"A Quaker's View" first appeared in 1990, as a column in the WHF newsletter. Articles from that column are now available online (though some have been lost).

Nothing here is meant to be the last word in Quaker Orthodoxy. It is, after all, "A Quaker's View."

Modoc War


Hello Friends and friends of Friends! I am your host, Pendle Hill, with another exciting edition of A Quaker's View. In this column, we will consider a war waged more than 125 years ago, between American forces and the Modoc people.

The Modoc people lived in the border region between Oregon and California in a land they called, "Smiles of God." From this land, the Modocs harvested roots, berries, fish and wild game.

By the middle of the 19th Century, a southern branch of the Oregon Trail brought a steady steam of American settlers into Modoc territory. Considering this an invasion, the Modocs fought back by attacking wagon trains.

In 1852, a flamboyant gunfighter named Ben Wright invited the Modocs to a peace conference. Under a white flag, the treacherous Wright offered his Modoc guests a meal poisoned with strychnine. The Modocs refused to eat, so Wright and his accomplices drew their concealed weapons and killed 41 of the 46 Modocs in attendance.

Eventually, the defeated Modocs were crowded onto a reservation with the nearby Klamath Indians. Since the reservation itself was on Klamath land, the Modocs were constantly reminded of their status as "guests." The Klamath would taunt, "You may fish there, but it is our river. You may use that wood for your fire, but it is our wood."

Finding life among the Klamath too unpleasant to endure, a band of Modocs left the reservation in order to resettle on their traditional lands. This breakaway faction of more than 400 people was led by a young man named, Captain Jack.

Earlier, Captain Jack had taken a smaller band (of less than 100 people) away from the reservation. Although the earlier situation had been tense, it had resolved itself peacefully.

Now, however, the band of "renegades" was much larger and the resulting tension was far greater. The settlers of Southern Oregon pressured their government to intervene.

Some government officials (both in Washington D.C. and here in Oregon) were eager to use military force against the Modocs. Some even spoke of "exterminating" them entirely. Official government policy, however, called for a diplomatic solution.

Soon after his election in 1868, President Grant adopted a "Quaker policy" toward Native Americans. With apparent disregard for the boundary between church and state, Grant asked Quaker yearly meetings to appoint Indian agents for the U.S. government! In effect, Grant hoped 19th Century Friends could do for the federal government what early Friends did for Pennsylvania -- namely, establish peace between Native Americans and European settlers.

As this program expanded, Grant appointed a variety of Protestant churches to oversee the various tribes. A Methodist named A.B. Meacham served as official liaison to the Modocs.

It would be hard to find any fault in Meacham. He was brave enough to meet with hostile Modocs face to face. He was entirely sincere in his commitment to peace and to the well being of the Modoc people. Even so, blood was shed.

Soldiers from Fort Klamath rode to Captain Jack's camp in order to arrest the Modoc leader. One Indian fired his rifle. The soldiers took this as a signal for armed resistance. Fearing for their lives, the soldiers started shooting at the Modocs.

The Modoc warriors were forced to retreat. The soldiers captured the camp, taking women and children as prisoners. The American commander set the Modoc camp ablaze, accidentally killing one old woman who had remained in her tent.

Meanwhile, an armed band of American settlers attacked another Modoc camp. This time, it was the Americans who were driven off -- but not before several Modoc women and children were killed in the fighting.

When the Modocs retaliated by murdering innocent settlers, the "Quaker policy" was discredited. Both sides prepared for war. The Modocs fled to the shelter of a nearby lava bed and the army prepared itself to flush them out.

At the next battle, 53 Modoc warriors routed 400 Americans. The soldiers suffered 37 casualties, the Modocs zero.

Suddenly, the Americans were willing to give peace another chance. Under a white flag, Meacham, General Canby (the highest ranking military officer on the scene) and two others tried to persuade Captain Jack that a peaceful surrender was in the best interest of his people.

During these negotiations, the U.S. military continued to prepare for war. The size of the American battle force grew dramatically. Howitzers were brought to the area. General Canby felt sure an intimidating show of force would hasten the Modoc's surrender.

In fact, the Modocs interpreted the military build up as a sign of American bad faith. The Modocs saw the negotiation process as nothing more than a delaying tactic to benefit the Americans. Hoping to strike before it was too late, the Modocs violated the white flag and attacked the American envoys. Meacham was shot, partially scalped and left for dead. Canby and the others were killed. With them died any further interest in negotiation. The Quaker policy was completely, irrevocably undermined.

American forces attacked the Modoc stronghold, dislodging the Indians. In time, Capt. Jack was captured and hanged. The Modoc people were relocated to Oklahoma.

Here are questions to consider:

1. Could a "Quaker process" have been successful in resolving this crisis? What could've made this process truly "Quaker?"

2. Perhaps one lesson of the Modoc war is that peace is harder to establish once trust has been lost. Are there ways of restoring trust? Consider this question in light of our current relationship with Iran, Cuba, etc.