Home -> Miscellaneous Books -> Reminiscences of a Pioneer -> Chapter 12 - The Peace Commission's Work

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Chapter XII.

The Peace Commission's Work.

A. B. Meacham was at that time in Washington. He had been superseded as Superintendent of Indian Affairs by T. B. Odeneal. Meacham wanted the place, and backed by the churches and humanitarians of New England, thought he could accomplish his purpose by means of a compromise with Jack and his band. He declared to President Grant that he knew Jack to be an honorable man and that he could easily effect a compromise and induce the outlaws to return to the reservation. Meantime a clamor went up all over the country, especially in the east. Sentimentalists shed barrels of tears over the wrongs of the Indians, the horrors of the Ben Wright massacre were recapitulated with all manner of untruthful variations, and the great Beecher from the pulpit of his Brooklyn tabernacle sent up a prayer for "that poor, persecuted people whose long pent up wrongs had driven them to acts of outrage and diabolical murder." Delegations, at the instigation of Meacham, visited the White House and finally succeeded in bending the iron will of the grim old soldier to their own. The hands that slew the Bodys and Brothertons were to be clasped in a spirit of brotherly love, and the principles and precepts of the "Lowly Nazarene" were to be extended to these gentle butchers.

Accordingly in February a commission was appointed consisting of A. B. Meacham, Jesse Applegate, and S. Case. The commission arrived at headquarters towards the last of February. They were instructed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs "to ascertain the causes which led to hostilities between the Modocs and the U. S. troops;" to offer them a reservation somewhere on the coast with immunity for past crimes. In vain Gov. Grover of Oregon protested against any compromise with the murderers of Oregon citizens. He held that they were amenable to the laws of that State, had been indicted by a grand jury, and should be tried and executed as the law directs, but his protest was passed unheeded and the commissioners proceeded to carry out their instructions. Bob Whittle and his Indian wife were sent to convey the terms to Capt. Jack and his band, but Jack refused to have anything to do with the commissioners, although willing to talk to Judges Roseborough and Steele of Yreka. These gentlemen proceeded to the camp in the lava beds and held a conference and found that Jack was anxious for peace; was tired of war; did not know the commissioners; but wanted to talk to the chief soldiers, Generals Canby and Gillem. The former had arrived and assumed command of the one thousand or more troops assembled, while the latter had superseded Gen. Wheaton. John Fairchilds also had an interview with them in the lava beds and was only saved from massacre by one of the Indians, who kept him in his cave all night and escorted him beyond the lines the next morning. After some weeks of delay Jack finally agreed to a conference with the commissioners, but the terms were such as to leave no doubt of intended treachery, and Mr. Applegate and Mr. Case resigned in disgust. It was apparent to these men that the Indians only sought an opportunity to murder Gen. Canby and such other officers as they could get into their power, but Meacham was determined to succeed, as that was the only means of getting back his job as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Accordingly Rev. Dr. Thomas of Oakland and Mr. Dyer, Indian agent at Klamath, were appointed to fill the vacancies.

In the meantime Gen. Canby had moved his headquarters to the foot of the bluff at the lower end of Tule Lake, while Col. John Green with Mason's command had moved down from Land's ranch to a position within striking distance of the stronghold. Five mortars and three howitzers with an abundance of ammunition and provisions were also moved up to the front.

But the dreary farce was not to be ended yet. On April 10th four bucks and five squaws rode into Gen. Canby's camp. They were fed and clothed by the commission, loaded with presents, and sent back asking for a conference between the lines. Later in the day Bogus Charley, the Umpqua, came into camp and surrendering his gun, stated that he would not return. He remained in camp over night and in the morning was joined by "Boston Charley," one of the leaders who stated that Capt. Jack was willing to meet the commissioners midway between the lines on the condition that Jack was to be attended by four of his men, all unarmed. Boston then mounted his horse and rode away. Bogus accompanying him.

