1876: Marie Louise Houghton escapes capital murder prosecution 1843: Allen Mair, irate

1873: Kintpuash, aka Captain Jack

October 3rd, 2011 Headsman

It’s fitting, we think, to wrap up our long series on Americana with an entry from that realm’s first nations.

It was on this date 1873 that the Modoc leader Kintpuash, known as Captain Jack, was hanged with three comrades by United States forces after the Modoc War.

Reading from a familiar script, the encroaching whites had squeezed Modocs off their ancestral land and onto a reservation — in fact, the reservation of another, rival tribe. Jack led his people off that uncomfortable lodgings, bidding to return home in 1865 — only to be rounded up and re-confined.

A second attempt to break out would result in his execution.

When an actual fight broke out at the inevitable surrender negotiation, outright skirmishing ensued as everyone reached for their guns.

Jack’s forces broke away, now with the U.S. Army in earnest pursuit. They fell back to the rough volcanic terrain at present-day Lava Beds National Monument in northern California — and specifically to a defensible natural fortification that now bears Captain Jack’s name.


Modoc firing position within Captain Jack’s Stronghold. (cc) image courtesy of Eric Hodel.

From Captain Jack’s Stronghold, the Modoc held off a larger army assault.

Dee Brown relates the tragedy of the fruitless monthslong aftermath, of “peace” negotiations under a gathering siege, in the classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

[Indian Affairs superintendent Alfred] Meacham* replied that the Modocs could not stay in peace in the Lava Beds unless they gave up the men who committed the killings on Lost River …

“Who will try them?” Jack asked. “White men or Indians?”

“White men, of course,” Meacham admitted.

“Then will you give up the men who killed the Indian women and children on Lost River, to be tried by the Modocs?”

Meacham shook his head. “The Modoc law is dead; the white man’s law rules the country now; only one law lives at a time.”

“Will you try the men who fired on my people?” Jack continued. “By your own law?”

Meacham knew and Captain Jack knew that this could not be done. “The white man’s law rules the country,” the commissioner replied. “The Indian law is dead.”

You gotta look forward, not back.

In the Modoc camp, militants like Hooker Jim were gaining sway, and by disputing his leadership and even his manhood eventually persuaded/forced Captain Jack to ambush the U.S. general in charge during one of their interminable parleys.

Far from striking a decisive blow at the head of the enemy, this anathematized Captain Jack and triggered a massive, and this time successful, army incursion. Jack persisted on the run for a few months, but he was finally captured wih the help of Modoc turncoats — including that former radical Hooker Jim, who induced him to kill the general in the first place.

“You intend to buy your liberty and freedom by running me to earth and delivering me to the soldiers. You realize that life is sweet, but you did not think so when you forced me to promise that I would kill that man, [General] Canby … I thought we would stand side by side if we did fight, and die fighting. I see now I am the only one to forfeit … Oh, you bird-hearted men, you turned against me.”

-Jack to Hooker Jim

Captain Jack was hanged at Fort Klamath, Oregon after a perfunctory trial all in English, with no lawyer to plead the case. (The gallows was put up outside the courtroom during the trial.) The executed Modocs’ corpses were shipped back to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (rumor had it that they appeared for a time as circus attractions), and only returned to the Modoc in 1984.

Update: Boyd Cothran explores the Modoc War and the skin-crawling trade in gallows trophies of the hanged Modocs in Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence. He discusses his work on a New Books in Native American Studies podcast here.


Image (c) Matthew T. Ravenhouk and used with permission.

* Meacham wrote a history of the Modoc War that’s available free online.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Oregon,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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