In the midst of a widespread national reckoning on America’s history with race relations, should Canby — a town named after one of the most prominent generals in the American Indian Wars, and the only one to be killed during them — consider changing its name?
Some think so.
“Given the current national discussion about place names, is it time for Canby to reconsider its own name?” asks John Manley, who lives outside of town, but has studied the history of the area. “I am not proposing it, but suggesting that the conversation start earlier rather than later.”
In terms of historical figures from the American Civil War, General Edward Canby does not stand out as an obvious villain. Though he was born in Kentucky (a neutral slave state in the war) and had slave-owning relatives, he served in the Union Army — not the Confederacy.
He first commanded in combat during the Battle of Valverde, where he was badly outmaneuvered by Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley, but managed to avoid an outright surrender. Canby had the last laugh, though: His troops defeated Sibley and forced the Confederates to retreat after the decisive Battle of Glorieta Pass in March 1862.
Sometimes called the “Gettysburg of the West,” the skirmish was intended to be the final blow by Confederates that ended Union control of the West. Instead, the Union’s strategic victory at the base of the Rocky Mountains marked the end of the rebels’ attempted invasion of California.
General Ulysses S. Grant regarded him highly for his knowledge of army regulations and constitutional law, even though he felt he lacked aggression (a common criticism from Grant of other Union generals) and was more an administrator than a true military leader.
This weakness — understanding technical details and strategy much more easily than practical applications and dealing with people — would get him into trouble.
Following the war, Canby — whose father had owned slaves — was estranged from some of his relatives who had fought for the Confederacy, when he refused to grant them favors as a military governor during Reconstruction.
Canby was often stationed in some of the most volatile regions of the convalescent nation, including Louisiana, Texas, Virginia and South Carolina. His tendency to rigidly uphold law, order and just principles — while grudgingly admired by many — often made him “the bad guy” in times of conflict, and he was prone to alienating one side or the other.
In August 1870, Canby was assigned to the Pacific Northwest, where he was soon embroiled in a feud involving the Modoc people, who had been forced to share a reservation in Oregon with their traditional enemies, the Klamath.
When the U.S. government refused to allow the Modoc to return to their native home in northern California, the tribe left anyway, sparking the Modoc War.
The Modoc entrenched themselves in a lava bed near Tule Lake in northern California, where the terrain offered numerous advantages to the defenders. The place became known as “Captain Jack’s Stronghold,” named after the Modoc chief.
The Modoc held the Stronghold for months, their band of only 53 warriors holding off Army forces numbering as much as 10 times that.
By the time Canby arrived on the scene, the government was interested in talking peace. But in the tense environment, the Modoc got the wrong message and believed the general intended to capture and put them to death without a trial.
A peace parley was set for April 11, 1873, and Canby agreed to the terms to come unarmed — even though he was warned that it may be a trap. He reportedly said, “I believe you are right, but it would not be very well for the general in command to be afraid to go where the peace commissioners would venture.”
When Canby refused to allow the Modoc a home on their native lands (on the grounds that he did not have the authority to grant such a request), the warriors attacked with concealed arms. Canby was shot twice in the head, and his throat was cut.
In the aftermath, a massive force of 600 Army soldiers stormed Captain Jack’s Stronghold and forced a splintered retreat. Six Modoc warriors, including Captain Jack (whose real name was Kintpuash), were captured and tried by what was essentially a military tribunal. They were not given interpreters or legal counsel.
Four were convicted of war crimes and hanged at Fort Klamath on Oct. 3, 1873. The remaining 150-some Modocs were rounded up and shipped to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, where they were held as prisoners of war for over 30 years.
A ragged handful eventually returned to Oregon, where they joined the Klamath Reservation.
“He was involved with pushing indigenous peoples off their land,” Manley said of Canby, when asked why he believes the town should consider changing its name. “Although his history seems to portray him as more thoughtful than aggressive about the task (and he died trying to negotiate a settlement with the last group resisting the invaders), he was still part of the effort to conquer the native peoples and colonize the lands.”
Another argument in favor of a switch is the tenuous connection between Canby and his Oregon namesake. There is, in fact, very little. He never lived in the town that bears his name, never set foot here as far as anyone knows.
It has always been something of a mystery how and why the settlement that had been known as “Baker Prairie” for decades came to bear the name “Canby” when its plats were filed with the county in 1870.
Most local historians believe it was the work of Canby’s good friend and confidant, a speculator named Ben Holladay, who was known for his blunt and enterprising nature, and who also happened to be president of the Oregon & California Railroad that was being built through the heart of the town.
“The town name was not chosen by local people but given by a railroad exec to honor a friend,” Manley noted. “Given modern awareness and sensibilities, is the name Canby still a good fit for the town and its people?”
The names of many towns, islands, schools, streets, military bases and even professional sports franchises that may be offensive to Black or Native Americans have come under increased scrutiny this year — and some have been changed — after weeks of protests that followed the death of Minnesotan George Floyd at the hands of four former Minneapolis police officers.
“I realize there may be little support for a name change, but I do think the conversation is worth having so that we can acknowledge the history of the area and then talk about how to make life better for all people — no matter their background or identity,” Manley said. “The name of the town just seems a good place to start the discussion.”
Mayor Brian Hodson said no one has ever approached him about changing the town’s name — not in recent months or in any of the eight years that he has served as mayor — but he was not altogether surprised to hear the question.
“I kind of wondered if that might be something that would start to bubble up,” he admitted. “I mean, you start to think back to the history of General Canby — he was a general in the American Indian Wars. You know, I do think it would be an interesting conversation for folks to have: Why are we not Baker Prairie, Oregon?”
Other city councilors also said they have not heard from anyone who is interested in changing the town’s name.
Canby’s popular Independence Day Celebration was once known as General Canby Days — but its name was changed after it became a city-sponsored event several years ago.
The Legislature passed a Republican-sponsored resolution last year to commemorate the Modoc War, honor the bravery and sacrifice of those on both sides, and express regret for the tribe’s expulsion.
“As you well know, America has a very sordid and difficult past,” Canby’s state senator, Alan Olsen, said in April 2019 to a descendant of one of the warriors who fought in the Modoc War. “We’ve fought in many wars, many conflicts. It’s America. I hope this helps your tribe, helps bring some peace back to your people.”
Canby’s Cross, a monument to the fallen general, stands 3 miles south of Captain Jack’s Stronghold. Two other towns — Canby, Minn., and Canby, Calif., in Modoc County — were named in his honor, but unlike Canby, Ore., both came after his death.