When Modoc leader Kientpoos—known to whites by the nickname Captain Jack—stepped out of a cave in Willow Creek Canyon in northeastern California’s vast volcanic plateau and lay down his rifle, the Modoc War ended. As the symbolism of the moment demanded, Captain Joel G. Trimble of the First Cavalry took Kientpoos into the custody that would lead to his imprisonment, trial for war crimes, and execution by hanging alongside three other Modoc fighters.
By the time Kientpoos surrendered on the afternoon of June 1, 1873, the United States army and the policy of Manifest Destiny that it advanced by force of arms were badly in need of a boost. For over five months a group of no more than 60 Modoc fighters—burdened by, and defending, some 100 women, children, and elders—had stymied a U.S. Army force that grew to outnumber them almost 20 to 1. From an American perspective, Kientpoos’ surrender to Trimble in Willow Creek Canyon made things right again. A recalcitrant rebel had handed himself over to the superior race’s military.
Is that what actually happened?
Not quite, it turns out; the truth was spun to suit the optics, not the facts. Had the story been told straight, American superiority would have remained somewhat battered and bruised.
The tale of Kientpoos’ rifle-in-hand surrender to Trimble originated in a story run by the New York Timesand reported by S.A. Clarke. Clarke was nowhere near the scene, writing from Salem, Oregon, more than 300 miles away. Who his source on the ground was, he never said.
The reporter much closer to the action, H. Wallace Atwell of the Sacramento Record and the New York Herald, did identify his source: Charles Putnam, who worked on a nearby ranch and was the only white man to witness Kientpoos’ surrender. Putnam and Atwell reported a different version of events than did Clarke: Kientpoos gave himself up not to Trimble but to two Warm Springs Indian scouts, Car-pi-o-in and We-na-shet. The pair then accompanied Kientpoos, who was carrying no weapon, to Captain Trimble, who put him under arrest.
Atwell’s reporting enjoys considerable corroboration. Photographer Louis Heller, who appeared on the battleground soon after Kientpoos’ capture, took a portrait of a pair of young, elegantly coiffed Warm Springs scouts he identified as “Jack’s capturers.” Two army enlisted men who fought in the Modoc War, Charles Hardin and Charles Pentz, also attributed the headman’s capture to Warm Springs scouts. Pentz reported as well that some U.S. cavalrymen were passing around the tale that Trimble had taken Kientpoos down. Trimble himself, however, never made that claim. He went on to write accounts of his Modoc War service, yet he took no credit for Kientpoos’ surrender. A career officer always bucking for promotion, Trimble would have made the claim if he could have.
Officially, however, the army stuck to Clarke’s version of events. Colonel Jefferson C. Davis, the field commander at the end of the Modoc War, didn’t mention Trimble by name in his official reports, but he ascribed the triumph of Kientpoos’ surrender to cavalry “troopers,” not Indian scouts. Davis knew full well that without Indians leading the way, the army never would have found Kientpoos in the first place. Four Modoc men who had split from Kientpoos’ band and surrendered close to the war’s end volunteered to run their former headman to ground in hope of saving themselves from hanging. It was those four who predicted that Kientpoos would be hiding out in Willow Creek Canyon and then pinpointed him and his last remaining supporters in that remote redoubt. Davis did spare the four Modocs from the gallows where Kientpoos dropped to his death, but he never gave them credit for their role in tying up the war’s last loose end. They got the same short shrift as the two Warm Springs scouts.
Which made, of course, perfect symbolic sense. The Modoc War, like most western Indian conflicts, was waged on two levels. One turned on real estate; the war served to drive Indians off ancestral lands that settlers coveted. The other level turned on a clash of civilizations. Americans pouring into the West laid claim not only to greater firepower and technology, but also to the cultural inevitability and racial superiority at the core of Manifest Destiny. As further evidence that Indians were fated to give way before the inexorable white surge, Kientpoos’ capture simply had to be the work of the U.S. cavalry, not Indians in the army’s employ.
Thus it came to be that fiction was passed off as fact. You might even call it, without only a little irony, a white lie.
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:
Atwell, H. Wallace. “New York Herald, June 23, 1873.” In Cozzens, Peter, editor. Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars, 1865–1890: The Wars for the Pacific Northwest. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2002, pp. 294-298.
Brady, Cyrus Townsend. Northwestern Fights and Fighters. New York: The McClure Company, 1907.
Hardin, Charles B. Letters to William S. Brown from Charles B. Hardin. Transcribed and copied; Lava Beds National Monument Research Library. From originals donated in 1991 by Vernon A. Brown and family of Walnut Creek, California.
James, Cheewa. Modoc: The Tribe That Wouldn’t Die. Happy Camp, CA: Naturegraph Publishers, 2008.
Murray, Keith A. The Modocs and Their War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.
Our Special Correspondent [S.A. Clarke]. “Capt. Jack. Details of the Movements Resulting in His Capture—His Stoicism.” New York Times, June 17, 1873.
Palmquist, Peter. “Imagemakers of the Modoc War: Louis Heller and Eadweard Muybridge.” Journal of California Anthropology, vol. 4, no 2 (1977), pp. 206–241.
Pentz, Charles A. Modoc War Journal. Transcribed by Gary Hathaway, National Park Service, from original owned by Austin Meekins. Lava Beds National Monument archives, undated.
United States House of Representatives. Official Copies of Correspondence Relative to the War with Modoc Indians in 1872–’73. 43rd Congress, First Session, Executive Document No. 122, February 1874.