And, but for a fateful last-minute decision, he likely would have been the first foreign correspondent to die in a conflict with Native Americans.
The Modoc War came Simpson’s way during a very different reporting project. He had left home more than eight months earlier on assignment from two London newspapers and was traveling around the world from west to east, reporting along the way. Passing through San Francisco, Simpson learned of the dramatic war in northeastern California’s Lava Beds, where a few dozen Indian fighters were holding off hundreds of better-armed soldiers. Only days earlier the Modocs had ambushed four peace negotiators, killing Brigadier General E.R.S. Canby and Rev. Dr. Eleazar Thomas and severely wounding A.B. Meacham. The city by the bay buzzed with outrage and called for the Modocs’ extermination, as did much of the American public across the country. With so much emotion in the air, the British journalist resolved to look into this high-profile Indian war.
Simpson was a well-known correspondent who illustrated his war stories with sketches and watercolors. He started in the 1850s with the Crimean War; his painting of the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade caught Queen Victoria’s eye and made him famous. Next, Simpson reported from India after the Sepoy Rebellion, then followed the British army into Abyssinia, the modern Ethiopia. He went on to sketch the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and covered the Paris Commune uprising and its brutal suppression soon thereafter. Simpson knew his way around conflict.
To travel the 400 miles from San Francisco to the Lava Beds, Simpson took railroad and stagecoach north to Yreka, the mining town that served as a staging center for the war effort. There he learned that the Modocs had been driven out of their Lava Beds stronghold and were on the loose. After talking his wagon driver through fear of ambush at every blind curve in the road, Simpson made it to Gillem’s Camp, the military installation at the edge of the Lava Beds. Army officers there gave the British correspondent a warm welcome.
“One reason for this cordial reception,” Simpson wrote, “was the feeling that the public did not understand the locality, and that blame was attached to them for being held at bay by so small a number of rude savages. ‘Now,’ they said, ‘the public will see pictures of the place, and be able to understand what we have had to fight against.’”
Taking up the officers’ cause, Simpson declared that the tactical difficulty of the Lava Beds terrain tipped the scales to the Indians: “Imagine a rabbit warren on a large scale, or a colossal ant-colony with Indians instead of insects…. Any one accustomed to fortifications and trenches might well fancy that a military engineer had planned it.”
Simpson characterized the Modocs as racially suited to combat in this volcanic setting: “The Indians fight naked, or nearly so; and as their dark skins are about the same tint as the lava, it is a good colour for their work.” The Modocs blended with the land they lived on, he was saying, like rattlesnakes in the desert.
Simpson got an up-close look at the cave where the headman Kientpoos and his family had lived. He took the mess and smell of the place not as evidence of the desperate straits to which five months of siege had reduced the Indians but as proof of their primitive nature. The Modocs were a nation, he wrote, “who seem to be very little in advance of the ancient cave-people.”
Simpson’s tipped reporting reached from his words into his illustrations. When he put himself to it, Simpson had a draftsman’s meticulous accuracy; his drawing of Gillem’s Camp matches photographs of the time detail for detail. Simpson’s depiction of the Lava Beds stronghold, however, is stunningly fanciful. The real site looks almost flat, with its many ravines, rills, and clefts concealed under the slowly undulating surface of the barely elevated plateau. Simpson added sharp ridges, miniature crags, and sheer palisades that are nowhere to be seen. He was dressing up reality to give the impression he wanted.
One of Simpson’s most widely published illustrations, titled “A Scalp for Captain Jack” and run in Harper’s Weekly, portrays a scene that never happened. Its centerpiece is an Indian fighter in moccasins, buckskin leggings, breechcloth, and feathered headband flaunting a scalp just flayed from a dead bluecoat. Behind the triumphant, gloating warrior, other Modocs dance around a soldier being butchered behind boulders and sagebrush.
Simpson’s portrayal is completely fanciful. In reality, few soldiers were scalped in the course of the war, and Modoc fighters dressed in the dungarees, calico, and work boots of sodbusters, not the buckskins, breechcloths, and moccasins of dime-novel savages.
