On Thursday, September 15, 2016 I will deliver a keynote presentation titled “‘Murder of Malice Aforethought’: African American and Native American Rights on Trial after the Civil War” in the Cesar Chavez Student Center Jack Adams Hall as part of San Francisco State’s Constitution Day Conference.
Sensational Portrayals of the Modoc War, 1872–73 opens on July 21 at the California Historical Society, in San Francisco, California. The exhibit draws on my book, Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence, for its analysis of newspaper representations of the conflict and I was happy to collaborate with the curators and staff at the historical society.
The exhibition is beautifully curated and is drawn from the California Historical Society’s collections of vintage photographs, newspapers, and books that often sensationalized the war, including carte de visite portraits by Louis Heller of Modoc Indians in custody following the war and stereographic views by Eadweard Muybridge showing the desolate Lava Beds and picturing non-Modoc Indians reenacting battle scenes for his camera. The exhibition is paired with a second exhibit, Native Portraits, which features contemporary Tintypes by Ed Drew in a series of portraits of members of the Klamath, Modoc, and Pit River Paiute tribes.
If you are interested in learning more about the Modoc War and the Klamath, Modoc, and Pit River Paiute people today, I encourage you to attend an event at the historical society on July 28th from 6:00-8:00pm. The Modoc War: A History Examined Through Objects in the Exhibition will feature a conversation between myself and Cheewa James. Using objects from the exhibit we will discuss the background and impetus for the war and provide insights on why this War was monumental, destructive, and historic.
Hope to see you all there!
On Monday, Ari Kelman and I celebrated Memorial Day by writing a piece for the New York Times on how the Civil War became the Indian Wars. Give it a read:
On Dec. 21, 1866, a year and a half after Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ostensibly closed the book on the Civil War’s final chapter at Appomattox Court House, another soldier, Capt. William Fetterman, led cavalrymen from Fort Phil Kearny, a federal outpost in Wyoming, toward the base of the Big Horn range. The men planned to attack Indians who had reportedly been menacing local settlers. Instead, a group of Arapahos, Cheyennes and Lakotas, including a warrior named Crazy Horse, killed Fetterman and 80 of his men. It was the Army’s worst defeat on the Plains to date. The Civil War was over, but the Indian wars were just beginning.
These two conflicts, long segregated in history and memory, were in fact intertwined.
On this date – April 11 – in 1873, Major General Edward R.S. Canby died in the Lava Beds of Northern California during the Modoc War. He was the only general officer to die in the Indian Wars of the nineteenth century. His death became a national and international sensation and led to calls from President Grant for the Modoc’s “utter extermination.” Read an except about media representations of his death from my book Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence (UNC Press, 2014):
William Simpson, special artist for the Illustrated London News and famed veteran reporter of the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune uprising, had a skilled hand at producing eyewitness accounts after the fact. Perhaps that is why he decided to interrupt his round-the-world trip to visit the Klamath Basin at the height of the Modoc War. Disembarking on March 21, 1873, from a Pacific Mail Steamship Company liner out of Tokyo, Simpson was in San Francisco, seeing the sights and visiting the nearby hot springs in Calistoga, when news arrived of General Edward R. S. Canby’s death. “the red judas: Based Treachery of the Modoc Indians. The Peace Commission Inveigled into a Death-Trap. General Canby Murdered,” declared the San Francisco Chronicle in a full-page article. In the days and weeks following the April 11, 1873, attack on the peace commissioners, newspapers throughout the country and around the world picked up the story. The Republican-leaning Yreka Journal called it the “most dastardly assassination yet known in either ancient or modern history.” The Chicago Daily Tribune condemned the “Indian Treachery” and added, “Christian Treatment of Untamable Savages Is a Sorry Delusion.” Harper’s Weekly described “the treacherous murder of General Canby and the Rev. Dr. Thomas” as “one of the most tragical events in the history of Indian wars.” With newspaper publishers and editors throughout the country looking for material, Simpson boarded a train in San Francisco and headed north toward the remote battlegrounds of the Modoc War.
