On the cold, misty morning of April 11, 1873, four U.S. peace commissioners and their interpreters warily approached the hilltop where Modoc Indian leaders waited to negotiate an end to months of hostilities over a contested treaty. Holed up in the natural fortress created by northern California’s lava beds, near the Oregon border, were 159 Modocs. Both parties pledged peace as a goal, but U.S. soldiers were at the ready two miles away, and some Modocs planned an ambush if peace evaded its pursuers.
When negotiations stalled that morning, frustration escalated, and the Modocs attacked the commissioners. Then: “The soldiers are coming!” shouted Kaitchkona Winema, a Modoc woman and interpreter who had tipped off the commissioners to the Modocs’ intentions. Her quick-witted warning was untrue, but it succeeded in scaring off the Modocs and sparing the life of commissioner Albert Meacham. It also secured her role in history as a diplomat who deftly bridged cultures in ardent negotiations for peace.
Winema, whose married name was Toby Riddle, was born near southern Oregon’s Link River in the early 1840s, a turbulent time in California and Oregon history. Growing contact with people of European descent had brought not only trade but also disease to the Modoc tribe, reducing its numbers from 1,000 to about 300. Little is known about Winema’s childhood, although some believe she had reddish hair, an unusual trait that, along with her fearlessness, perhaps prompted the nickname Nonooktowa, or “strange child.” As an adolescent she proved her courage by saving children from drowning after their canoe hit rapids; she steered the canoe to safety and became Kaitchkona Winema or “woman chief.”
Hostilities in Modoc territory, which ranged from Lower Klamath Lake to Goose Lake, Oregon, to Mount Shasta, California, shaped Winema’s early life. This geographic area, which lacked water, had previously been circumvented by westering whites. But the Gold Rush increased both the number of whites and their demand for land, which they used to raise cattle. Their presence disrupted life for the Modocs, whose subsistence depended on hunting and horticulture.
In 1852, Yreka miner Ben Wright led white men into a Modoc village, claiming to offer a feast for peace. The Modocs lacked trust—the whites, in fact, had poisoned the feast—and refused to participate. The whites opened fire, killing approximately 40 Modoc men, women and children. They claimed the attack was retaliation for the recent slaughter of emigrants in a wagon train moving through southern Modoc territory.
Winema’s kin were among the Ben Wright’s Massacre casualties. Her young cousin, Kintpuash, later dubbed Captain Jack by whites who couldn’t pronounce his name, escaped after witnessing the death of his father. Recognized within the tribe by age 10 for his leadership qualities, Kintpuash eventually led Modoc attempts to reclaim their sacred ancestral homeland, a struggle that precipitated the 1872-73 Modoc War and deadly conflict in the lava beds, now a national monument (see www.nps.gov/labe/).
As gold-seeking whites established towns in the late 1840s and early 1850s, Modocs, who had lived off the land, suffered economic and cultural decline. Many, including Winema’s family, were forced to travel to find work. Men turned to ranching or odd jobs; some women became prostitutes or laundresses. In the late 1850s, Winema met Kentucky gold miner Frank Riddle at his mining camp near Yreka. Her father, Secot, was unhappy that his daughter defied him by choosing a white man, but the two decided to marry. Frank abided by Modoc custom, bringing Secot several horses as compensation for the loss of Winema’s productivity within the family and tribe.
Her marriage expanded Winema’s life, teaching her Euroamerican ways. She gained the protection of and against her husband’s people, something that most indigenous California women could not claim. Indeed, her marriage helped keep her safe from the violence and sexual assault that many Native American women experienced.
The couple, trusted by both sides, became messengers and interpreters during ongoing treaty negotiations. Like Pocahontas, who demonstrated her negotiation skills between the Powhatan Confederacy and the English more than 200 years earlier, Winema embraced her role as intermediary. Her marriage to Frank offered her many opportunities, but none was as profound as the diplomatic role she played in the Modoc War.
Tribal tensions rise
In 1864, the U.S. government, distracted by the Civil War, sought quick settlements of land disputes between whites and Indians. Negotiations with the Klamaths, the Yahooskin band of Snakes, and the Modocs resulted in a treaty requiring the Modocs to leave their Lost River home in California and relocate to the Klamath reservation, 100 miles away in Oregon. Kintpuash, leader of the Modoc rebels, refused to sign at first; eventually Winema persuaded him to cooperate.
Despite a shared language, Modocs and Klamaths had long been at odds, and on the reservation conflict continued. The Modocs cut lumber and split rails for their livelihood, but the Klamaths sometimes took the products of Modoc labor. Government agents, who were less friendly with the Modocs and tended to believe the Klamaths in such incidents, failed to provide promised goods and protection. Disillusioned after two years on the reservation, Kintpuash led his Modoc contingent back to Lost River, where they remained until Winema persuaded them to return in 1869. Conditions had not changed, however; in 1871 they again fled to California. In 1872 the government dispatched Captain James Jackson to escort them back to the reservation; instead, they holed up in the lava beds.
In February 1873, Gen. Edward Canby’s peace commission set up camp two miles away and engaged the Riddles as go-betweens. Winema was often threatened by hostile Modocs suspicious of her connection to the commissioners, but Kintpuash saw to her safety.
In early April, Winema informed the Modocs that Canby and his commission wanted to meet. The Modocs agreed, but as she left the lava beds, a Modoc named Wieum (or William) followed her, warning her that the Modocs intended to kill the commissioners.
Negotiations grow lethal
Winema told Canby what she’d learned, but Canby refused to listen. Commissioner Alfred Meacham related the commissioners’ reactions in his book, Wi-ne-ma: “General Canby did not seem to be surprised, simply saying, ‘They dare not do it.’ Mr. [Leroy] Dyar gave it credit. Knowing both William and Winema, I believed the warning and gave my opinion accordingly. Dr. [Eleazar] Thomas discredited the warning.”
When the meeting commenced on that frosty morning, Canby demanded the Modocs’ surrender. Negotiations grew tense, and Kintpuash gave the signal to shoot. Canby was hit in the throat and head, becoming the highest-ranked military officer to die in the 19th-century Indian Wars. Thomas also was killed.
Although he was badly wounded, Alfred Meacham was saved by Winema’s warning. After the war, the two Modocs who attacked him, plus two others, were tried and hanged. In spite of his close call, Meacham championed Native American rights and created a touring lecture-play starring Winema, Frank, and their son, Jeff. For several years they traveled across the country, reaching New York before finally returning to make their home in Oregon.
In 1891 Winema became one of few women to receive a military pension by congressional act for her bravery in the Modoc War. As an acknowledgment of her diplomacy, especially her role as a mediator between cultures, Winema received $25 a month until she died of influenza in 1920. Her son requested the remainder of her February pension to “pay Mother’s funeral expenses.”
In a controversial time, when Native Americans in the American West struggled to maintain their lands, identities, and traditions, Winema embraced her Modoc heritage while incorporating her role as a non-Modoc’s wife into her everyday life. “Her courage and integrity won her the respect of both sides and gained for her the title ‘Pocahontas of the West’ in the popular press and theatre of her day,” claimed the late Modoc writer Michael Dorris. The Winema National Forest, which straddles the Oregon/California border, honors her today.
Rebecca Bales teaches Native American and U.S. history at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Calif.