The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America's Gilded Age

The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America's Gilded Age

The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America's Gilded Age

The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America's Gilded Age


On a cold, rainy dawn in late November 1872, Lieutenant Frazier Boutelle and a Modoc Indian nicknamed Scarface Charley leveled firearms at each other. Their duel triggered a war that capped a decades-long genocidal attack that was emblematic of the United States' conquest of Native America's peoples and lands. Robert Aquinas McNally tells the wrenching story of the Modoc War of 1872-73, one of the nation's costliest campaigns against North American Indigenous peoples, in which the army placed nearly one thousand soldiers in the field against some fifty-five Modoc fighters.

Although little known today, the Modoc War dominated national headlines for an entire year. Fought in south-central Oregon and northeastern California, the war settled into a siege in the desolate Lava Beds and climaxed the decades-long effort to dispossess and destroy the Modocs.

The war did not end with the last shot fired, however. For the first and only time in U.S. history, Native fighters were tried and hanged for war crimes. The surviving Modocs were packed into cattle cars and shipped from Fort Klamath to the corrupt, disease-ridden Quapaw reservation in Oklahoma, where they found peace even more lethal than war.

The Modoc War tells the forgotten story of a violent and bloody Gilded Age campaign at a time when the federal government boasted officially of a "peace policy" toward Indigenous nations. This compelling history illuminates a dark corner in our country's past.


Second Lieutenant Frazier A. Boutelle kept a close eye on the two Indians stripped to the waist, loaded rifles in hand, faces set, eyes glaring. the pair were shouting in the Modoc tongue, words whose meaning the lieutenant failed to grasp but whose hostile tone he could never mistake. Boutelle was a career cavalryman, come up twice through the ranks, an experienced campaigner who had fought Confederates from Second Bull Run to Cold Harbor, and Indians from Texas to Oregon. in every twitching fiber of his body, Boutelle felt a fight coming on.

His commander, Captain James Jackson, Troop B, First Cavalry, shared the same opinion. and he was ready to be done with this, feeling sicker by the moment, a growing weakness that the overnight ride through twenty straight hours of cold rain and sleet had only worsened.

“Mr. Boutelle, what do you think of the situation?” Jackson asked, his voice weak.

“There is going to be a fight,” Boutelle answered, “and the sooner you open it, the better, before there are any more complete preparations.”

Jackson agreed by ordering Boutelle and four enlisted men to disarm and arrest the two Modocs. a mixed-race lieutenant who kept secret the African American portion of his heritage in order to command white troopers, Boutelle knew more than a little about playing a role. He unholstered his revolver and locked eyes with the Indian whose heavily scarred right cheek pulled an otherwise strong and handsome face into a perpetual sneer. His Modoc name was Chick-chack-am Lul-al-kuel-atko, something local settlers wouldn’t even try to wrap their mouths around, so they dubbed him Scarface Charley. Boutelle saw something of himself in Charley. They were much alike: lean and quick, as threatening as pumas on the prod.

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