EOU student makes Modoc War documents more accessible to public

By Dick Mason, The Observer March 05, 2012 06:45 pm

Eastern Oregon University student  Karen Caverly is putting papers about the Modoc Indian War online for her senior project.  DICK MASON / The Observer
Eastern Oregon University student Karen Caverly is putting papers about the Modoc Indian War online for her senior project. DICK MASON / The Observer

The story of the Modoc Indian War of 1872-73 in Southern Oregon and Northern California is a compelling one ---- a tale of about 40 Modoc tribe members, many of who were women and children, holding off 1,100 U.S. Army soldiers.

The story continues to capture the imagination of Americans today. 

Still, like all wars, it was a tragedy, one resulting in the death of about 20 Modocs and close to 200 U.S. Cavalry members and settlers. The tragedy might have been prevented or minimized greatly with better communication, according to Karen Caverly, an EOU history student.

Caverly has reached this conclusion after a close examination of the most complete set of historical documents on the Modoc War known to exist, the Don Fisher Papers. A set of documents now available to anyone with thanks to Caverly, who has put them online. 

The EOU student painstakingly scanned all of the Fisher Papers into a computer. Next she made the files “text searchable,” so that readers can quickly go to passages they are interested in by typing in key words. Later, the Fisher Papers were uploaded to the Internet. They are now available via the Klamath County Museum’s web site. 

“This is a huge addition …We’ve been hoping to share these records with the public for a long time, and we’re very grateful to Karen for taking the initiative to get this project done,” said Todd Kepple, manager of the Klamath County Museum, in a news release. 

The Fisher Papers soon will also be on EOU’s website. These will be easier for people to search because they will be indexed.

Also, researchers looking for information with misspellings in the Fisher Papers will be better able to find it via text search at EOU’s website because of the work Caverly is doing. The EOU history student is putting the approximately 140-year-old documents online for her senior capstone project.

The papers were collected and assembled in the 1930s by Don Fisher when he was superintendent of the Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California, the site of many Modoc War battles.

The Fisher Papers include hundreds of letters and reports written by Army officers, government agents and civilians living in the area where the Modoc War occurred.

Many of the records originated from handwritten correspondence in the 1870s. Their information was typed on nearly 1,900 pages and bound in 11 volumes about eight decades ago.

Caverly grew up in Klamath Falls, so she has long been familiar with the Modoc War. It was one of the costliest American Indian wars in terms of lives lost and, at the time, was highly publicized. It is forgotten by many today, but at the time the war made headlines in newspapers as far away as London.

The war erupted because the Modocs were upset about being moved to a reservation with the Klamath Indians and wanted their land back.

Caverly said that reading the Fisher Papers opened her eyes to another side of the war.

“I grew up looking at the story one way,” she said.

Caverly learned something mentioned rarely in historical accounts of the war — breakdowns in communication may have helped start the war and added to the severity of the conflict. 

“There were huge communication issues.’’

To make her point, Caverly noted that:

• The system used by the U.S. Army to relay messages about the war up the chain of command was a recipe for miscommunication. An officer would write a message and he would then pass it to a higher ranking officer. That man would copy the note and then would pass it to another officer. This process would be repeated until sometimes President Ulysses S. Grant would receive the message, one that by then had been re-written many times and likely differed from the original correspondence. 

• Representatives of the Modocs did not know what a treaty they signed in 1864 with the U.S. government giving away their land in exchange for specified items meant. Caverly explained that the Modocs present at the treaty signing did not speak any English and that no translator was present. The Modocs signed the treaty along with the Klamaths and the Yahooskins, a band of Snake River Indians. They also did not have representatives who spoke English.

“The Indians had no idea what they were signing, they didn’t understand it,’’ Caverly said.

A lack of cultural understanding likely also added fuel to the conflict. Caverly pointed out that the Fisher Papers indicate that settlers learned bad things about the Modocs from the Klamaths, information they passed on to the U.S. Army. Caverly said that much of this information may have been bogus since there was no love lost between the Klamaths and Modocs.

“They flat out did not get along,’’ said Caverly, a distance education student who lives in Boise.

A portion of the correspondence Caverly found indicated that a number of U.S. Army officers were sensitive to the plight of the Modocs. A note by Captain R.B. Bernard, who was involved in the war, is a case in point: 

“These Indians have acted more humanely in every instance, than we have. The only thing they claim or ask is a home at the mouth of Lost River, where they were born and raised,’’ Bernard wrote to an officer based in San Francisco.

Caverly emphasized that she has been able to almost complete her Fisher Papers project with major help from Nicole Howard, an EOU history professor; Paula Helten, a student assistant with Eastern’s Pierce Library; Shirley Roberts, the outreach services librarian for Pierce Library; and Karen Clay, director of Pierce Library. Caverly also credits the Klamath County Museum with providing valuable assistance. 

Caverly hopes that many people examine the Fisher Papers online and make their own judgements on the Modoc War. She said it beats relying on a writer’s perspective. 

“When you read a book, you are looking at history through the eyes of someone else,” Caverly said.

By contrast, when one reads letters and correspondence about an event “ … you see history through your own eyes. You get to see that it is not as cut and dried as it looks.’’