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Wild Women Of The West: Winema

The Woman Chief.

October 14, 2019

Mrs. Frank “Tobey” Riddle, better known as Winema, was a mediator for the Modoc people, other Indian tribes in the area of Klamath Lake, Oregon, and the United States Army in early 1878. With her skills she was able to negotiate treaties that kept the land of her ancestors in peace. Whenever that peace was threatened, her job was to set things straight. On February 1873, she rode into hostile Modoc territory to persuade the chief to surrender to the U.S. cavalry.

Chief Keintpoos, or Captain Jack (a named given to him by the settlers because of his liking for brass buttons and military medals on his coat), was Winema’s cousin. In 1863 the U.S. government forced his people from their land onto a reservation in Oregon. Conditions on the reservation were intolerable for the Modoc people. They were forced to share the land with the Klamath Indians of the region. The Modoc and the Klamath did not get along. The Modoc struggled to live in this hostile environment for three years. Modoc leaders appealed to the U.S. government to separate the tribes, but officials refused to correct the problem. In 1869, Captain Jack defied the laws of the white man and led his tribe off the reservation and back to the area where their forefathers had first lived.

The cavalry and frustrated members of the Indian Peace Council wanted to use force to bring Captain Jack and his followers back to the reservation. Winema persuaded them instead to give her a chance to talk with the chief.

When Winema reached the Modoc camp, Captain Jack’s men gathered around her. A dozen pistols were drawn upon her as she dismounted. She eyed the angry tribesmen as they slowly approached her. Then walking backward until she stood upon a rock above the mobs, she clasped her right hand upon her own pistol, and with the other on her heart she shouted aloud, “I am a Modoc myself. I am here to talk peace. Shoot me if you dare, but I will never betray you.” Her bravery in the face of such difficulty won the admiration of her people, and instantly a dozen pistols were drawn in her defense.

Winema was born near the Link River in Oregon. Her mother died in childbirth. She was raised by her father, older sister, and brother. She was regarded by her people as an extraordinary young woman. The elders of the tribe told her stories of her heritage; her father took her on grizzly bear hunts and taught her Modoc traditions. While she was still a girl, she encountered a white settler—an experience that fired her heart to learn all she could about the white man’s history and how it differed from her own.

This particular white man had been on his way to Oregon when he got separated from his wagon train and became lost. When Winema and her father happened on the man, he was alone and starving. They helped him to their village and nursed him back to health. While recuperating, he shared stories with Winema about the great cities and towns in the East and of his wonderful civilization and their achievements. Winema was fascinated.

Occasionally, members of the Modoc tribe would visit the miners in and around Yreka, California. It was on one of those visits that Winema first met the man who would become her husband, Frank Riddle. Frank was a prospector, bent on finding the mother lode. He had left his betrothed in Kentucky with the promise that he would return with his weight in gold and marry her on the spot. He never imagined a Native woman would steal his heart. The two were wed a few short weeks after meeting.

Frank and Winema made their home on a ranch not far from Yreka, but there was no peace for the two or the land. Several tribes in the southern portion of Oregon were at war. Many bloody battles were being fought near the Riddles’ homestead and at times in the streets of town. Driven by the unrest in the area and saddened by the Natives’ inability to get along, Winema took it upon herself to act as mediator among the tribes and, at times, between her own race and the white man. She organized a treaty council and enlisted members of the fighting bands to participate in peace talks. An agreement was reached among all parties, and for a time bloodshed was avoided. Winema was known by all in the territory as “the one who could make peace, and who always calmed the threatening tempest arising from contact of races.”

Less than a year after a peace treaty was agreed upon, the U.S. government defied the terms by refusing to recognize Captain Jack as chief of the Modoc people. The government had also violated the treaty by forcing members of the Klamath tribe to share reservation land with the Modoc. Believing the agreement between the Modoc and the United States broken, Captain Jack felt justified in leaving the reservation.

A peace commission made up of three government officials was dispatched to Yreka. It was comprised of General Edward Canby, Methodist preacher Eleazar Thomas, and a one-time superintendent of the Modoc reservation, Albert Meacham. Meacham knew that Winema and Captain Jack were related and asked her for help in persuading the chief to return to the reservation. Winema agreed, but Captain Jack would not relent. Finally, in 1873, four years after the Modoc chief led his people off their designated land and after seeing his cousin’s courage as she faced his warriors on the rock, he gave in to Winema’s request.

The first meeting between Captain Jack and the government officials took place in early spring 1873. Winema took her place beside her cousin, across from Canby, Thomas, and Meacham. She rendered their English into Modoc, and, after several tense moments, the question on the commission’s mind was asked.

