California and the Indian Wars
The Modoc War, 1872-1873
by Warren A. Beck and Ynez D. Hasse
This conflict resulted from forces common to all Indian wars: the encroachment of whites upon traditional Indian land until the aboriginal way of life was threatened with extinction. However, it was complicated by the appearance of the Ghost Dance religion, which (it was believed) protected the Indians from the white man's bullets and stirred many of the young braves to fanatical deeds, the presence of bitter rivalries among tribal leaders, and the leadership talents of Captain Jack Kientopoos. Roots of the war went back to 1852, when Indians slaughtered sixty-five whites in a wagon train at Bloody Point, and in retaliation forty-one Modocs were murdered by whites at a peace parley. Hostility continued until 1864, when the Modocs signed a peace treaty and agreed to live on the reservation in Oregon. Unable to coexist their enemies, the Klamaths, the Modocs fled the reservation in 1865, returned briefly in 1869, but left finally in Apnl, 1870.
The war began when troops tried to force Captain Jack's band, camped on Lost River, back to the reservation on November 29, 1872. As the Indians fled, they murdered thirteen (or eighteen) settlers. The Modocs retreated to "The Stronghold," a vast lava bed honeycombed with outcroppings, caves, and caverns, making it a virtually impregnable rocky fortress. Efforts to dislodge the Modocs in heavy fog on January 17, 1873, cost the army thirty-five dead and many wounded, with no casualties for the Indians. Weeks of negotiation followed, with the army reluctant to risk more casualties and Captain Jack desirous of stalling until spring so he could more easily maneuver in the mountains. The deadlock ended on Good Friday, April 11, 1873, when General Edward Richard Sprigg Canby was murdered, with other peace negotiators, by Captain Jack, while unarmed and conducting peace negotiations. (Canby thus became the only army general to die in the Indian wars.) The usually astute Captam Jack was goaded to this misdeed by warriors convinced that the army would leave if their leader was gone.
On April 14, 1873, the army laid siege to the Stronghold, and, lacking water, Captain Jack fled southward. After Canby's death, General Jefferson C. Davis, another distinguished Civil War veteran, commanded the troops. At Hardin Butte, on April 26, the bungling army suffered another disaster when a force of some eighty-five men were ambushed and suffered two-thirds casualties. By this time the Modoc leaders had a force that varied from forty-nine but never was reported as more than eighty-nine to ward off more than a thousand army regulars, plus volunteers, and Indian allies. The end was near.
Badly outnumbered, short of supplies, and lacking horses, Captain Jack's followers began to desert him. Hooker Jim led one band to Fairchild Ranch (he knew and trusted the rancher) and surrendered. Braves who had urged a more aggressive policy for the Modoc leader now guided the army in its pursuit. In an attempted ambush of an army unit at Sorass Lake on May 10, the Modocs suffered several casualties, and lost twenty-four pack animals with most of their ammunition. Captain Jack continued to lead the army on a wild chase, but this battle sealed his doom. At Big Sand Butte the resourceful Indian led his band (then only thirty-three) out of an army trap involving more than three hundred soldiers. But one by one the Modocs surrendered, with the guarantee they would be treated as prisoners of war, and on June 1, Captain Jack laid down his rifle.
The Modoc War cost over half a million dollars, the lives of some eighty-three whites, and a total of seventeen Indians. Captain Jack and three others were hanged for the murder of the peace commissioners, while two other Indians had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. The rest of the Modocs were removed to a reservation in Indian Territory.
MODOC: The Tribe That Wouldn’t Die
By Cheewa James
Prelude to War
In war it is tempting, but simplistic, to label the warring factions as
“right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad.” War spawns cruel acts but also brings
humane actions on both sides. The complexity of any war asks that naïve,
one-dimensional conclusions not be drawn. War itself is the true evil.
The Modoc War of 1873 stands as an amazing conflict in United
• It was the most costly Indian war in United States military
history, in terms of both lives and money, considering the small number
of Indians who battled.
• By the end of the six-month war, over 1,000 U. S. military
troops were engaged in bringing 50 – 60 Modoc men, who had their
families with them throughout the entire war, under control. Army
troops outnumbered Modoc fighting men about 20 to 1.
