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Modoc War

The Modoc War, also known as the Lava Beds War, was an armed conflict between the Native American Modoc tribe and the United States Army in southern Oregon and northern California from 1872 - 1873. The Modoc War was the last of the Indian Wars to occur in California or Oregon.

Table of contents
1 Events leading up to the war
2 Battle of Lost River
3 Fortifying the Stronghold
4 First Battle of the Stronghold
5 Negotiations with the Peace Commission
6 Murder at the Peace Tent
7 Second Battle of the Stronghold
8 Thomas-Wright Massacre
9 Battle of Dry Lake
10 After the War
11 Appendix to History of the Modoc War
12 References

Events leading up to the war

South Emigrant Trail established

Lindsay Applegate, accompanied by fourteen other settlers in the Willamette and Rogue valleys in western Oregon, established the South Emigrant Trail in 1846 between a point on the Oregon Trail near Fort Hall, Idaho and the Willamette Valley. The purpose of this new route was to encourage settlers to western Oregon, to eliminate the hazards encountered on the Columbia Route, to provide an alternate route in the event of trouble with the United Kingdom (the British Hudson's Bay Company controlled the Columbia Route), and to provide a route which would be open except for a short winter season each year.

Applegate and his party were the first white men to enter what is now the Lava Beds National Monument. On their exploring trip eastward they attempted to pass around the south end of Tule Lake but the rough lava along the shore forced them to seek a route around the north end of the lake.

The opening of the South Emigrant Trail brought the first regular contact between the Modoc and the European settlers, who had largely ignored the area before. Many of the events of the Modoc War took place along the South Emigrant Trail.

Harassment of emigrants

Begining in 1847, the Modoc raided emigrants on the South Emigrant Trail. The Modoc, numbering about 600 warriors under the leadership of Old Chief Schonchin, inhabited the region around Lower Klamath Lake, Tule Lake, and Lost River in northern California and southern Oregon.

In September 1852, the Modoc destroyed an emigrant train at Bloody Point on the east shore of Tule Lake. Of the 65 persons in the train only three escaped immediate death; two young girls, taken prisoners and killed several years later by jealous Modoc women, and one man who made his way to Yreka, California. Hearing the news of the attack, Yreka settlers organized a party, under the leadership of Jim Crosby, to go to the scene of the massacre to bury the dead and avenge their death. Crosby's party had one skirmish with a band of Modocs.

The depredations and attacks of emigrants by the Modoc aroused settlers at Yreka to send out a party under Ben Wright's leadership in 1856. Accounts differ as to what actually took place when Wright's party finally met the Modoc on Lost River. Both Wright and the Modoc anticipated treachery. Each group planned to exterminate the other. To prevent the gathering of the entire tribe which would result in his party being greatly outnumbered, Wright attacked, killing approximately 80 Modocs. This loss led to the general mistrust of the white settlers by the Modoc.

It has been estimated that at least 300 emigrants and settlers were killed by the Modoc during the years 1846 to 1873.

Treaty with the United States

The United States and the Klamath, Modoc, and Snake (Yahooskin band) tribes signed a treaty in 1864, establishing the Klamath Reservation. Under the terms of this treaty the Modoc, with Old Chief Schonchin as their leader, gave up their lands in the Lost River, Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake regions, and moved to the reservation in the Upper Klamath Valley. Approximately 160 Modoc under the leadership of Keintpuash (Captain Jack) refused to move to the reservation, as they had not been represented in the treaty negotiations. It was Captain Jack's band of Modocs that caused the trouble which precipitated the Modoc War. The majority of the Modoc tribe under Old Chief Schonchin remained on the reservation, taking no part in the Modoc War.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made in the following years to convince Captain Jack and his band to move to the reservation. Finally, in 1869 Captain Jack's band agreed to relocate.

This move was accomplished following a council between Captain Jack; A. B. Meacham, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon; O. C. Knapp, Agent on the reservation; Ivan D. Applegate, Sub Agent at Yainax; and W. C. McKay. Talk at the council accomplished nothing. When U.S. Army soldiers suddenly appeared at the meeting place the Modoc warriors fled, leaving their women and children behind. Meacham put the women and children in wagons and started for the reservation. "Queen" Mary, Captain Jack's sister, was permitted to go to Captain Jack to persuade him to move to the reservation. Her efforts were successful. Arriving on the reservation, Jack and his band prepared to make permanent homes at Modoc Point.