During his eight-day visit to the region, Simpson produced several drawings. The most famous was “The Modocs—The Murder of General Canby” (figure 6). Simpson based his portrayal on information obtained, sometimes third- and fourthhand, from nearby ranchers and a few soldiers, none of whom were within a mile of the actual attack. His sketches were later made into a single twenty-two–by–sixteen-inch print that appeared in the London Illustrated News on May 31, 1873. Portraying Canby’s death as a premeditated betrayal, Simpson’s dramatic engraving reflected the national zeitgeist around the Modoc War in the spring of 1873. His composition evinced a sense of anticipated violence and brutal treachery and cast the conflict as a historic struggle between competing moralistic impulses. In the center stands Captain Jack, dressed in trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, boots, and a brimmed hat. He advances on General Canby, arm outstretched, a pistol leveled and aimed with calculated intensity. Opposite Jack, the general commands his attacker to stop, holding his right hand palm out. The two figures stand, eyes locked, frozen in a battle of wills. The background accentuates the image’s metaphoric dualism. From the viewer’s left, several armed Indian men rush toward their unsuspecting victims. On the right side, the peace tent where negotiations were to be conducted stands with its door open, evoking the possibility of a peaceful resolution, even at this final moment. This composition represents Jack and his people as guilty of a calculated and vicious crime, whereas Canby and his men are innocent martyrs.
Although Simpson seems to have sympathized with the plight of the Indians—he later claimed that “the sense of justice in human nature must declare that these tribes have been cruelly wronged”—he nonetheless thought Jack’s tactics were evidence of a moral failure. The Modocs, he believed, were virtuous warriors whose romantic feats were legendary. But their decision to attack the commissioners had tarnished their valor. “Had they not basely accomplished the deaths of General Canby and Dr. Thomas, few heroes could have been compared to them,” Simpson subsequently wrote. “That crime put them beyond the pale of mercy, and extermination like vermin was decreed against them.”2 Simpson’s engraving and commentary together constructed a narrative of innocence lost in which Indian violence was not irrational but tragic. In resisting a romantic death, the Modocs had made history but would be forever remembered as villainous criminals and brutal savages. Brimming with the racial and political tensions of the 1870s and tinged with Judeo-Christian as well as Shakespearean influences, Simpson’s portrayal of the “Death of General Canby” is exceptional for its dramatic composition and narrative sophistication. And it soon became one of the most ubiquitous and influential images of the event.
In the weeks and months following the death of General Canby, the Gilded Age media transformed the conflict into an international sensation that focused on the victimhood of Americans and the savage criminality of Indigenous resistance. This coverage influenced the course of the war, contributed to the government’s later legal justifications for trying the Modocs before a military tribunal, and mediated Americans’ perceptions of these historical events as they unfolded.
On Wednesday, the Indian Country Today Media Network published an op-ed I wrote on the Senate’s so-called Torture Report. Here is an excerpt:
In the wake the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture, we are all being asked to think historically. Many have seen this moment as an opportunity to set the historical record straight with California Senator Diane Feinstein calling the use of torture by the CIA “a stain on our values and our history.” “History,” the Senator said, “will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.”
But viewing the legally sanctioned use of torture in the early 21st century as a blip on the historical record of the United States is to ignore its longer history of the state using law to justify violence. This is the ugly truth we are unwilling to face. Because to do so would require Americans to recognize the historical connection between the history of legally justified violence towards Indigenous people in the 19th century with our Global War on Terror in the twenty-first. Let me explain.
In the summer of 2008, I was working on a book about a conflict known as Modoc War, 1872-1873, California’s so-called last Indian war. One of the most significant events in the history of U.S.-Indian violence in the nineteenth century, is largely forgotten today. Shortly after I began researching the book, I received an email informing me that the Modoc War had come up in conjunction with the use of enhanced interrogation techniques in the U.S. Global War on Terror. What was this all about? Was there an actual connection here, or was this just some random happenstance of the Internet? I was surprised by what I found.Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/12/17/wheres-senate-torture-report-all-violence-done-natives
If you aren’t aware of the New Books Network, you should be. It is a wonderful series of podcasts in which authors engage in thoughtful and informed conversation about their recent books with interviewers who have actually read the book their discussing!
I’ve been a big fan for years. So imagine my delight when Andrew Bard Epstein invited me to be a guest. Last week we had a great conversation and today, he published the interview. Here is Andrew’s teaser:
If George Armstrong Custer had kept off of Greasy Grass that June day in 1875, Vine Deloria, Jr.’s manifesto might well have been called “Canby Died For Your Sins.”
The highest ranking U.S. military official to be killed in the so-called “Indian Wars,” General Edward Canby’s death at the hands of Modoc fighters in 1873 unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing and guerrilla resistance later colloquialized as the Modoc War. An international sensation at the time and iconic in the decades following, the Klamath Basin struggle has been largely overshadowed in contemporary historical memory.
In his razor-sharp account Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), historian Boyd Cothran not only reconstructs this dramatic story but traces how various actors–pushed and pulled by the demands of an acquisitive capitalist market–transformed the memory of the war into a redemptive tale of American innocence, a recasting of colonial violence that still shapes U.S. self-perceptions today.
You can listen to the whole interview below and you can check out other interviews on New Books in Native American Studies!
