The Journalist and the Modoc Warriors
Edward Fox of the New York Herald could scarcely believe his reporter’s luck. On the frigid evening of February 24, 1873, he was sitting in a large cavern in northeastern California filled to the volcanic rafters with Modoc men and women and taking down the words of their headman Kientpoos (a. k. a. Captain Jack). The Modocs and the United States were at war. With all the Native men heavily armed, firelight glinted off dozens of rifle barrels in the cave’s cramped space.
Yet the tone of Kientpoos’s speech was anything but belligerent, and the Modocs’ openness to the presence of this reporter from back East signaled their desire to bring the fight to a peaceful end.
Indeed, the Modocs were the first and only Indian nation in the midst of armed conflict with the U.S. to tell a newspaper their side of the story. This unprecedented event arose from the combination of a temporary cease-fire, a pushy reporter, and the Natives’ on-the-fly willingness to speak their truth to a larger audience. Although the Modocs had next to no experience with newspapers, they knew a great opportunity when it fell into their laps.
The Modoc War had begun on November 29, 1872, when a cavalry patrol tried to force the Modocs along Oregon’s Lost River back onto the Klamath Reservation. The resulting firefight cost the military more dead and wounded than the Modocs suffered. But they had to flee across Tule Lake into northeastern California and take refuge in their traditional Lava Beds redoubt—a strategic high ground of caves, trenches, and palisades that came to be known as the Stronghold.
Over the following weeks, U.S. Army troops and state militiamen from Oregon and California assembled to drive the Modocs out. The January 17, 1873, assault looked to be no contest: some 300 soldiers supported by artillery were pitted against a mere 55 or so Native fighters with only rifles and revolvers. But the Modocs had so fortified their position and placed their guns that the attack failed miserably and cost the military 12 dead and 25 wounded. The Natives lost not a soul.
The defeat led the Grant administration to try a new tack. A temporary ceasefire was declared, and a Peace Commission named to negotiate a deal. A. B. Meacham, former Indian Bureau superintendent for the state of Oregon, was chair. Joining him were Jesse Applegate, Oregon pioneer and anti-Modoc agitator; and Samuel Case, an Indian Bureau functionary, also from Oregon. The Modocs so despised all three that California judge and sometime Native advocate A. M. Rosborough was later added.
The Peace Commission entrusted the task of setting up an initial meeting with the insurgents to two English-speaking Modoc women. Matilda Whittle was married to Bob Whittle, who operated the ferry across the Klamath River; Artina Chockus had long worked for California rancher John Fairchild. They carried a message of distinctly paternalistic sentiment from the Peace Commission: “That the president of the United States, General Grant, had heard about the war and was very sorry his children were fighting. He looked upon all people of every color as his children, and he did not want them to spill each other’s blood.”
Talking was better than fighting, but—the message warned—if the Indians wanted to fight, the president had more than enough soldiers to crush them. The two women rode off from Fairchild’s ranch toward the Lava Beds with the missive in their saddlebags.
Late the following afternoon, Whittle and Chockus returned. After debriefing them, Meacham told Fox and other newspapermen covering the war that the Modocs wanted to talk peace. They proposed no terms, preferring to hear what the whites had to offer. The stage was set for another meeting. But who should go?
Matilda and Bob Whittle rode out the next morning to ask the Modocs that very question. They returned late the same day with the answer: John Fairchild. The plan was that the California rancher, who spoke no Modoc, would go with the bilingual Whittles and Chockus to arrange a grand conference.
Seeing a perfect reporting opportunity, Fox told Meacham that he and his notebook wanted to tag along. The chairman, who considered the press an interfering rabble that undercut his power, refused. He made it doubly clear to Bob Whittle that reporters were forbidden.
But Fox wasn’t about to take Meacham’s no as the last word on the subject. This journalist answered to a higher authority.
The New York Herald had become America’s leading newspaper by marrying the on-the-ground reporting made possible by the telegraph to the popular appetite for violence, vice, and crime. And James Gordon Bennett Jr., the paper’s ambitious editor, sought to make news rather than wait for it. Only a few months before the Modoc War broke out, Bennett achieved stunning success when reporter Henry Morton Stanley located long-missing medical missionary David Livingstone deep inside East Africa. Stanley’s exploit cemented the Herald’s reputation as the newspaper that nailed the story no one else even tried for.
Bennett saw the Modoc War as ripe for daring reporting. Most Indian conflicts in the West were fast-moving and unpredictable. This one was different, more of a set-piece siege. An enterprising reporter might use the cease-fire’s lull to gain access to Kientpoos and his lieutenants, interview them face-to-face, and score a journalistic coup to rival Stanley’s.
