What’s in a Name? The Ballad of Gen. Canby

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We have much more to tell you about the Lee family, but first comes the story of how Canby got its name.

You may remember from our earlier episode in this series that Canby was originally known as Baker Prairie, probably named after James Baker, who settled north of town in 1838, although it may also have been Micajah Baker, a 19th century trapper about whom little else is known.

The name Baker Prairie can still be found around town, such as on the pioneer cemetery on Knights Bridge Road, or the (much newer) middle school, which was given the name as a nod to the area’s history.

So, where did the name Canby come from? Believe it or not, it was named after a man who never lived here, never even set foot in the town, as far as anyone knows.

But U.S. Army Gen. Edward Richard Sprigg Canby was well-known in his day, a Union hero in the Civil War, who led the defeat of General Sibley during the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

This decisive battle in March 1862 is known by some as the “Gettysburg of the West” and marked the end of the Confederacy’s attempted invasion of California.

Canby later accepted the surrenders of Gens. Dick Taylor and Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in in Mobile, Alabama.  

Ulysses S. Grant, Union commanding general and future president of the United States, had much to say about Canby. He considered him more skilled in matters of administration than actual soldiering, and criticized him at times for not being aggressive enough.

Grant later wrote, “There have been in the Army but very few, if any, officers who took as much interest in reading and digesting every act of Congress and every regulation for the government of the army as he. His knowledge gained in this way made him a most valuable staff officer.”

In other words, he was what might be referred to today as a “policy wonk,” someone with a rich aptitude for technical details and strategy but with a weakness for practical applications and dealing with people directly.

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. Clashes were common between whites and blacks, Republicans and Democrats (imagine that), federal and state governments, and Canby was always at the center.

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, and this is where his story aligns with that of our town. As we mentioned, Canby most likely never set foot here at any time during his life. But someone who definitely did was his good friend and confidant, Ben Holladay.

Blunt, gruff and enterprising, Holladay was a speculator who had managed to get himself appointed president of the O & C Railroad that was being built through the heart of the town.

Holladay had a lot of pull at that time, and though the exact details will never be known, it’s generally assumed that the well-known rogue pulled the strings necessary to have the town named in honor of his dear friend.

What we do know is that when the community’s first plat was filed in 1870, it bore the name “Canby,” and not “Baker Prairie.” You’d think the gesture would have been enough to have the guy at least visit here once or twice, but whatever.

The truth was, Canby had his hands full in his new post in Oregon. 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 extreme 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 Gen. Canby arrived on the scene, the government was interested in talking peace. But in the tense environment, the Modoc got the wrong message. Captain Jack received word through his spies that the general intended to capture him and his warriors, and put them to death without a trial — something Canby would have never allowed.

The peace parley was set for April 11, 1873. Gen. Canby agreed, although he had been warned that the Modoc were volatile and he would be in danger. 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.”

For their part, the Modoc were plotting to kill Canby and the rest of his party, under the belief that peace was not possible. They were determined to “fight until we die.”

Captain Jack himself was reluctant to agree to the ambush, believing it to be “coward’s work.” He wanted to give the general one last chance to give them a home in their “own country.”

Surely having no idea of what was at stake, Gen. Canby refused, on the grounds that he did not have the authority to grant such a request. It was then that the Modoc attacked. Canby was killed by Captain Jack and one of his lieutenants, named Ellen’s Man. He was shot twice in the head and his throat was cut. Canby was the only general to be killed during the American Indian Wars.

In the aftermath, a reinforced contingent of over 600 Army soldiers stormed Captain Jack’s Stronghold and forced a splintered retreat. Captain Jack and three of his lieutenants were captured in June.

They were convicted of war crimes for the murder of Gen. Canby and Rev. Eleazar Thomas at the peace commission meeting and were hanged on Oct. 3, 1873, at Fort Klamath.

We have much more to tell you about Canby’s founding families, but it will have to wait till next time on Canby Then.

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