One last report

Final work of former KING 5 newsman turned city councilmember dives into Modoc War

Jim Compton knew conflict.

It was familiar territory as a foreign correspondent for NBC News in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and later locally as host of the, “The Compton Report,” each week on KING 5. And soon after winning a seat on the Seattle City Council in 1999, he was tabbed to lead the council’s investigation of the response to the World Trade Organization protests, and later chaired its public-safety committee.

It’s only fitting then that his final project was a deep-dive into the most expensive Indian conflict in American history, one that dates back nearly 150 years near the Oregon-California border. 

The result is, “Spirit in the Rock: The Fierce Battle for Modoc Homelands,” published earlier this year through WSU Press.

A native of Klamath Falls, Ore., Compton traveled as a child to the lava beds where the Modoc War took place, and always wondered what made the area so significant to those trying to drive the Modoc people out. When he returned from the Middle East for NBC in the early 1980s he began to study the topic more closely, and after his retirement from the city council in 2006, he worked on it essentially full-time, said his wife Carol Arnold.

“[He] got an office and filled it from floor to ceiling with old books and maps and photographs,” Arnold said. “He would bring anybody who would come to his office and tell them about the Modoc War.”

Compton finished the manuscript in early 2014, just months before his unexpected passing. It was then up to Arnold — who had worked closely with him editing the book — to get it published.

“After he died, I figured I have to do this,” she said, “because he’s not here to do it.”

To do it, she enlisted the help of a longtime city hall figure and friend of Compton in Bill Stafford. That was a bit easier said than done.

“I know as much about publishing as I know about nuclear science,” said Stafford, a Magnolia resident. “But I like challenges.”

In the meantime, by reading the manuscript he found that many of the sites described could be photographed in their current state. An accomplished photographer, Stafford has shown his work in several locations, most notably in an exhibit on Seattle’s connections to the world (he spent nearly two decades as president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle) at the Museum of History and Industry in 2010.

This assignment was a bit different than most of what he had done before, but made easier by the fact the war was fought over a relatively small area of northeastern California and southeastern Oregon. Other conflicts like the Sioux and Plains Wars took place across thousands of miles, while one could take in all the sights of the Modoc War in the course of day (Stafford would spend a week taking photos).

“In this case it was how do you take photographs that help illustrate what Jim was trying to do,” he said.

And through a connection at Washington State University, he was linked to the head of the WSU Press, which put the wheels in motion for publication.

The topic itself had received relatively little investigation from others, leaving Compton to break new ground in his research. The book includes firsthand accounts of the conflict through the use of the journals from both the soldiers that fought and the Modoc people, while Arnold was told by a local historian that the book’s major achievement was uncovering the war’s underlying causes.

What Stafford said helps from a reader’s perspective is the way Compton put it all together.

“It’s not a historian researching a piece of history,” Stafford said. “It’s a journalist covering a piece of history.”

Arnold likened it to the way he would prepare for, “The Compton Report.”

“He would write the script on the left side of the page, and on the right side he’d show what the picture would be that would go with it,” she said. “I don’t know that he actually did this with the book, but you can see him writing, and you can see him seeing the scene in his mind as he writes it.”

Initial sales have been good, Arnold said, with Stafford adding that several hundred copies had been sold by the time of the book’s launch at the Seattle Public Library in early October.

The finished product is something Arnold believes her husband would have been proud to see.

“He would be so pleased,” she said. “He would be so proud, and he would be proud that Bill did the photographs for it, and he would be proud that we saw it through to publication.”

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