For such an ambitious scheme, Bennett needed the right man. On the Herald’s staff was a strapping, long-haired Englishman named Edward Fox who came from a family of means, had served in the British army as an officer, and proved himself a good reporter and writer. Bennett, who considered Indians a doomed race, gave Fox the job. His assignment was to report the Modocs’ inevitable extinction with all the up-close-and-personal, blood-and-thunder action he could summon.
Now, with Meacham’s refusal ringing in his ears, the ambitious Fox was looking for a way to become the next Stanley. After all, he asked himself, what authority did the Peace Commission chairman have over a reporter’s comings and goings in a free country? None, Fox decided. So if he got to the Lava Beds under his own power, Meacham could do nothing about it.
Fox concocted a strategy as sly as his surname. Late in the day before Fairchild, the Whittles, and Chockus were to leave for the Stronghold, the reporter announced that he was riding to the Van Bremer ranch to dine with a newly arrived artillery unit and spend the night. The next morning, Fox was up at first light and out the door into three inches of new snow. Riding back toward the Fairchild ranch, he passed the trail to the Lava Beds branching off uphill. Seeing no tracks headed that way, Fox continued on until he spotted four riders coming his way.
Fairchild and Chockus rode in front, the Whittles 20 yards behind. Fox turned his horse, walked it alongside Fairchild’s, and told the rancher he was joining the party. Fairchild said that was fine with him, but Fox needed to clear it with Bob Whittle.
Politely, the ferryman refused. Meacham had been clear: no reporters.
“Well, if that is the case, I suppose I must defer my visit,” Fox said.
“I am very sorry,” Whittle replied, “but it cannot be helped.”
The four emissaries headed up the Lava Beds trail, and a thwarted Fox turned back toward Fairchild’s. The hoofprints cut into the new snow caught his eye. “It suddenly flashed across my mind,” Fox wrote, “that those tracks would lead me to the Lava Beds, and the commissioners could then throw no blame on Whittle.”
Emboldened, he reined his horse about and followed the trail toward the Lava Beds. Lest he give himself away, Fox hung well back until, several miles along, he crested a ridge just as the four on the flat below spotted him. He had no choice but to ride down.
“So you were determined to come? Well, well,” Whittle said, “now you have come; you had better keep up close, as we have been seen by the Modocs before now.”
At the top of Sheepy Ridge overlooking the Stronghold, the two women dismounted, piled sagebrush, and set it alight. Three heavily armed Modoc men soon climbed the bluff from the Stronghold side. The Indians spoke in their tongue with the women until Steamboat Frank, who had worked for Fairchild before the war, told the rancher in English that Kientpoos was too sick to leave his cave and wanted Fairchild to come to the Stronghold to talk. Whittle asked whether he and “the paper man” were also invited. Frank said they were.
Down on the flat, the emissaries and their escorts came upon a half-dozen Modoc men warming themselves at a sagebrush campfire. A half mile farther along, a much bigger gathering—Fox called the people bucks, squaws, and papooses and noted that the women favored red petticoats—surrounded a fire against the freezing day. Once this swelling crowd of whites and Modocs entered the Stronghold, a council was called in Kientpoos’s cave. Fifty to sixty Modocs gathered around Kientpoos. The headman looked wan and weak yet offered a cordial hand to Fox.
The reporter was the only true newcomer; everyone else knew one another. “John Fairchild got up,” Fox reported, “and introduced the Herald correspondent by name to the assembled Indians and told how I came from afar off … wrote for a paper that told all the white people what was doing in all parts of the world. He said I had heard what the white people said about the Modoc troubles, and that I wanted so bad to hear the Modocs’ story that though the commissioners had forbidden him to take me in, I had followed their tracks in the snow….”
The Indians, Fox wrote, grunted their approval. They did the same when Fairchild read a letter from the Peace Commission. It said only that the commissioners were Meacham, Applegate, Case, and now Rosborough and that any substantive talk would be postponed until Rosborough arrived from Yreka, the closest California town.
Schonchin John, one of Kientpoos’s lieutenants, stood. The translated Modoc that flowed from Fox’s pencil sported the short sentences and fractured grammar of Indians in dime novels. Yet even this stereotyped dialect displayed an unexpected political savvy. Although some Modocs spoke English well, none was more than barely literate, and newspapers played no part in their lives.
