About 35 years ago, I took a jaunt down Modock Hill Road, in Madison. The portion of the road north of Colby Hill Road had not been maintained for most of a century, and some of it remains that way today, leading back into Conway on steep, rocky, washed-out slope. 

All maps back then spelled the name "Modock," and Conway road signs persist in that practice, but Madison now spells it "Modoc," and I think that reflects the original intent. Spelled with the "k," the word appears only as the last name of a family that originated in Pennsylvania and later dispersed to the Midwest, West, and South, but no Modock seems to have ever lived in New England, let alone Madison. Without the "k," Modoc refers to an Indian tribe that was indigenous to southern Oregon and northern California, but no obvious connection suggested itself there, either — until I stopped to investigate a cemetery along the way. 

I remembered the cemetery as a village-sized graveyard sitting right at the side of the road, with an iron-gated fence and scores of graves, including a tall, ornate tomb. When I returned to that spot late last October, I walked right past the cemetery without spotting it. Only after stopping at a house to ask directions did I find it, sitting 50 yards or so up in what is now woods, with no iron gate or fencing. It wasn't as large as I remembered, either, nor was there a tomb of any kind. 

The graves I was looking for were marked by simple headstones for a mother and her daughter. The little girl was Abby Katrine Van Nest, who was born to Barrant and Vienna Van Nest in Humboldt Bay, Calif., on Sept. 7, 1862. She died in Madison on May 22, 1864. Her mother died Nov. 4, 1869. 

Barrant Van Nest was a New York native, but by 1855 he was operating a private school in Eureka, Calif. In September of 1859, he was elected sheriff of Humboldt County, but the following February he played a shadowy part in a series of massacres that killed as many as 200 Wiyot Indians — mostly women and children — in and around Eureka. The unoffending Wiyots were near neighbors of the more aggressive Modoc tribe, with whom the settlers often confused them. 

Van Nest helped raise the volunteer company that was suspected of conducting the slaughter, and he obstructed the investigation of the murders. Maj. Gabriel Rains of the U.S. Army, who soon became a Confederate general, charged Van Nest with publishing false information and all but accused him of complicity in the "horrid massacres." Van Nest was not re-elected sheriff, but he did head a committee that inspected the Klamath Indian reservation, north of Humboldt Bay. His report on conditions there was not charitable, and as late as midsummer of 1861 he was still agitating for a military force to prevent Indian depredations. The most frequent reports of attacks and atrocities were attributed to the Modocs.

Until at least four months after the massacres, the future Vienna Van Nest was the single Vienna C. Jackson, nearing the age of 27 and living with her parents high on a hillside in Madison. She worked as a teacher in the common school almost directly across the road from her home.

Sometime between July of 1860 and the end of 1861, she migrated to Humboldt County, probably in response to one of the broadcast advertisements offering enticing salaries for teachers who came to that isolated region. Single women of her age were in demand as wives, too, and Van Nest presumably married her at least by December of 1861.

Abby's parents brought her East as an infant, evidently to live in Madison with her grandparents.

If Barrant Van Nest regaled his new neighbors with tales of Indian troubles as persistent and wild as those he sent the governor of California and the U.S. Army, those Yankee farmers would have handled him with merciless irony. In one likely sequence, Van Nest's temporary residence would have been identified with the Modocs' nemesis, and the unnamed summit behind the Jackson house might easily have become Modoc Hill. Whether or not that was the precise etymology, no explanation for the name outside of Van Nest's California stories seems plausible.

Vienna died at the age of 36, in the immediate wake of her second daughter's birth. That child, Evangeline, moved to New York with her father, who remarried only to be divorced. Later, he and Evangeline lived in Wisconsin, where he taught school again, but after 1880 her trail runs cold. Van Nest ended his days as the postmaster of Box Butte, in far western Nebraska, having long since forgotten Madison, but in a way the town of Madison remembers him.

 

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