Historian Boyd Cothran has written a wonderful, disturbing, and important book, Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014). In it, he makes the case that different marketplaces (beginning with the Gilded Age press) commodified the history of U.S. violence against Native people in the Klamath Basin, reproducing “the myth of American innocence” that continues, today, to justify U.S. imperialism. Cothran argues that the Modoc War was preceded by decades of settler and military violence perpetuated against Natives throughout southern Oregon and northern California. The Cayuse War, the Rogue River Wars, the Ben Wright Massacre, and the Crosby Expedition can all be understood as part of this larger pattern of colonial violence.
The California Historical Society has in its collection the papers of Captain Bradford Ripley Alden, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Seminole Wars, who raised a party of two hundred volunteers to suppress the Indians of the Rogue River Valley in 1853. Much of the collection consists of Alden’s letters to his wife, written before and after the battle of August 24, 1853, near Jacksonville, Oregon, in which he was critically injured. The letters are interesting for what they leave out: any personal reflections on the justification for or meaning of the military campaign Alden was charged with leading. Instead, Alden ruminates on typical nineteenth-century themes: duty and piety; love for wife and home; and the rugged manly healthfulness of frontier living: “The physical effect of this pure high air is surprising on me—my hair is blacker, my flesh harder, my legs stronger, and my equanimity a surprise to myself.” Following Cothran’s argument, one could say that Alden presents himself as an American innocent.
The following letter was written by Morris S. Miller to Colonel Freeman after the battle of August 24, 1853, informing Freeman that Alden’s wound was not dangerous, contrary to reports published in the local newspapers. Miller’s letter is an interesting reminder of the role of the nineteenth-century press in spreading rumor, misinformation, and hyperbole about U.S.-Indian violence in the West, a theme which Cothran explores in his book.
|Morris S. Miller letter to Col. W.G. Freeman, 1853 September 7, Bradford Ripley Alden papers, MS 29, California Historical Society|
Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian