Review of Cothran, Remembering the Modoc War

By Aubrey Lauersdorf / May 25, 2017

Boyd Cothran. Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Reviewed by Aubrey Lauersdorf

With Remembering the Modoc War, Boyd Cothran adds to the growing body of scholarship on the historical memory of nineteenth-century US-Indian conflicts, which includes recent works by Lisa Blee, Ari Kelman, and others. Cothran examines remembrances of the Modoc War, an 1873 conflict between the US Army and Modoc people who had fled the intolerable Klamath Reservation in Oregon, which culminated in the public execution of Modoc leader Captain Jack and his associates. Cothran’s emphasis on “marketplaces of remembering,” or the “networks of exchange and commodification” where understandings of the past are circulated and consumed, suggests that scholars must not overlook the role of capitalism in remembrances of US-Indian conflicts. Cothran successfully demonstrates that although the changing demands of marketplaces of remembering shaped historical remembrances of the Modoc War, these remembrances were always centered on a narrative of American innocence. Even at the outset of the Modoc War, newspaper coverage emphasized American innocence, a trend that continued after the conflict gained national and international attention. A competitive and fiercely partisan press produced exaggerated stories rather than nuanced analysis, which offered little room for Modoc perspectives. After Modoc warriors killed members of a US peace commission, including a US Army general, journalists published sensationalized news stories that painted the Modocs as violent criminals. Modoc perspectives began to receive even less attention, and the American public became increasingly hostile toward the Modocs. This hostility was so great that the US government was encouraged to try Modoc leader Captain Jack and his associates in a military tribunal.

After the conflict, the commercialization of the Klamath Basin and the rise of automobile tourism led to changing demands within marketplaces of remembering, and although remembrances of the Modoc War were refashioned, they still maintained the narrative of American innocence. During the 1880s and 1890s, the Klamath Basin underwent a transition from a local farming and ranching economy to a center of the timber industry linked to national markets. Allotment increasingly made timber-rich Indian land available to white Americans, and white residents sought to draw settlers and commercial interests to the Klamath Basin. To further their efforts, these residents portrayed the Modoc War as “a turning point in the Klamath Basin’s inevitable ascent to modernity.” In framing the conflict as an inevitable force of “civilization,” this narrative also emphasized American innocence. Similarly, in the first decades of the twentieth century, white American heritage groups, local business leaders, and other interests tried to promote automobile tourism to the Klamath Basin. In 1925, President Coolidge declared the Lava Beds, part of the Modoc homeland that was a battleground in the Modoc War, a national monument. Soon after, local organizations erected a memorial to commemorate the conflict. While previous commemorations had focused on the death of General Edward Canby, the leader of the US peace commission, this memorial reframed victimhood as a collective experience of white American settlers and soldiers. Simultaneously, white residents of the Klamath Basin insisted that US-Indian violence was firmly in the past. Through these efforts by Klamath Basin residents, “the troubled history of the Modoc War has been rendered safe for white tourists to encounter and consume.”

Besides white Americans, Modocs and other Indians contributed to these narratives of American innocence, and their contributions demonstrate the power of marketplaces of remembering. For example, Toby Riddle, a Modoc woman who worked as an interpreter during the conflict, participated in a traveling show about the Modoc War created by Alfred Meacham, a surviving member of the US peace commission. Riddle’s career reveals the extent to which marketplaces of remembering limited representations of Indian people and perspectives. To succeed financially, Riddle, in collaboration with Meacham, adopted the name Winema and portrayed herself as a Pocahontas-like figure who had saved white American men during the Modoc War. Riddle’s portrayal was successful because it adhered to nineteenth-century white Americans’ expectations for literary representations of Indian women. This romanticized portrayal of Winema and the Modoc War more generally framed the conflict as the “tragic result of cultural misunderstandings,” while its popularity “reveals Americans’ desire to portray the conquest of Indigenous peoples as a tragic clash of cultures and therefore ultimately innocent.” Similarly, Indian veterans of the Modoc War and their widows faced limitations on how they could frame the Modoc War in their applications to the federal government for pensions for their work on behalf of the US Army. To succeed in a pension system that affirmed American innocence, “Indigenous claimants had to use the same narratives of progress, civilization, and American innocence.” In the epilogue, Cothran reveals the persistence of the narrative of American innocence. While a Modoc War memorial constructed in 1988 did not focus on the collective victimhood of American settlers and soldiers, it emphasized the equal suffering of all parties involved in the conflict. This memorial reframed the Modoc War “from a justified war of conquest to an unavoidable and inevitable multicultural tragedy,” thus burying the power disparities inherent in nineteenth-century US settler colonial violence.

In Remembering the Modoc War, Boyd Cothran expertly demonstrates that although the changing demands of marketplaces of remembering reshaped remembrances of the Modoc War, a narrative of American innocence has remained central. With his focus on marketplaces of remembering, Cothran adds an important perspective to the growing scholarship on historical memory of the nineteenth-century US-Indian wars. Because of Cothran’s focus on remembrances, Remembering the Modoc War is not an introduction to the war itself, and readers with no prior knowledge of the conflict might find themselves looking to other sources for more information about events and processes to which Cothran refers. Although compelling, the book’s introduction also might be inaccessible to undergraduates and other non-specialists. However, Cothran clearly connects each chapter to his overarching argument and always includes numerous compelling examples. Instructors of undergraduate courses might find that their students benefit most from reading one or two chapters and forgoing the introduction altogether.