The Indian History of the Modoc War

jeff riddle

Subtitled, thoughtfully, “And the Causes That Led to It”. 

The Indian History of the Modoc War” is a book written by almost the best possible author: Jeff C. Riddle (Jefferson C. Davis Riddle, 1863-1941).


Winema (image credit: Wikipedia)

Also carrying the Indian name Charka “the handsome boy”, Jeff was the son of Klamath woman Winema a.k.a. Tobey (1848-1920) and early settler Frank Tazewell Riddle (1835-1906).

(In the context of Civil War-era Oregon, it matters to point out that the parents were not Confederate sympathizers; instead, they renamed their son after a coincidentally-monikered US Army colonel who was credited with ending the 1872-1873 Modoc War.)

This book came out in 1914, with no publisher or location listed, and it’s one heck of an interesting insider look by someone who was a 10-year-old witness to the events, and who it seems natively spoke both sides’ traditional languages.

In his preface, the author rightly criticizes “so many different works on or about the Modoc War of 1872 and ’73” that “were so disgusting” for their misinformed accounts. He singles out (albeit misquoting the title) William Drannan’s book, “Thirty-One Years on the Plains“, for its outright dishonesty; Drannan got famous for his firsthand but utterly fictitious and inaccurate tale of guts and glory. (Do a bit of googling to read the long and extensive tradition of criticism of Drannan.)

Riddle emphasizes that he himself has no education and can only speak and write in simple words, but that he was there, and knows the people involved. He consistently supplies details that you’d be hard-pressed to make up, but that fit the known facts better than anyone else’s telling. This makes his history of the Modoc events awfully valuable, and that’s why I’m so engrossed in his depiction of Natives’ language usage.

Here’s a sobering example.

Various authors, including the fairly clear-eyed observer and Indian peace commissioner A.B. Meacham, have the Modocs of the 1870s speaking a recognizable stereotype of Indian pidgin English. Riddle doesn’t differ from that picture, in theme, but in substance you get a really different impression of their speech. On page 128, Scarface Charley speaks:

jeff riddle book 1

“Hello, mans, me come here with this my mans, me like no more fight; me like quit; me much tired; no sleep long time now. Me come see you, John,” addressing Mr. Fairchild. “Me like you, for me talk; no like shoot soldiers no more. You my good friend; you know me, heap good John. I neber lie when me tell something…Mr. Big Soldier tyee, me no ‘fraid you; you can’t lick me, one man. You soldiers many, many; pore me; spose you fight me one man, me lick you puty d—d quick, you bet. Now me no like fight; me quite now; spose you like kill me, all light, here’s my gun and pistol.”

That passage and ones that follow in the book, in their word choice and syntax, differs from pidgin English I’ve seen put in Indians’ mouths by white writers, precisely in not being predictable. The plural mans, the noun phrase this my mans, the use of like for ‘want’, all are unexpected and therefore convincing. Add to this the limited but detectable influence of Chinuk Wawa (obvious in tyee ‘chief’) and Native languages (as when like means both ‘want’ and ‘like’, similar to e.g. the Jargon’s tiki).

Riddle, quoting a letter from a judge E. Steele, gets into much more overt detail about the linguistic repertoires of area tribes than any other writer could have at the time (page 264):

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The Klamath Indians, then known as the La Lakes, inhabiting that district of country around Big Klamath Lake, and north of Klamath River, and west of Link River, talked a language peculiar to themselves, and also understood the jargon. The Modocs, inhabiting the country south of Little Klamath Lake, and around Tule Lake, east of Goose Nest Mountain and west of Goose Lake, also conversed in a language peculiar to themselves, and knew but little of the [Chinook] jargon…

The above comments partially mirror those in William Hamilton’s book, which has the Klamaths apparently teaching white trappers Chinuk Wawa nearly 30 years before the Modoc War. Hamilton, though, has some Modocs indulging in “dangerous talk, for our men understood every word” of their Jargon and sign language. About this latter claim, I have a healthy mild skepticism; Hamilton tends to claim he communicated quite well with an infinite variety of Western tribes, largely via his much-vaunted signing proficiency…and sign language is hardly documented among many of those tribes, outside of his memoir!

La Lake is evidently not to be connected with Chinook Jargon, but does the name of Yreka, California, area Karuk chief Tolo (page 264) derive from Chinook Jargon tolo/túluʔ?

Page 152 fits with Riddle’s generalization about Modocs’ language use, with prisoners using not Chinuk Wawa but other languages to cuss out their guards:

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Just about the dawn of day Black Jim and Curley Headed Doctor made a break for liberty…The big chain that held them together got tangled in a bunch of sagebrush and threw them both to the ground on their faces…They just laid just as they had fallen and cursed a blue streak in English and Modoc language.

I find it enlightening to have access to such a number of witnesses who collectively give us an unusually detailed understanding of the who did, and who didn’t, speak Chinook Jargon around the border of Oregon and California. We get an idea of the history and some of the cultural forces involved…

What do you think?