The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1973, Volume 19, Number 4
Cover: Morning on the Bay by Alfred Mitchell


David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

Burnt-Out Fires: California’s Modoc Indian War. By Richard H. Dillon. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. End-paper maps. 371 pages. $8.95.

Reviewed by Dan L. Thrapp, author of The Conquest of Apacheria (1967), General Crook and the Sierra Madre Adventure (1972), and Victoria and the Mimbres Apaches (1973). Mr. Thrapp’s book on General Crook’s campaign was named best book on Southwestern history for 1971 – 72, by the Border Regional Library Association.

A reviewer might be pardoned upon picking up this book if he wonders what Richard Dillon could possibly say about the Modocs and their bloody confrontation with the whites that Keith A. Murray failed to cover in his admirable The Modios and Their War, a book which, in the view of one impatient reader, “tells you more than you want to know” about the conflict. It doesn’t, of course, but it illustrates Murray’s thoroughness. The answer to the question comes quickly, however: Dillon aims at a different audience and in this, one of his best books, he strikes his target squarely.

The work paints a broad canvas, wider and deeper, if less focused, and somewhat more “literary,” than its predecessor—to which the author gives just credit as an “essential” source for an understanding of the conflict. With apt turns of phrase (Modoc society was “a more perfect democracy than . . . an inkwell hurling French Assembly”; Sorass Lake no doubt was named “after a hard day in the saddle”) and a bit of stretching for a lively description now and then, Dillon covers the tale from earliest white-Modoc-Klamath confrontations to the dispersal of Captain Jack’s followers in Oklahoma, and a brave and sad story it is. His style is breezy, but his research is thorough enough and the result readable and informative, if sometimes frustrating (Who are the “Rock Indians” [p. 36], or the Paskanwas [p. 40]?). The author is better on history than ethnology. He says, for example, the Klamath-Modoc tongue was “unique” (p. 22), while most modern authorities believe it related to the Nez Percé. Despite his serious attempts at objectivity, the actions and motivations of the whites come through more clearly than those of the reds. He is not above accepting the most garish, rather than the more logical, version of an incident, as the massacre of “eighty” emigrants (p. 50), while Murray examines this yarn and comes up with a figure of eighteen. But these lapses are rare, as are errors, such as the assertion that Olive Oatman was captured by “Apaches,” and that Custer was a brevet Brigadier General (it was Major General). Byrne, killed by Mescaleros, also was a brevet Major General but Canby, as Dillon points out, did hold a high basic rank, although not the highest of any army officer slain in America’s Indian Wars because Richard Bulter, killed in St. Clair’s battle with the Miamis in 1791, held the rank of Major General. Canby, it might be pointed out, died not in combat but by assassination, Occasionally the author casts a bit too wide a loop, as in his interesting chapter on garrison life where the soldier hardships which he describes applied more exactly to regions east of the Rockies than to eastern Oregon.

The plight of the Modocs was a mirror image of that of innumerable other Indian peoples as the whites closed in upon the land and forced first their removal to specified reservations, and then concentration for reasons of economy and supposed efficiency. This (mis)management led often to outbreaks, as it did in the case of the Modocs, crowded in with the Klamaths to whom they were inferior in numbers if related by blood; and, feeling themselves imposed upon, some opted for freedom, even if it meant war, a war which the Modocs astonishingly won battle by battle until Jack’s band, incredibly to one unaware of the nature of Indian society, fell to pieces, collapsed of its internal stresses, and the triumphs were thrown away (pp. 287, 289). Dillon’s account (pp. 60 – 62) of negotiation of the Council Grove treaty is well told; it was a pattern followed by countless others. Even so, the hostility of the Modocs comes as something of a surprise, since the reader is inadequately prepared for it. It would seem to this reviewer that not enough is made of white chicanery and obtuseness (although welcome attention is given those white friends of the Indians who sought to mediate the struggle), nor is sufficient attention given to admissions that the Klamaths themselves had supplied their cousins with arms and ammunition (p. 316), thus prolonging the conflict.

From the story, Captain Jack emerges as more of a hero, albeit a tragic one, than Dillon’s portrait suggests, as appears from the Indian’s statements (p. 155 and 240, especially the latter). But Jack stands not alone in outstanding qualities, a paradigm of the human species.

The Modoc story abounds in strong, primal personalities. Dillon paints them well, but the assemblage, here more compact and thus more high-lighted than perhaps any other in our history, calls for a Shakespeare or a Wagner to do the saga full justice: Jack personifies the words of St. Paul (“I do what I would not; I fail to do what I ought”); Canby reflects Caesar, each going to his destruction because it is duty and he must; Meacham and Hamlet, their lofty sentiments weakened by uncertainty and temporization; Toby, akin to the great heroines of history in more than sex; Thomas, the dunce; and the incidental figures. All treading the road to doom, aware of their coming fate but unable to do other because they are human and embody the foibles as well as the nobility of mankind—and all of this against the backdrop of the tortured, primeval, lunar lava beds with their black piles of fragments and lifeless cinder cones and mazes, the land of burnt-out fires. There is greatness in this story. One day a writer or composer of imagination and gifts in proportion will latch onto it and this epic of the American Indian and his implacable foes will be suitably told, and it will be immense—as great as the land and the people involved.

Dillon’s book, as mentioned above, is not for the specialist except by way of generalized information, since it has almost no notes and none at all of reference; it lacks maps as well, the two end-paper charts being too superficial for much use. Yet the work will admirably do that for which it is intended.