Winema studied the chief’s face, waiting for him to respond. “Will I go back to the reservation?” Captain Jack repeated dully. “All right,” he continued, “provided my people be given Modoc Point on the Klamath reservation for our home.” Meacham and the others agreed. They celebrated the end of the conflict by cheering and patting one another on the back. Captain Jack took offense at the demonstration and jumped to his feet. His braves drew their pistols on the unsuspecting commission. Winema reacted quickly, placing herself between the government officials and the Indians. She quickly defused the situation. The meeting ended with the Modoc chief and all his people returning to the reservation.

Within a few short weeks, however, trouble on the reservation escalated again. The lives of Captain Jack and his people were constantly being threatened by members of the Klamath tribe, it seemed, and the U.S. government was not providing the Modoc with protection. Captain Jack and followers left the reservation for a second time; no amount of talking from members of the peace commission would entice them to change their minds.

Major Jackson of the U.S. Cavalry was organizing his troops for an attack against Captain Jack and his braves when Winema made a final appeal for a nonviolent resolution. “If you take these Modoc by force,” she told the major, “no peace could ever be made.” Jackson waited until two of his divisions had surrounded Captain Jack’s camp before it was agreed that another set of peace talks was in order. Winema was dispatched to the Modoc camp to make the arrangements for the meeting.

Captain Jack did not welcome his cousin with the same warmth as he had in the past. He scarcely made a move to protect her when the braves greeted her with loaded weapons. He was furious about the government’s broken promises and, at first, would not listen to Winema’s request for another meeting with the government officials. After several hours of taunting her with the breaches of the contract for peace negotiations, he agreed to meet with the commission the following day. Something in his countenance made Winema suspicious of his motives. She left the camp feeling uneasy about what lay ahead.

On April 11, 1873, General Canby, the Reverend Eleazar Thomas, and Albert Meacham made their way to the site where they were to meet with Captain Jack. Winema rode with them. The peace commission had agreed to come to the meeting unarmed, a notion with which she strongly disagreed. She tried to convince Canby that they should be cautious. “Captain Jack and his braves do not trust any longer,” she told the general. “There could be trouble.” General Canby suggested that Winema was wrong and only frightened by her experience with Captain Jack the day before.

The tension inside the tent where the talks were to be held was thick. The peace commission sat on one side, Captain Jack and his men on the other. Winema placed herself between them all. Captain Jack was the first to speak. “Will you remove the soldiers from our land and give my people a home in the country?” he asked. “If the soldiers should be removed, the phantom of death would pass as a dream,” he continued. “If they should not be withdrawn, the phantom must soon become a terrible reality.”

The three members of the peace commission fearfully looked on. With dignity befitting a soldier of his standing, General Canby pronounced firmly, “I cannot withdraw the soldiers.”

Winema watched the anger intensify in Captain Jack’s eyes as she interpreted the general’s response. In one fast instant Captain Jack drew a pistol and shot General Canby in the face. One of the Modoc braves fired a shot at Thomas, hitting him in the hand. He jumped to his feet and started out of the tent. Another Indian shot him in the back of the head. By the time the violence turned to Albert Meacham, Winema had thrown herself in front of him. With her arms outstretched, she pleaded for his life. A brave pushed her out of the way and put a bullet through Meacham’s left eye, blinding him. Winema lay down on top of Meacham, shouting, “Don’t shoot anymore!”

Captain Jack and his braves rushed out the tent, leapt onto their horses, and rode off. Winema wiped the blood from Meacham’s face and straightened his limbs. She believed he was dead. She looked around at the bodies of Thomas and Canby. They had been scalped and stripped of their clothing.

Winema rushed out the tent. Looking south, she saw her cousin and his comrades on horseback racing away from the scene. Winema made her way to the commanding officer of the cavalry and explained what happened. The bodies of General Canby and the Reverend Thomas were buried outside the cavalry post. Albert Meacham was removed to the camp hospital. His wounds were pronounced dangerous but not mortal.

The Modoc War lasted several weeks. The cavalry launched full-scale attacks against the Modoc braves holed up in the rocks around the army camp. On May 22, 1873, the U.S. Cavalry finally broke the Modoc, and the braves surrendered, offering to lead the soldiers to Captain Jack. The Indian chief and five other warriors were arrested for the murder of General Canby and the Reverend Eleazar Thomas. They were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death.

Winema returned to the Modoc reservation in Oregon to live out the rest of her life. In 1890 she was granted a pension by the federal government as a reward for her years of work to bring about peace. She donated most of the money to her people. She died in 1920 at the age of eighty-four and was buried in Modoc Cemetery. A national forest in south-central Oregon is named for the tenacious woman chief.

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