Mistreatment by the Klamath

Shortly after Captain Jack and his band started building permanent homes at Modoc Point, the Klamaths, their long time rivals, began to mistreat them, making it necessary for the band to move to another part of the reservation. Several attempts were made to find a location. The Klamaths continued to harass the band until finally Captain Jack and his followers left the reservation and returned to Lost River in 1870. During the months that Captain Jack had been on the reservation a number of settlers had taken up land in the Lost River region.

Back at Lost River

Realizing that there was an unfriendly feeling between Jack's band of Modocs and the Klamath, A. B. Meacham recommended to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C that Captain Jack and his band be given a separate reservation. Pending action on his recommendation Meacham instructed Captain Jack and his band to remain at Clear Lake. However, Captain Jack and his band roamed the country harassing the settlers with the result the settlers in the Lost River region petitioned Meacham to remove the Modoc to the Klamath Reservation.

On receipt of the petition, Meacham requested General Edward Canby, Commanding General of Columbia, to remove Captain Jack and his band of Modoc to Yainax on the Klamath Reservation. General Canby forwarded Meacham's request to General Schofield, Commanding General of the Pacific, suggesting that before using force to get Captain Jack to the reservation, another peaceful effort should be made. On April 3, 1872, Major Elmer Otis held a council with Captain Jack at Lost River Gap, near what is now Olone, Oregon. At that meeting Captain Jack and the important men of his band were distinctly hostile. Nothing was accomplished toward relocating the band to the reservation.

On April 12, the Commission of Indian Affairs in Washington requested T. B. Odeneal, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, to get Captain Jack and his band of Modocs to the reservation if practicable and to see that they were not maltreated by the Klamath. On May 14, Odeneal, carrying out his instructions, sent Ivan D. Applegate and L. S. Dyer to arrange for a council with Captain Jack, which Jack refused. After the failure to meet with Captain Jack, on July 6, 1872, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington directed Superintendent Odeneal to move Captain Jack and his band to the Klamath Reservation, peacefully if possible, forcibly if necessary.

Battle of Lost River

Main article: Battle of Lost River

Despairing of a peaceful settlement, on November 27, Superintendent Odeneal requested Major John Green, commanding officer at Fort Klamath, to furnish sufficient troops to compel Captain Jack to move to the reservation. On November 28 Captain James Jackson, commanding 40 troops, left Fort Klamath for Captain Jack's camp on Lost River. The troops, reenforced by citizens from Linkville (now Klamath Falls, Oregon) arrived in Jack's camp on Lost River about a mile above Emigrant Crossing (now Stone Bridge, Oregon) on November 29.

Wishing to avoid conflict, Captain Jack agreed to go to the reservation, but the situation became tense when Captain Jackson demanded he disarm. Captain Jack had never fought the Army, and was incensed at this command, but finally aggreed to put down his weapons.

As the rest of the Modoc were following his lead, it is believed that the Modoc warrior Scarfaced Charley and an unidentified Army sergeant got into a verbal argument, pulled their revolvers and shot at each other, both missing their target. The Modoc scrambled to regain their recently cast aside weapons, and fought a short battle before fleeing towords the border with California. After driving the Modoc from camp, Captain Jackson ordered the troops to retreat to await reinforcements. The casualties in this short battle included one Army soldier killed and seven wounded, and two Modoc killed and three wounded.

Retreating from the battlefield on Lost River to the Lava Beds south of Tule Lake, a small band of Modoc under the leadership of Hooker Jim, on the afternoon of November 29 and morning of November 30, killed 18 settlers.

Fortifying the Stronghold

For some months previous to the battle on Lost River, Captain Jack had boasted that in the event of war he and his band could successfully defend themselves in an area in the lava beds on the south shore of Tule Lake. It was to that area that the Modoc retreated after the Battle of Lost River. The area soon became famous and is known today as Captain Jack's Stronghold. In selecting the place in which to defend themselves the Modoc took advantage of the lava ridges, cracks, depressions, and caves, all such natural features being ideal from the standpoint of defense. At the time the Modoc occupied the Stronghold, Tule Lake bounded the Stronghold on the north and served as a source of water.