Still, these Native people locked in an existential struggle along a remote frontier realized that changing the narrative inside white society would work to their advantage. They went to work.
“Well, glad to see men; glad to see the paper man from afar off,” Schonchin John began. He made it clear to Fox that the Lost River raid was an unprovoked attack on peaceful people. Bogus Charley, another leader, seconded that version of events.
By now the sun had fallen, and the council adjourned until morning. Fairchild, the Whittles, and Fox returned to their shelter to eat. Scarface Charley, Schonchin John, Bogus Charley, and other Modoc men dropped by to chat, munch biscuits, and find out how much influence the newspaperman wielded. “They asked me all about the Herald and were evidently much amazed and astonished at the magnitude of the establishment connected with that paper,” Fox wrote.
To show the reporter more of their world, the Modocs invited him back to the cave to observe a ritual aimed at curing Kientpoos of what ailed him. Amid much singing and dancing, the shaman worked himself into a frenzy, rolled the sick chief over onto his belly, and sank his teeth into Kientpoos’s shoulder blade, then ran to the mouth of the cave to vomit up whatever he had sucked out. An amazed Fox found the treatment so superstitious and rough he thought surely it would kill the headman. Yet, when the reporter returned to the cave in the morning, a much-improved Kientpoos welcomed him warmly.
“I tell you glad to see paper man from afar off,” the headman told the gathered Indians and emissaries. He repeated his desire for peace and joined the chorus blaming the conflict on the army’s aggression. “The man with good eye, he come to see me; he not afraid. Indian glad to see him, want paper man come again. He hear same story, hear me speak truth,” Kientpoos said. He was displaying the skills of a politician who knew how to play the press.
Fairchild and Kientpoos decided that the next meeting would take place on a grassy flat below Sheepy Ridge. There would be no soldiers, only the peace commissioners plus Fox, a couple assistants, and Elijah Steele, Rosborough’s law partner. The meeting would occur once Rosborough and Steele arrived.
Schonchin John closed the council. “I feel good now as if I stood in high place, saw all peace,” he said.
As the Whittles, Chockus, Fairchild, and Fox left the Stronghold, the Modocs crowded the rocks. “Good-bye,” they called in English, “come again,” over and over.
Writing into the night, Fox finished the story he had begun in the Stronghold. He dispatched it by courier to Yreka to be telegraphed to New York at a cost of $500 to $600—between $9,000 and $11,000 in today’s money. Four days later he filed a second, reflective piece that covered much the same ground in greater detail.
Fox wrapped up the first story by directing responsibility for the fight away from the Modocs. “From what I have seen of the Indians in the Lava Beds,” he wrote, “and from what I have learned of their history, I think they have been badly treated and that the origin of the war can easily be traced to a few Oregonians.” Indian agents on the Klamath Reservation had underfed the Indians for profit, driven them to move back to Lost River, and brought the cavalry down on them. Clearly, Fox’s enthusiastic reception by the Modocs and the case they made had tipped him in their favor.
Unfortunately, none of his insight into the roots of the conflict interested the press as an institution or the nation’s millions of readers. What mattered to the popular mind of the time was the wild tale of a daring reporter’s bold entry into a den of Native lions and his vivid descriptions of Modoc idiosyncrasies like red petticoats and shamanic rituals. Fox’s own newspaper hailed his account as but a “Stirring Story of Dash, Enterprise and Pluck,” not a rewrite of the prevailing Native-versus-white narrative.
The paper went on to crow, “[T]his feat of Fox has placed the Herald in the van, and distanced all competitors in the race for news!” In collegial echo, the Trenton Gazette praised Fox’s interview as proof of the moral superiority of civilization over Native ways, “more like some knight’s tale, related at King Arthur’s Round Table, than a mere matter-of-fact piece of modern newspaper enterprise….”
As far as the reading public was concerned, Fox wrote not about the Modocs. He wrote about himself, the adventurous reporter serving a powerful newspaper furthering Manifest Destiny. Over the following weeks, Fox embraced this role ever more closely. When the ceasefire fell apart and the military attacked the Stronghold, he embedded himself in a combat unit, picked up a rifle, and reported his battlefield experience of dodging bullets and trying to get a shot at a Modoc.
For even if these media-savvy, politically sophisticated Indians had legitimate grievances, they still had to be removed, by any means necessary. And, in the end, they would be.
Robert Aquinas McNally is a writer and poet whose narrative nonfiction book “The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age” will be published by the Bison Books trade imprint of the University of Nebraska Press in November 2017. Find out more about his work at ramcnally.com.