, lec­tures, and news sto­ries from dar­ing re­porters who man­aged to in­ter­view the be­sieged Modocs. Robert Aquinas Mcnally mas­ter­fully weaves in­for­ma­tion from these di­verse sources into one nar­ra­tive, let­ting dis­tinct view­points shine through and not­ing bi­ases and pre­con­cep­tions.

Bit­ter ironies abound. Fra­zier Boutelle, whose mem­oir doc­u­mented a sol­dier’s view of the war, was of mixed her­itage, but none­the­less en­dorsed the myth of white su­pe­ri­or­ity. The Modocs, re­mem­ber­ing that they were once be­trayed and at­tacked un­der a false flag of truce, re­sponded in kind, only to find that it made their sit­u­a­tion im­mea­sur­ably worse.

Al­fred Meachum, a US ne­go­tia­tor left for dead af­ter a Modoc am­bush, be­came one of their most ded­i­cated ad­vo­cates. And Kient­poos be­came a tragic fig­ure doomed by ironies: a pro­po­nent of peace who was pushed into vi­o­lence by bel­liger­ent fac­tions of his own tribe, he was be­trayed by those same fac­tions when they switched sides to save them­selves.

Key events in the con­flict are por­trayed in cin­e­matic in­ti­macy, but Mcnally also pro­vides a bru­tally frank and damn­ingly well-doc­u­mented ac­count of the war’s sor­did back­ground: the faith­less greed of white set­tlers who cov­eted the Modocs’ land, the per­fidy of US gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, and the in­grained big­otry of the en­croach­ing Amer­i­can cul­ture and its doc­trine of Man­i­fest Destiny. He also shows how the con­flict had con­se­quences far be­yond the bat­tle­field, as Pres­i­dent Grant’s Quaker-in­spired “peace pol­icy” to­ward na­tive peo­ples was po­lit­i­cally un­der­mined by un­sym­pa­thetic mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and by pub­lic re­ac­tion to the Modoc War.

The Modoc War doc­u­ments a dra­matic chap­ter in the history of US ag­gres­sion against na­tive peo­ples.

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