A tent had been pitched midway between the lines and thither Commissioners Meacham, Thomas, and Dyer, and Gen. Canby repaired accompanied by Frank Riddle and his Modoc wife as interpreters. Before starting both Riddle and his squaw in vain tried to dissuade the commissioners from their purpose. Meacham told Gen. Canby that Riddle only sought to delay negotiations in order to prolong his job as interpreter; that he knew Capt. Jack and that he "was an honorable man." Rev. Mr. Thomas when appealed to by Riddle replied that he "was in the hands of his God." Both Riddle and his squaw then, at the suggestion of Mr. Dyer, went to the tent of Gen. Canby and begged him not to go. With tears streaming down her cheeks the woman implored the General not to go, as treachery was surely meditated. Gen. Canby replied that "his Government had ordered him to go, and a soldier had no choice but to obey orders." The General was dressed in full uniform, with sword belt and empty scabbard.

Gen. Gillem intended to accompany them but was too indisposed to leave his tent. Riddle, in describing what transpired at the "peace tent," told me that Meacham made a short speech and was followed by Dr. Thomas and Gen. Canby. Capt. Jack then made a speech, demanding Hot Creek and Cottonwood as a reservation, owned at that time by the Dorris brothers, Fairchilds and Doten. Meacham then explained to him the impossibility of acceding to his demands, as the property had already passed in title to these men. Old Sconchin then told Meacham to "shut up;" that he had said enough. While Sconchin was talking Jack got up and was walking behind the others. He then turned back and exclaimed: "All ready!" At the same instant he drew a pistol and snapped at Gen. Canby, but cocking the pistol again shot him through the right eye. Canby fell dead without a groan. Almost at the same instant Sconchin shot Meacham through the shoulder, in the head and in the arm, while Boston Charley shot Dr. Thomas dead. Just previous to the shooting Mr. Dyer had turned and walked back behind the tent. At the first crack of the pistols Mr. Dyer fled for his life, closely pursued by Hooker Jim. Mr. Dyer had concealed a small revolver about his person and turned at intervals of his flight and fired at his pursuer. By this means he was enabled to make headway. and at last escaped.

Gen. Canby and Dr. Thomas were stripped and the General scalped. Meacham was insensible and as the Indians started in to scalp him Riddle's squaw told them that the soldiers were coming, and they left him and fled. To this fact Meacham was indebted for his scalp, as it was partly cut loose and in a few moments more would have been stripped off.

While these scenes were being enacted, two Indians approached the lines of Mason and Green bearing a flag of truce. Lieutenants Sherwood and Boyle went out about 500 yards beyond their line to meet them. The Indians said they wanted to see Maj. Mason and when told by the officers that Mason would not talk to them, they appeared disappointed. As the officers turned to go back to their lines they were fired upon by Indians in ambush and Lieut. Sherwood was mortally wounded.

Early in the day Capt. Adams had been stationed on Gillem's bluff and during all the proceedings at the peace tent had watched with a strong field glass. When the massacre of the commission began he telegraphed to Gen. Gillem, and the soldiers, held in readiness for an emergency, sprang to the advance on the double quick, but were too late to save the life of the gallant Canby and his comrades.

Thus ended the long, dreary farce of the "Peace Commission." And at what a price! There lay the noble Canby prone upon his face, cold and still in death; having breasted the hurricane of many a well-fought field to fall at last by the treacherous, assassin hand of a prowling savage to whom he had come upon a mission of peace and friendship. There was another of the Commissioners, a man of peace, a preacher of the gospel of eternal love, stricken down with the words of mercy and forgiveness upon his lips, his gray and reverend locks all dabbled in his own blood. Another, shot and hacked and stabbed, covered with wounds, beaten down with cruel blows, motionless but still alive. And there was another, with warwhoop and pistol shot ringing at his heels, fleeing for his life; while at the side scene was the "honorable" Capt. Jack, stage manager of the awful play, arch demon of massacre, with pistol that took the priceless life of Canby still smoking in his hand, leaping with glee, his dark face all aglow with the glare of the dread spectacle, like a fiend dancing in the fire-light of hell.

No wonder that in its lurid light the Government for a moment forgot its dawdling "peace policy," and "let slip the dogs of war." No wonder the canting prayers of maudlin fanatics were stilled amid the wrathful cry for vengeance. The blood of Canby and Thomas and Sherwood "cried unto God from the ground" against them. The ghastly, sickening tragedy which should send a thrill through the very heart of the nation was consummated.

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