One of William Simpson’s most widely published illustrations, titled “A Scalp for Captain Jack” and run in Harper’s Weekly, portrays a scene that never happened.

Native History: The Indian Wars’ Only Foreign Correspondent

Robert Aquinas McNally

His name was William Simpson, a journalist from Great Britain who covered the Modoc War for six days in late April 1873. And, but for a fateful last-minute decision, he likely would have been the first foreign correspondent to die in a conflict with Native Americans.

The Modoc War came Simpson’s way during a very different reporting project. He had left home more than eight months earlier on assignment from two London newspapers and was traveling around the world from west to east, reporting along the way. Passing through San Francisco, Simpson learned of the dramatic war in northeastern California’s Lava Beds, where a few dozen Indian fighters were holding off hundreds of better-armed soldiers. Only days earlier the Modocs had ambushed four peace negotiators, killing Brigadier General E.R.S. Canby and Rev. Dr. Eleazar Thomas and severely wounding A.B. Meacham. The city by the bay buzzed with outrage and called for the Modocs’ extermination, as did much of the American public across the country. With so much emotion in the air, the British journalist resolved to look into this high-profile Indian war.

Simpson was a well-known correspondent who illustrated his war stories with sketches and watercolors. He started in the 1850s with the Crimean War; his painting of the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade caught Queen Victoria’s eye and made him famous. Next, Simpson reported from India after the Sepoy Rebellion, then followed the British army into Abyssinia, the modern Ethiopia. He went on to sketch the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and covered the Paris Commune uprising and its brutal suppression soon thereafter. Simpson knew his way around conflict.

William Simpson’s painting of the ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade caught Queen Victoria’s eye and made him famous (Wikimedia Commons)

To travel the 400 miles from San Francisco to the Lava Beds, Simpson took railroad and stagecoach north to Yreka, the mining town that served as a staging center for the war effort. There he learned that the Modocs had been driven out of their Lava Beds stronghold and were on the loose. After talking his wagon driver through fear of ambush at every blind curve in the road, Simpson made it to Gillem’s Camp, the military installation at the edge of the Lava Beds. Army officers there gave the British correspondent a warm welcome.

“One reason for this cordial reception,” Simpson wrote, “was the feeling that the public did not understand the locality, and that blame was attached to them for being held at bay by so small a number of rude savages. ‘Now,’ they said, ‘the public will see pictures of the place, and be able to understand what we have had to fight against.’”

Taking up the officers’ cause, Simpson declared that the tactical difficulty of the Lava Beds terrain tipped the scales to the Indians: “Imagine a rabbit warren on a large scale, or a colossal ant-colony with Indians instead of insects…. Any one accustomed to fortifications and trenches might well fancy that a military engineer had planned it.”

Simpson characterized the Modocs as racially suited to combat in this volcanic setting: “The Indians fight naked, or nearly so; and as their dark skins are about the same tint as the lava, it is a good colour for their work.” The Modocs blended with the land they lived on, he was saying, like rattlesnakes in the desert.

Simpson got an up-close look at the cave where the headman Kientpoos and his family had lived. He took the mess and smell of the place not as evidence of the desperate straits to which five months of siege had reduced the Indians but as proof of their primitive nature. The Modocs were a nation, he wrote, “who seem to be very little in advance of the ancient cave-people.”

Simpson’s tipped reporting reached from his words into his illustrations. When he put himself to it, Simpson had a draftsman’s meticulous accuracy; his drawing of Gillem’s Camp matches photographs of the time detail for detail. Simpson’s depiction of the Lava Beds stronghold, however, is stunningly fanciful. The real site looks almost flat, with its many ravines, rills, and clefts concealed under the slowly undulating surface of the barely elevated plateau. Simpson added sharp ridges, miniature crags, and sheer palisades that are nowhere to be seen. He was dressing up reality to give the impression he wanted.

One of Simpson’s most widely published illustrations, titled “A Scalp for Captain Jack” and run in Harper’s Weekly, portrays a scene that never happened. Its centerpiece is an Indian fighter in moccasins, buckskin leggings, breechcloth, and feathered headband flaunting a scalp just flayed from a dead bluecoat. Behind the triumphant, gloating warrior, other Modocs dance around a soldier being butchered behind boulders and sagebrush.

Simpson’s portrayal is completely fanciful. In reality, few soldiers were scalped in the course of the war, and Modoc fighters dressed in the dungarees, calico, and work boots of sodbusters, not the buckskins, breechcloths, and moccasins of dime-novel savages.


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