Simpson likewise added fabulous imagination to his drawing of Kientpoos’ shooting of General Canby during the assault on the peace negotiators. This full-page illustration, run in both Harper’s Weekly and The Illustrated London News, is partially colored in soft pastels: the green of the rolling sagebrush, the chestnut of a horse’s haunch, the unexpected pink of one Modoc man’s shirt. Canby stands tall, leans back, and holds out his hand as if to stop the bullet Kientpoos is about to send his way. Behind him, Indian agent Leroy Dyar has swung up on his horse, ready to ride off. Eleazar Thomas and A.B. Meacham, the two other peace negotiators, are impossible to tell one from the other; they look like any two middle-aged white guys in suits with their backs to the artist. Translator Frank Riddle kneels on one knee by the side of his Modoc wife, Toby, also a translator, and shields her from the gunfire about to erupt.
This drawing is largely fictional. Canby appears far younger and trimmer than he was in real life, and he was sitting down, not standing, when Kientpoos shot him. As for Dyar, he didn’t make it into the saddle. He left his horse behind and ran as fast as he could, brandishing a derringer to dissuade the Modoc pursuing him. And Frank Riddle failed to defend Toby. He, too, took off running at the first shot and abandoned his wife to fend for herself.
Frank Riddle does resemble photographs of him taken at the time; Simpson would have met Riddle at Gillem’s Camp and could draw him from life. He would have met Toby Riddle, too. In Simpson’s drawing, however, Toby Riddle looks like her photos only in long pioneer skirt and shawl. Her face is all wrong, the hairline too high, the skin too dark for her real-life auburn hair. Kientpoos, too, shares Toby’s almost-African look; his nose and lips are thick and heavy. Simpson’s portrayal casts the Modocs into the lowest, cave-dwelling rung of American society.
As obtuse as Simpson was to Native reality, he had a soft spot for common soldiers, who came from the same poor, working-class background he did, and he relished the opportunity to show what life in the ranks was like. Captain Evan Thomas and First Lieutenant Thomas Wright, who were preparing to lead a large, day-long reconnaissance patrol to locate the escaped Modocs, invited Simpson to come along. Then Simpson learned that, at the same time the Thomas-Wright patrol was heading out on the following day, a cavalry detachment would be riding in force to Yreka. Simpson realized this might be his only chance for weeks to get out of the battle zone and back onto his world tour. He opted out of the patrol in order to return to civilization.
Early next morning, the cavalry unit with Simpson riding along crested the steep ridge above Gillem’s Camp and stopped to let their horses breathe. Simpson watched the Thomas-Wright patrol wending into the expansive reach of the Lava Beds “… like spots, moving away southwest among blocks of lava and bunches of sage-brush, while the polished steel of the rifles … caught the angle of the sun’s rays….” He felt a pang of remorse that he wasn’t going along.
Less than five hours later, a Modoc ambush virtually annihilated the hapless Thomas-Wright patrol, killing or severely wounding more than half the detachment. On hearing the news, Simpson realized he had dodged a bullet: “had I not been leaving, I should most certainly have gone out with the scouting party…. I look upon this as one of the narrowest escapes of my life….”
Simpson completed his world tour and continued to work as a journalist to the end of the 19th century. Over the course of his almost 50-year career, the Modoc War proved but a footnote. Still, the blend of accuracy and fantasy in Simpson’s drawings added to the effort by the American media of the time to portray a brutal campaign against a Native people as a cosmic clash of civilization and barbarism. Even now, Simpson’s recast reality impedes our understanding of what was really going on.
Robert Aquinas McNally is a writer and poet working on a narrative nonfiction book about the Modoc War of 1872–1873 entitled “The Modoc War: Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age,” from which this article is adapted. Find out more about his work at ramcnally.com.
For further reading:
Harrington, Peter. “The First True War Artist.” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, vol. 9, no. 1 (autumn 1996), pp. 100–109.
Knight, Oliver. Following the Indian Wars: The Story of the Newspaper Correspondents Among the Indian Campaigners. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.
Simpson, William. Meeting the Sun: A Journey All Around the World. London: Longsman, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1874.
Simpson, William. “The Modoc Region, California.” Proceedings of the Royal Geographic Society, Session 1874–75, pp. 292–302.
Woodhead, Daniel, III. Modoc Vengeance: The 1873 Modoc War in Northern California & Southern Oregon as reported in the newspapers of the day. Self-published, 2012.