This Indian warrior, turned Quaker pacifist, died trying to get home to his son

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

Frank Modoc lies beneath a marble stone in the Society of Friends Cemetery in Portland. Modoc’s end wasn’t sudden; he knew he was dying. Only passing through this city, he was desperate to get home to see his son. But he never made it. He died, thousands of miles from home 131 years ago this week, on June 12, 1886.

Modoc was first known as Steamboat Frank. He was a Native American warrior from the Modoc Tribe. For thousands of years, his people lived in the rich lands between California and Oregon. Fish and game were plentiful. Then the Oregon Trail opened, cutting straight through their territory. It brought white settlers who wanted the land.

In 1873, the U.S. government forced them off their land — but not without a fight. In what’s now Lava Beds National Monument, Steamboat Frank and 56 warriors kept 1,000 U.S. Army troops at bay for six months. The Army finally defeated them, using cannons and mortars. The Modoc lost six men. The Army suffered 45 casualties — including E.R.S. Canby, the only general to lose his life in an Indian war.

Frank Modoc

Frank Modoc

After executing the tribes leaders, the government herded the Modoc into cattle cars. A train transported 155 Modoc men, women and children to Oklahoma. On those foreign plains, corrupt agents swindled them. Hunger was the norm while disease decimated their numbers. Life seemed hopeless.

But Steamboat Frank found comfort in the Quaker missionaries he met there. He adopted their religion of pacifism. Changing his name to Frank Modoc, he became the first Native American Quaker minister.

It’s said, though he spoke English, the Quakers were particularly moved when he prayed in his own language. They couldn’t understand his words but they felt the spirit.

Modoc came to Maine in the 1880s to attend a Quaker seminary in Vassaboro. He had dreams of being a missionary himself and going back to his homeland in the west.

But it was not to be.

An excerpt from "Frank Modoc, a Modoc Indian, and Minister of the Gospel of Christ" published by the Indian Department of the Women's Foreign Mission Society of Friends New England in 1886.

An excerpt from “Frank Modoc, a Modoc Indian, and Minister of the Gospel of Christ” published by the Indian Department of the Women’s Foreign Mission Society of Friends New England in 1886.

Feeling himself getting sicker — there was no treatment for TB back then — he decided to go back to Oklahoma. He wanted to see his son, Elwood, before he died. He was the only family Modoc had left. His wife and two other children had already succumbed to disease.

Modoc only got as far as Portland before TB took him. He was 45-years-old. Portland’s Quakers buried him like one of their own.

In a cruel twist, his son died of TB four years later in Oklahoma at the age of 16.

The Modoc Tribe, robbed of their land and much of their identity, faded away. Today, there are no full-blooded Modocs left. Descendants have formed a new tribal government, though. In 1990, they won official recognition from the federal government — the same government they once fought.

About a decade ago, a woman helped bring Modoc and his son a little closer together. Cheewa James, who is one of their distant relatives, brought dirt here from Oklahoma. She sprinkled it on Modoc’s grave, in the cemetery on outer Forest Avenue. James then took a pine cone from the cemetery. Bringing it back with her, she placed it on Elwood’s grave.

Note: Today’s story is brought to you, in part, by The Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma, Indian Country News and “Frank Modoc, a Modoc Indian, and Minister of the Gospel of Christ” published by the Indian Department of the Women’s Foreign Mission Society of Friends New England in 1886.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Frank Modoc, of the Modoc Tribe, is buried in Portland's Quaker cemetery on outer Forest Avenue. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Frank Modoc, of the Modoc Tribe, is buried in Portland’s Quaker cemetery on outer Forest Avenue. (Troy R. Bennett |
BDN)

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.