“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” –Ford Madox Ford
There is a interesting blog called the Page 99 Test, which asks authors to apply this simple test to their book. They invited me to write a post about my new book Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence. Here is a link to the blog.
And here is my post:
How have Americans remembered the Indian Wars and justified their violence? Remembering the Modoc War delves into this question by exploring how historical memories of the Modoc War of 1872-73, California’s so-called Last Indian War, have persisted over the last century and a half. Histories of nineteenth-century U.S.-Indian violence evoked a legacy of conquest, cultivating a self-image of the United States as an innocent rather than expansionistic colonial power. Casting their actions as fundamentally innocent, Americans imagined themselves as the victims of frontier violence by representing Indians as the irrational aggressors and violators of a civilized nation’s just laws.
The book shows how stories about the Modoc War have changed over time. Page 99 describes how the prolific dime novel industry of the Gilded Age transformed the Modoc War into a tragic romance for East Coast American audiences to experience and consume. Most of these novels used the actual events and real Indigenous people merely as props for their romantic dramas. Such is the case in Seth Hardinge’s Modoc Jack; or, The Lion of the Lava Beds (1873) or T.C. Harbaugh’s The Squaw Spy; or, The Rangers of the Lava-Beds (1873), both of which relied upon well-developed nineteenth century literary tropes such as the tragic Indian chief and the romantic Pocahontas-like Indian princess.
But not all works of popular literature at the time reinforced notions of American innocence through romantic portrayals of Indigenous people. Some, like Joaquin Miller’s Life amongst the Modocs indicted American postbellum Indian policy and anticipated many of the arguments reformers such as Helen Hunt Jackson would make a full decade later in A Century of Dishonor (1881) and her popular romance, Ramona (1884). As Page 99 quotes Miller’s preface to his quasi-biographical novel:
“This narrative is not particularly of myself, but of a race of people that has lived centuries of history and never yet had a historian; that has suffered nearly four hundred years of wrong, and never yet had an advocate…. When I die I shall take this book in my hand, and hold it up in the Day of Judgment, as a sworn indictment against the rulers of my country for the destruction of these people.”
Page 99, then, shows how the dynamics of the Gilded Age dime novel industry promulgated narratives of Americans innocence but also created a platform for contesting these representations, an ongoing struggle that is at the heart of Remembering the Modoc War and whose significance stretches into the present day.
As of about a week ago, my book Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence is now available to order! You can order it here.
And here is the book’s description:
On October 3, 1873, the U.S. Army hanged four Modoc headmen at Oregon’s Fort Klamath. The condemned had supposedly murdered the only U.S. Army general to die during the Indian wars of the nineteenth century. Their much-anticipated execution marked the end of the Modoc War of 1872–73. But as Boyd Cothran demonstrates, the conflict’s close marked the beginning of a new struggle over the memory of the war. Examining representations of the Modoc War in the context of rapidly expanding cultural and commercial marketplaces, Cothran shows how settlers created and sold narratives of the conflict that blamed the Modocs. These stories portrayed Indigenous people as the instigators of violence and white Americans as innocent victims.
Cothran examines the production and circulation of these narratives, from sensationalized published histories and staged lectures featuring Modoc survivors of the war to commemorations and promotional efforts to sell newly opened Indian lands to settlers. As Cothran argues, these narratives of American innocence justified not only violence against Indians in the settlement of the West but also the broader process of U.S. territorial and imperial expansion.
Finally, I know I’ve been a bit absent from this blog. But I promise to be more active from now on. So, more soon!
After many years of research, writing, revising, and fine-tuning I am proud to announce that Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) is finally available for pre-order. I will post a much fuller announcement with additional details in the near future but in the meantime, here is a link to pre-order it:
Out of the blue last week, I got a phone call from a reporter at the Catholic Register. He wanted to talk about two potential new Canadian saints being considered by the Catholic Church. Slightly bewildered, I agreed to the interview.
He started off by asking me: “Have Canadians forgotten their history?” And I thought to myself, Oy! What do I do with that? But the resulting conversation was really productive.
Here is an excerpt:
The beginnings of the Church in Canada include a series of firsts that go beyond reminding us of who we are. If Blessed Marie de l’Incarnation and Blessed Bishop François de Laval become saints this year, in time for the 350th anniversary of the founding of the diocese of Quebec, these new saints could inspire Canadian Catholics to imagine what their church will become. . . . If Canadians could come to understand the world of Bishop Laval and Marie de l’Incarnation, they might see the origins of this country differently, said York University history Professor Boyd Cothran. “When they got here they discovered a complex indigenous place where they had to compromise, they had to learn how to live together and they had to create community,” Cothran said. Read full story.