"I Would Like to Send That Scalp of Yours to Them."
What is known as the Modoc War was an armed conflict between the Native American Modoc people and the United States Army that took place from July 1872 to June 1873 in northeastern California and southeastern Oregon. The Modoc resistance was led by Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack. (Learn more here.)
It was against this backdrop that Alfred Benitz, a 13-year-old boy living in Oakland, recorded in his diary what he saw and heard of Emperor Norton after school on the afternoon of Wednesday 21 May 1873.
For a several months before and after this, the Emperor issued Proclamations calling out the exploitation of Native American people; urging a peaceable resolution to the Modoc conflict; and warning that the execution of Captain Jack and other Modoc leaders — a punishment mandated by an Army court-martial and eventually carried out — would only make matters worse.
The links on the following dates direct to some of Emperor Norton's original Proclamations in the weekly Pacific Appeal, as preserved in the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
On 25 January 1873:
Whereas, the native Indian who has been parading around the streets of this city, handed me a message from the Indian Chiefs now engaged in the Modoc War; and whereas, we believe the entire difficulty may be settled at once if they can be communicated with immediately; now, therefore, we, Norton I, Dei gratia Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, do hereby command Governor Booth to detail a suitable corps to escort the said Indian and other envoys to the scene of warfare, and if possible induce the Chiefs to come to San Francisco and smoke the Calumet with the Emperor.
On 26 April 1873:
Whereas, it is our intention to have publicly punished, before as many Indian chiefs as can be assembled together, all the Indian agents and other parties connected with frauds against the Indian tribes and the Government, in order to satisfy the Indians that in future the American people intend acting justly towards them; now, therefore, we, Norton I, Dei gratia Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, do hereby command the arrest and imprisonment of said parties until all the chiefs get together, when we intend to be present with a large force.
On 30 August 1873:
Whereas, the execution of Capt. Jack and the other Indians condemned by the Court Martial will tend to bring on a general Indian war, as also have an injurious effect on the prestige of the American Government by those not in accord with its best phrase, considering also that the Indian agents have always been on the make and grab as also of other Indian lands; now, therefore, we, Dei gratia Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, do hereby prohibit the carrying out of the Court Martial that our Imperial decree in their case be enforced.
Much more often than not, it appears, Emperor Norton's social attitudes were well ahead of his time. And, clearly, his sentiment here was with the Modoc. But he wasn't entirely immune to ideas one would expect to find in a white male English Jew of the 1870s — even one as well-educated and well-read as the Emperor.
Consider, for example, this Proclamation published on 7 June 1873:
Now that the Modocs are subdued, we are anxious the Nation should continue in its determination to civilize and reclaim from barbarism all the natives within its territories; and whereas there is no savage so wild or treacherous but that can be reclaimed by kindness and if he believes you are his friend: now, therefore, we, Dei gratia Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, do hereby command that Captain Jack, his braves and his squaws, be placed in charge of Goat Island, to guard the interests of the city of San Francisco against the attacks of foreign war vessels.
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In the scene that young Alfred Benitz witnessed on 21 May 1873 and elegantly penned in his diary that evening, various of the beliefs that Emperor Norton expressed in his Proclamations converged in the same moment — without being fully reconciled.
Here's the entry:
We had a german examination for promotion this morning. It was easy and I think that I was perfect. This afternoon we had an examination in History, we had twenty questions and I think it was pretty easy. We also had an oral examination in German this afternoon. We were examined by Proffessor Soelche and I think his brother. He made me read an exercise and then made me decline some adjectives and Articles. I watered the garden after school, and after supper mother watered the garden behind the house. After supper I went for some bread and then I went to the library, and in coming home I got some calico for my mother. After school I went after Bella's shoes and while going down I seen Emperor Norton, he had an eagle's feather about 2 feet long on his hat. A man asked him "why he did not whip the Modocs," and he answered, "I would like to send that scalp of yours to them." It was a pleasant day. [emphasis mine]
This was an Emperor who seemed to be saying: (1) The Modoc may need "civilizing," but (2) they are the wronged party, and (3) perhaps a little "barbarian" justice is what is needed for all those others, including the U.S. government, who are so convinced that God is on their side.
Was the feather really 2 feet long? That part may be the work of a child's imagination.
But this much seems clear: The setting where the Emperor was "working" his feather, while working his views on one of the most important issues of the day — this setting was the streets of Oakland.
As we keep gently reminding anyone who will listen: He was Oakland's Emperor, too.
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