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The Killing of the Commissioners

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There were a great many tragical and pathetic happenings in the lava-beds during the Modoc War in 1873. In fact, all occurrences were tinged more or less with diabolism. Now these matters acquired in the minds of every one the feeling just expressed by reason of the hesitancy with which the campaign was prosecuted. At least, that is my own humble opinion. The mail-carriers were kept busy and the wires were kept warm conveying every word spoken and every movement undertaken in the vicinity of the seat of war to Washington, and from Washington to the Peace Commissioners; and everything that leaked out from their deliberations found its way to eager newspapers, and was there rehashed, recolored and fed to the community at large. So each and every actor felt as though a great drama in many acts was being played, each one startling the audience more than the one previously. First it was war, then peace, then council, then murder, then war again. Such veering and hauling was never before experienced by landsman or sailor.

General Canby and his colleagues had twice before given a solemn warning of what would happen. However, the General, who was chief, had passed his word that the meeting would take place at the hour appointed; and he intended to keep it at all hazards, fondly hoping that the vexatious matter would be ended to the credit of the Government and in justice to the savage. General Canby was a man of the highest personal honor and courage.

After the departure or the commission, Dr. McEldery and I immediately climbed up the steep bluff overlooking the distant scene and took a stand quite near the signal-officer, Lieutenant I. Q. Adams, First Cavalry, who, with his sergeant, had been keeping watch since early dawn. After observing a little desultory flagging from Colonel Mason’s camp, distant four miles across the lava-beds, Lieutenant Adams sprang up in great excitement, and gave the glass to the Doctor, with strict injunctions to keep it on the council tent while he read a most important message from Mason. Then, seizing the flag from the soldier, he began an energetic series of wig-wag motions. Then he told us the result of his communication with the station at Colonel Mason’s camp.

He said that Lieutenant Sherwood had been shot by the Modocs, and that Major Boyle had narrowly escaped being shot also! It happened that these officers had left their camp but a few moments before to hold a parley with the Indians, though at long range, and as the latter had no doubt decided to begin war that day, they selected these two as the first and most convenient victims. Well, after this sad message had been confirmed by a few more signals, the Lieutenant resumed the glass. We were naturally filled with foreboding for the General and his brave companions.

Almost in a moment he announced an unusual stir at the tent. I will mention here that Adams was a most expert signal-officer, having been quite prominent in that capacity during the War of the Rebellion. Keen of eye and very attentive to duty, he rendered most important service throughout this war from the very beginning.

The words just referred to were scarcely uttered when we all heard firing at the tent, though very faintly, and in a moment the Doctor, who was very keen-sighted, saw the tall form of the General stagger out into the open and fall. Lieutenant Adams jumped to the edge of the bluff and called out to the camp below:

“They are firing on the commission!”

All were astir in a moment. I ran down and assembled my troop, dismounted, and started without further order for the scene. Others were as quick to form and move at double time, but alas, the distance of half a mile in the lava-beds was as hard to traverse as five times that on ordinary ground. When the troops, consisting of nearly the whole force, arrived on the scene the massacre had been accomplished.

The General and his faithful friend and co-laborer, Dr. Thomas, lay dead some little distance in the rear or toward our camp. Mr. Meacham was discovered bleeding from several wounds, though alive. He had made a strong effort to escape, though his horse, which I presume he intended should aid him if required, had been taken off by the murderers. The arrangement of the council caused him to be separated from this resource. Agent Dyer escaped by the aid of his little pistol, a ruse he had practised in violating the treaty or obligation that all parties should meet unarmed. I do not believe there will ever be another such covenant. The woman Toby and “her man” Riddle were unhurt, though at the fatal moment at hearing the watchword of Jack, “At-tux” (all ready), she sprang to avert the demon’s will, but in vain. For her faithful service during this war, through peril and in hardship endured, a pension was given her which she enjoyed until her death some years later.

Our large camp under the great cragged bluffs was that night a house of mourning. Officers took turns in watching the dead form of their commander day by day, until his honored remains were carried on the shoulders of some twenty or more stalwart veterans up the rocky, winding trail, and deposited in the ambulance which conveyed them away to other friends and civilization. Thereafter several other bodies traversed the same dismal journey, conveyed in the same manner and equally the victims of the Modocs’ wrath.

By Major Trimble

Memorandum Of The Assassination Made By Major Riddle, Another Eye-Witness

I was sitting in the signal-station with the signal-officer when the firing commenced on the other side of the lake. The signal-officer ran down to report it and asked me to watch the tent where the meeting took place. I saw a commotion and the commissioners and General Canby try to escape, and two Indians pursuing him and firing at him till he fell. I saw them go up to him, I thought to scalp him, but they did not; just took his clothes – a portion of them. I could not identify the Indians through the glass, so could not be a witness at the trial.

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