• The Modoc War is the only Indian war in American history in
Were it not for the George Armstrong Custer fight at the Little
Bighorn against the Lakota and Cheyenne only three years after the Modoc
War, the Modoc conflict would probably be remembered as the most
significant Indian confrontation in America's western history.
The Modoc War involved only one relatively small group of
American Indian people. However, it is a riveting example of what happened
across the United States as non-Indian settlers, landowners, and military
persevered in efforts to continue western expansion.
The Modoc saga is one that belongs equally to California and Oregon.
But the end of the war would see Oklahoma become a part of this poignant
Archaeological research has documented that for many millenniums
the Modocs had inhabited an area in northern California and southern
Oregon. They were spread over about 5,000 square miles, roughly 100
miles, of territory. The Modocs’ summer hunting ranged from Mount Shasta
eastward and north to Goose Lake. Their permanent villages were in Lost
River country, including Tule Lake, on what is today the central OregonCalifornia border. The Modocs were water people, much of their livelihood
and culture stemming from their waterways.
Examining the findings from Night Fire Island, a recent-time
archeological site in ancestral Modoc land, author Carrol Howe says, “It
seems doubtful that any place will be found that was continuously occupied
longer than the Modoc homeland.”
Their population number fluctuated between 400–800 at any given
time. Over those many centuries, the Modocs’ culture, theology, and life had
become perfectly tuned to their environment and the richness of the
resources it provided them. Their nomadic patterns took them to the right
places at the right times for their hunting, fishing, and food gathering
activities. Then the last move of the year brought them back to the favored
areas for building their winter homes and storing their winter food caches.
Above all, the Modocs loved their land. It was, in every sense, their world.
The environment sometimes could be adversarial, but Modocs knew
ways to cope. They understood the land. It was that knowledge that made
them powerful in combat. Neighboring tribes regarded them as skilled
fighters. They were masters at using the land to their advantage against the
enemy. This trait was a major factor in their ability to battle the U. S.
military so successfully.
Too often the Modocs have been stigmatized as warring savages, with
little understanding given to other facets of their culture. Their tenacious
staying power over thousands of years refutes this narrow stereotype.
Investigation into the past reveals the Modocs as a solid, enduring people
with a vast history. The aspects of their lives that dealt with social customs,
family, theology, and art were well developed.
It is critical to realize that the Modocs were never a unified tribe but
several autonomous bands. Each band had its own leadership and operated
independently, except in war when they joined forces and selected a war
chief. Modoc bands were not dictatorships. Both military and civil decisions
were made by consensus of the entire group. This held true in the Modoc
War, and the assembly of Modoc fighters met often to strategize.
The roots of the war began sometime in the mid-1800s. Increasing
numbers of Anglo-European intruders, in their quest for new land, began to
infiltrate and encroach on ancestral Modoc land. In the fall of 1847 the
immigrants brought smallpox. It is unknown how many Modocs died,
although there have been estimates as high as 130. Other Indian groups to
the north suffered losses between 25 and 50 percent of their people. Some
bands in the Columbia Valley of present day Oregon were eliminated
The impact of the plague on the Modoc culture can only be imagined.
The very young and the elderly are especially susceptible in an outbreak of
this sort. The elders had always been the leaders and were the greatest
reservoirs of knowledge and tradition. With the passing of the older people,
there can be no doubt but that Modoc culture and leadership were adversely
The bloody and tragic Modoc War could have been averted. The
underlying cause of the war can be summed up in one four-letter word—
Land to the immigrants meant ownership. To the Modocs, land could
not be owned any more than could air or water or clouds. It was
inconceivable to the Modocs that they could be forced to leave their home
and environment—relinquish their life-style. The case of the Modocs is
similar to that of many other Indian tribes of mid-nineteenth century
America. As more and more non-Indians poured westward, more and more
land—the richer, more fertile Indian land—was being claimed by these
The issue of how land was now to be parceled out and lived upon
created great chasms between two cultures. There was even dissention
among the immigrant settlers, landowners, and government as to who should
get the land and how. When Yreka, California, gold fields opened in 1850,
conflicts became more frequent between Indians and non-Indians. There was
violence and bloodshed as the two cultures clashed.
But other things also generated and prolonged the war. Missed
opportunities existed on both sides to solve problems and live cooperatively.
