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.