On December 21, a Modoc party, scouting from the Stronghold, attacked an ammunition wagon at Land's Ranch.

By January 15, 1873, the U. S. Army had 400 troops in the field near the Lava Beds. The greatest concentration of troops was at Van Bromer's ranch, twelve miles west of the Stronghold. Troops were also stationed at Lani's ranch, ten miles east of the Stronghold. Col. Frank Wheaton was in command of all troops, including regular army as well as volunteer companies from California and Oregon.

On January 16 troops from Land's ranch, commanded by Col. R. F. Bernard, skirmished with the Modoc near Hospital Rock.

First Battle of the Stronghold

Main article: First Battle of the Stronghold

On the morning of January 17, 1873, troops advanced on the Stronghold. Hindered by fog, the soldiers never saw a single Modoc. The Modoc, occupying excellent positions, repulsed troops advancing from the west and east. A general retreat of troops was ordered at the end of the day. In the attack the U. S. Army lost 35 men killed and 5 officers and 20 enlisted men wounded. Under Captain Jack's command there were in all approximately 150 Modoc including women and children. Of that number there were only 53 warriors. The Modoc suffered no casualties in the fighting.

Negotiations with the Peace Commission

On January 25, C. Delano, Secretary of the Interior, appointed a Peace Commission to deal with Captain Jack. The Commission consisted of A. B. Meacham, chairman, Jesse Applegate, and Samuel Case. General Canby was appointed to serve the Commission as counselor.

On February 19, the Peace Commission held its first meeting at Fairchild's ranch, west of the lava beds. A messenger was sent to arrange a meeting with Captain Jack. Jack agreed that if the commission would send John Fairchild and Bob Whittle, two settlers, to the edge of the lava beds he would talk to them. When Fairchild and Whittle went to the lava beds Captain Jack told them he would talk with the commission if they would come to the lava beds and bring Judge Elisha Steele of Yreka. Steele had been friendly to Captain Jack. Steele went to the Stronghold. After a night in the Stronghold, Steele returned to Fairchild's ranch and informed the Peace Commission that the Modoc were planning treachery, and that all efforts of the Commission would be useless. Meacham wired the Secretary of the Interior, informing him of Judge Steele's opinion. In replying the Secretary instructed Meacham to continue negotiations for peace. Judge A. M. Roseborough was added to the commission. Jesse Applegate and Samuel Case resigned from the Commission, being replaced by Rev. Eleazer Thomas and L. S. Dyer.

In April, Gillem's Camp was established at the edge of the lava beds, two and one-half miles west of the Stronghold. Col. Alvin C. Gillem was placed in command of all troops including those at Hospital Rock, commanded by Col. E. C. Mason.

On April 2, the commission and Captain Jack met in the lava beds at a place about midway between the Stronghold and Gillem's Camp. At this meeting Captain Jack demanded: (1) Complete pardon of all Modocs; (2) Withdrawal of all troops; (3) The right to select their own reservation. The Peace Commission proposed: (1) That Captain Jack and his band go to a reservation selected by the government; (2) That the Modocs guilty of killing the settlers be surrendered and tried for murder. After much discussion the meeting broke up with nothing accomplished.

The Modoc began to turn on Captain Jack, who desired a peaceful solution. Led by John Schonchin and Hooker Jim, they put pressure on Jack to kill the peace commission, as they felt the death of their leaders would force the Army to leave. They shamed Jack for his continuing negotiations by dressing him in women's clothing during council meetings. Rather than loose his position as chief of the band, Captain Jack agreed to attack the commission if no progress was made.