Racial bias and stereotyping influenced decisions. Errors in judgment and
miscalculations contributed. Military and government blunders such aslaunching an attack with too few men and not notifying civilians of an
imminent war were staggering.
The war resulted in great devastation, almost beyond comprehension,
to the Modoc people. It placed them on the brink of cultural destruction.
Even more severe were events after the war, but directly related to the war,
that decimated their population, already very small.
There was the tremendous death and suffering of U. S. soldiers, cast
into a nebulous, confusing war. Families of the wounded and slain dealt for
years with the results of the Modoc War. Certainly among both Indian
warriors and U. S. Army soldiers the feeling of “Why am I here?” was
present. Settlers were caught in the middle of the battle. They suffered death
and destruction while relying on the U. S. government and military to guide
and protect them.
It is naïve to assume that even the separate sides—the Modocs and the
U. S. Army—were cohesive. During the Modoc War there was dissention
internally within both the Indian and military sides. On the side of the
military, for example, dislike of a commanding officer by many of his own
men caused disruption and even the disobeying of orders. The resulting low
morale of the soldiers was a definite hindrance.
On the other hand, internal dissention at the close of the war caused
the Modocs to split back into their separate bands. Bands thought differently
about how to handle surrender and defeat. There were feelings of deception
between separate Modoc bands and they turned on each other. They were no
longer an integrated fighting unit.
Through centuries of existence, the Modoc were a people without a
written language. At the time of the war, many Modocs did not speak fluent
English. Much of what is known is the interpretation by others of what
Modocs did and said. Modocs were viewed by the U. S. government as “the
other side,” a foe of U. S. military troops. Much of the history of the Modoc
War is written from that perspective.
The Modoc War is often viewed and discussed without a
comprehensive knowledge of the Modocs. Little has been written on the
Modoc culture to enlighten people on this much talked about but little
known tribe. To honestly interpret the war, the impact of Modoc culture on
the war must be taken into account. My hope is that this book will provide
readers with a greater understanding of the Modocs. The appendix of this
book has a section, “The Ancestral Modocs,” which examines what we
know of this ancient group of people,
Certain aspects of Modoc culture related to the war and the ultimate
removal of the Modocs were reported in newspapers, military documents,
and letters of that era: the Modocs’ surprise at being attacked in winter, as
they traditionally did not fight in winter—the right of a Modoc deceased’s
relative(s) to kill a shaman or healer who failed at his task—grieving
mourners wailing for long lengths of time and covering their hair with tree
pitch and ashes—the occasional circumstance of a man having more than
Most of what has been written on the Modoc War has not given
sufficient emphasis to the fact that for the entire six months of the war,
Modoc women and children lived and moved with the men of the tribe and
experienced the battles of the Modoc War. I have explored what little we
know of the Modoc women and tried to give them faces and voices.
There were also settler women pulled into the war in tragic
circumstances. The first names of these women are not found in the bulk of
writing on the Modoc War. Mrs. Brotherton, Mrs. Boddy, and Mrs. Schira
did not have first names. They do in my book. I am proud of the Modoc,
settler, and military women who handled the war with strength and grace.
The Modoc War was riveting and highly emotional. The story of the
Modocs as POWs in Oklahoma Indian Territory is equally compelling.
These events are not dry history, and I want people—especially children and
young people—to feel the significance and drama. Accordingly, I have
inserted fictionalized vignettes throughout the book to tell particular stories
that have moved me since I myself was a child. The historical details in the
fictionalized vignettes are precise. Read them and experience the emotion
the story evokes: excitement, bewilderment, pain, horror, pride, sorrow, or
It is also important that an accurate record exists. This book is heavily
researched and documented for those who wish to explore further. There are
also new sources that create fresh reading for Modoc history buffs.
Even though I am of Modoc descent, I have tried to show all sides of
this conflict in an unbiased, well-researched way. As a result, I have a solid
understanding of the background and pattern of the war, know the Modocs
better as individuals, and have come to know certain settlers, soldiers and
government officials well. I feel related to them all.
What I know is that the bitterness of the past must be just that—past.
The understanding and lessons derived from the war must be used to build a
better, more tolerant world today and a stepping-stone to the future. We
must acknowledge, in the Indian way of thinking, that all living things,
including human beings, are interrelated. We are here to care for one
—Cheewa Patricia James, 2007