On this day in 1873, the United States military hangs four Indians found guilty of murdering the Civil War hero, General Edward Canby, during the Modoc War in Oregon. Canby was the highest ranking military official–and the only general–ever killed by Indians.
As with most of the American military conflicts with Indians, the Modoc war began with a struggle over land. A treaty signed in 1864 had forced a band of Modoc Indians under the leadership of Chief Keintpoos-known to Americans as Captain Jack–to move to a reservation in southeastern Oregon dominated by Klamath Indians, who viewed the Modoc as unwelcome intruders on their traditional lands. Frustrated with the ill–treatment they received at the hands of the Klamath, Captain Jack and his followers abandoned the reservation in 1870 and returned to their former territory and traditional hunter-gatherer life.
But during their six-year absence, white settlers had flooded into the Modoc’s former territory. Despite Captain Jack’s repeated assurances that his people wanted only peace, many feared the Indians. In 1872, bowing to public pressure, the U.S. dispatched military forces to remove the Modoc and force them back onto the reservation. When some of the more hotheaded Modoc resisted, war broke out; and the Modoc fled to a stronghold among the Lava Beds south of Tule Lake, where they succeeded in holding off U.S. forces for almost half a year.
During the early months of the Modoc War, Captain Jack had strongly opposed armed resistance and continuously searched for a peaceful solution. But under pressure from more aggressive Modoc who were challenging his leadership, he made the fatal error of agreeing to a plan to kill the leader of the American forces, General Edward Canby. On April 11, 1873, Canby and two other men entered the Modoc stronghold under a flag of truce, hoping to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict. Captain Jack murdered Canby, and other Modoc killed one of his companions. The third man escaped to give a detailed report of the Modoc’s treachery.
Outraged by the murder of an honored Civil War hero, Americans demanded swift retribution. The Army stepped up its attacks on the Modoc, and by early June Captain Jack and his followers had been captured. After a military trial at Fort Klamath, Oregon, Captain Jack and three other Modoc leaders were found guilty of murder and hanged. As a result of the Modoc War and the murder of Canby, the U.S. began to take a much more aggressive approach to dealing with Indian problems throughout the nation.