On April 5, Captain Jack requested a meeting with A. B. Meacham. Accompanied by John Fairchild and Judge Roseborough, Frank and Toby Riddle serving as interpreters, Meacham met Captain Jack at the peace tent which had been erected on a flat area about one mile east of Gillem's Camp. The meeting lasted several hours. Captain Jack requested that the lava beds be given to them as a reservation. The meeting ended with no agreement. After Meacham returned to camp a message was sent to Captain Jack, asking that he meet the commission at the peace tent on April 8. While delivering this message, Toby Riddle, a Modoc woman, wife of Frank Riddle, a white settler, learned of the Modoc's plan to kill the peace commissioners.

On April 8, just as the commissioners were starting for the peace tent a message was received from the signal tower on the bluff above Gillem's Camp. The message stated that the lookout on the tower had seen five Modocs at the peace tent and about 20 armed Modocs hiding among the rocks nearby. The commissioners realized that the Modoc were planning an attack. The commissioners agreed to remain in camp. In spite of warnings of planned attack by the Modoc, Rev. Thomas insisted on arranging a date for another meeting with Captain Jack. On April 10 a message was sent asking that Captain Jack meet the commissioners at the peace tent on the following morning.

Murder at the Peace Tent

On the morning of April 11, the commissioners, General Canby, A. B. Meacham, Rev. E. Thomas, and L. S. Dyer, with Frank and Toby Riddle as interpreters, met with Boston Charley, Bogus Charley, Captain Jack, John Schonchin, Black Jim, and Hooker Jim. After some talk, during which it became evident that the Modoc were armed, General Canby informed Captain Jack that the commission could not meet his terms until orders came from Washington. In an angry mood John Schonchin demanded Hot Creek for a reservation. Captain Jack got up and walked away a few steps. Two Modocs, Brancho (Barncho) and Slolux, armed with rifles, ran forward from where they had been hiding among the rocks. Captain Jack turned giving the signal to fire. The first shot from Captain Jack's revolver killed General Canby. Reverend Thomas fell mortally wounded. A. B. Meacham fell seriously wounded. Dyer and Riddle escaped by running. Had not Toby Riddle cried out, "The soldiers are coming!", Meacham would no doubt have been killed.

All efforts for peace ended when the Modocs carried out their plans to kill the commissioner. A cross marks the place where General Canby and Reverend Thomas fell victims to the Modoc.

Second Battle of the Stronghold

Main article: Second Battle of the Stronghold

The U. S. Army made preparations to attack the Stronghold. On April 15 a general attack began, troops advancing from Gillem's camp on the west and Mason's camp at Hospital Rock, northeast of the Stronghold. Fighting continued throughout the day, the troops remaining in position during the night. Each advance of troops on the 16thth was under heavy fire from the Modoc positions. That night the troops succeeded in cutting the Modoc off from their water supply at the shore of Tule Lake. By the morning of April 17 everything was in readiness for the final attack on the Sronghold. When the order was given to advance, the troops charged into the Stronghold.

After the fighting along the shoreline of Tule Lake on the afternoon and night of April 16, the Modocs defending the Stronghold realized that their water supply had been cut off by the troops commanding the shoreline. On April 17, before the troops had received the order to charge the Stronghold, the Modoc escaped through a crevice left unguarded during a movement of troops from one position to another. During the fighting at the Stronghold, April 15 - 17, casualties included one officer and six enlisted men killed, and thirteen enlisted men wounded. The only Modoc casualty was a boy, reported to have been killed when a cannon ball, which he was attempting to open with an axe, exploded. Several Modoc women were reported to have died from sickness.

Thomas-Wright Massacre

Main article: Battle of Sand Butte

On April 26, Captain Evan Thomas commanding five officers, sixty-six troops and fourteen Warm Spring Scouts left Gillem's camp on a reconnaissance of the lava beds to locate the Modoc. While eating lunch at the base of Sand Butte (now Hadin Butte), in a flat area surrounded by ridges, Captain Thomas and his party were attacked by 22 Modoc led by Scarfaced Charley. Some of the troops fled in disorder. Those who remained to fight were either killed or wounded. Casualties included four officers killed and two wounded, one dying within a few days, and thirteen enlisted men killed and sixteen wounded.

Following the massacre, many called for Col. Gillem to be removed. On May 2, the new commander of the Department of the Columbia, Brigadeer General Jefferson C. Davis releived Gillem of command, and assumed control of the army in the field.

