Shame and Redemption: The History of Captain Jack’s Skull

Captain Jack

The 1870s were turbulent, bloody times in Northern California. Tensions between Indigenous Peoples and the U.S. Army who wanted them on reservations was at an all-time high. In the Modoc War of 1872-1873 “Captain Jack” Kintpuash) famously held off 1,000 U.S. Army troops with only 52 men using the geological features of their homeland to avoid capture for almost six months.

The U.S. Army eventually prevailed, and while this ended of the Modoc War, it is where this particular story actually begins.

Weary of war and holding off a seemingly endless supply of soldiers, Captain Jack finally surrendered and agreed to meet Brigadier General Edward R.S. Canby to discuss peace. When they came face-to-face, Captain Jack pulled a hidden pistol and shot Canby in the head, the highest-ranking officer ever killed in battle with Indians.

Captain Jack and three other Modocs (Schonchin John, Black Jim and Boston Charley) were subsequently tried, convicted of murder and hung. What happened next is shameful, bizarre and unbelievably true.

After the hangings, military medical officer Henry McElderry removed the heads from the four corpses, skinned, preserved and packed them in a barrel before shipping them off to the Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C. As hideous as that sounds, McElderry was just following a long-standing order.


In 1868 Major George Alexander Otis had ordered U.S. Army doctors to help the Army Medical Museum’s effort to build its collection of Native crania.

“The chief purpose in forming this collection is to aid in the progress of anthropological science by obtaining measurements of a large number of skulls of aboriginal races of North America.”

Billed as a “comparative study of racial differences,” it was actually a thinly-veiled attempt to support the racist idea that Indigenous Peoples were inferior to whites. Said Otis, they “must be assigned a lower position in the human scale than has been believed heretofore.”

Before this notion was abandoned as ridiculous, thousands of Native skulls were obtained from ancient burial sites, tribal cemeteries, epidemics, battles and executions and shipped off to Washington D.C. By 1898 the Army Medical Museum had given the remains, thousands of Native skulls, to the Smithsonian Institution. Captain Jack’s skull (and the three other Modocs) languished for more than a hundred years in plain white boxes in wooden drawers with dustproof lids.

Federal legislations eventually led to a “Repatriation” effort in the 1980s, returning American Indian cultural items including human remains, funerary and sacred objects, etc. from museums to “lineal descendants” and tribes. 

Donald Schonchin, a descendent of Captain Jack, tried to bring the skulls home in 1976, but died of a heart attack in his motel room the night before he was supposed to obtain them. In 1982 Debbie Riddle Herrera, a long-lost cousin of Captain Jack four times removed, took it upon herself to fly to Washington D.C. and demand the skulls.

So where are Captain Jack’s, and the other three Modoc skulls today? Well, Herrera isn’t saying. They are safe, she says, not on display, and not dishonored. Every once in a while, it seems, there is redemption.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.
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