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STEELE'S MODOC QUESTION / Elisha Steele Introduction In the spring of 1873 a New York-born attorney named Elisha Steele sent the following letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, in response to a host of libellous charges levelled against him by Thomas Benton Odeneal, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, and by the Oregon newspapers. The letter was a copy of one Steele had written to his brother, who had seen the newspaper articles that accused Steele of inciting the Modoc Indian War the previous year, of spying for the Indians and providing them with guns and ammunition, of sleeping with Indian women and of fathering a veritable tribe of half-breed children. In the heat of the Modoc conflict, Steele had been targeted by other whites as a villain for having befriended the Indians. Needless to say, his brother had been "much alarmed" and wanted to know what was going on. Steele had practiced law in northern California, having come there from Wisconsin in 1850 along with the thousands of others hoping to find fortunes in the California gold mines. In several encounters along the trail he had observed Indians with interest, and had come to the conclusion that much of the "trouble" they caused was provoked by the white immigrants themselves. When Steele arrived in northern California he was befriended first by the Shasta Indians and later by the Modocs, who lived along the OregonCalifornia line in the semi-arid lake country northwest of Mount Shasta. He did not strike gold, nor was he successful as a storekeeper. Eventually he returned to the practice of law, and remained active in the profession as a lawyer, judge and state political leader until his death in 1883.1 From the early 185Cs onward he had an easy rapport with the Indians and a continuing interest in their problems, which involved him in the settlement of more than one dispute between Indians and whites. His background suited him well for his appointment in August of 1863 as Superintendent for Indian Affairs in his district. He served in that position until May, 1864,2 when his office was closed by a Congressional act that set up one superintendency for the entire state.3 1KeUh A. Murray, The Modocs and Their War (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959), 29, 313. 2Steele to Chief Clerk, 10 August 1863, in United States, Office of Indian Affairs, Utters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1851-80 (Washington: National Archives, 1958) Microcopy 234, Roll 618, frame 366; Report of the Commissioner 125. 3Report of the Commissioner, 123. The Missouri Review · 7 Steele believed he had been "legislated out of office" because of his friendship with the Indians. On April 14, 1864, six days after Congress passed the act that eventually put him out of a job, Steele made a lenient treaty with the Modocs that allowed them to remain in their home in the Lost River country of northern California rather than going to the Klamath reservation in Oregon.4 The reservation was poor country compared to their home, where they lived mainly on salmon, game, and the seeds of a type of lily called the wocus, and Steele was well aware that their needs had never directly conflicted with those of the whites who farmed in the area. He was also aware that the treaty he had made was "somewhat irregular," since some of the tribes involved were actually under the jurisdiction of the Oregon superintendency.5 Historians disagree as to whether Steele's treaty laid the foundations for the Modoc war that began eight years later and quickly became the focus of national attention. Nineteenth-century Oregon historian, Frances Fuller Victor, believed that it had caused the Indians to chafe at the idea of confinement on the Klamath reservation.6 Keith Murray—whose 1959 book The Modocs and Their War is the standard scholarly account of the events—suggests that the treaty might have brought peace had it not been for a bureaucracy that was fundamentally at odds with both Steele and the Indians it had been created to supervise.7 The Indian Office soon rejected the Steele treaty in favor...


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