Battle of Dry Lake

Main article: Battle of Dry Lake

At first light on May 10, the Modoc attacked an Army encampment at Dry Lake. The troops charged, routing the Modoc. Casualties among the Army included five men killed, two of whom were Warm Spring Scouts, and twelve men wounded. The Modoc reported five warriors killed. Among the five was Ellen's Man, a prominent Modoc. That was the first defeat of the Modocs in battle. The death of Ellen's Man caused dissension among the Modoc, who began to split apart. A group led by Hooker Jim surrendered to the Army and agreed to help them capture Captain Jack, and in return were granted amnesty for the murder of the settlers at Tule Lake and the murder of General Canby's commission.

Captain Jack was captured in Langell's valley, June 4.

After the War

With the capture of Captain Jack, General Davis made preparations to execute the leaders of Jack's band. Execution was prevented by orders from the War Department. The orders were that the Indians would be held for trial. On July 4, Captain Jack and his band arrived as prisoners of war at Fort Klamath.

Captain Jack, John Schonchin, Black Jim, Boston Charley, Brancho (Barncho) and Slolux were immediately put on trial for the murder of members of the Peace Commission. The six Modoc were found guilty, and on July 8 they were sentenced to die.

On September 10, President Ulysses S. Grant approved the death sentence for Captain Jack, John Schonchin, Black Jim and Boston Charley; Brancho and Slolux were committed to life imprisonment on Alcatraz. President Grant also ordered that the remainder of Captain Jack's band be held as prisoners of war.

On October 3, 1873, Captain Jack, John Schonchin, Black Jim, and Boston Charley were hanged at Fort Klamath. The remainder of the band of Modoc Indians, consisting of 39 men, 64 women, and 60 children, as prisoners of war were sent to the Quaw Paw Agency in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In 1909, the Modoc of Oklahoma were allowed to return to the Klamath Reservation, if they so desired.

Appendix to History of the Modoc War

In the First Battle of the Stronghold, January 17, 1873, there were approximately 400 Army troops in the field. The troops included U. S. Army infantry, cavalry, and howitzer units; Oregon and California volunteer companies, and some Klamath Indian Scouts. Lt. Col. Frank Wheaton was in command of all troops.

In the Second Battle of the Stronghold, April 17, 1873, approximately 530 troops were engaged. These included U. S. Army infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and Warm Spring Indian Scouts. The volunteer companies had withdrawn from the field. A small number of civilians were used as runners and packers. Col. Alvin C. Gillem was in command.

At no time during the Modoc War were there more than 53 Modoc warriors engaged in the fighting.

The casualty lists for the Modoc War are as follows:

Officers (U.S.A.)74
Enlisted Men4842
Indian Scouts20

Including the four Indians hung at Fort Klamath, Captain Jack's band suffered the loss of seventeen warriors killed.

It has been estimated that the Modoc War cost the United States over $4,000,000; a very expensive war in terms of lives and dollars, considering the small number of opposing forces. In contrast, the estimated cost to purchase the land requested by the Modoc for a separate reservation was $20,000.

Battlefields of the Modoc War are among the outstanding features of the Lava Beds National Monument. These include Captain Jack's Stronghold in and around which one can see the numerous cracks, ridges, and knobs used by the Modoc in defending their position, numerous Modoc outpost fortifications, smoke-stained caves inhabited by the Modoc during the months of the war, corrals in which the Modoc kept cattle and horses, and a war-dance ground and council area. Around the Stronghold one can see numerous low stone fortifications built by troops advancing on the Stronghold, as well as numerous fortifications built by the troops after the evacuation of the Modocs, the fortifications built after evacuation being for the purpose of defending the Stronghold in the event that the Modoc should attempt to return to their former strong defensive position. The Thomas-Wright battlefield, near Hardin Butte, is one of the interesting features of the monument; as is also the site of Gillem's camp, the former military cemetery, Hospital Rock, and Canby's Cross.


This article was adapted from a series of articles by Don C. Fisher and John E. Doerr, Jr., published in the public domain Nature Notes from Crater Lake National Park, vol. x, no. 1-3, National Park Service, 1937.