Modoc War

Modoc War
The Modoc War -- Soldiers Recovering the Bodies of the Slain.jpg
Soldiers Recovering the Bodies of the Slain May 3, 1873
Date July 6, 1874 – June 4, 1876
Location California, United States
Result United States victory
Modoc United States
Commanders and leaders
Scarface Charley
Shaknasty Jim
Frank Wheaton
John Green
Reuben Benard
Alvan Gillem
Edwin Cooley Mason
Jefferson C. Davis
"Jump Off" Joe Mcalester
Edward Canby  
53 warriors 400–675 infantry and cavalry
2 howitzers
Casualties and losses
13 warriors and civilians killed 67 killed
46 wounded

The Modoc War, or Modoc Campaign (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.[1] The Modoc War was the last of the Indian Wars to occur in California or Oregon. Eadweard Muybridge photographed the early part of the campaign.

Captain Jack led 52 warriors in a band of more than 150 Modoc people who left the Klamath Reservation. Occupying defensive positions throughout the lava beds south of Tule Lake, for months those few warriors successfully waged a guerrilla war against hundreds of United States Army forces sent against them and reinforced with artillery. In April 1873, Captain Jack and others killed General Edward Canby and another peace commissioner, and wounded others.

After more warfare with reinforcements of US forces, finally some Modoc warriors surrendered, and Captain Jack and the last of his band were captured. Jack and five warriors several leaders were tried for the murder of two peace commissioners; Jack and three warriors were executed and two others sentenced for life imprisonment. The remaining 153 Modoc of the band were sent to Indian Territory, where they were held as prisoners of war until 1909. Some at that point returned to the Klamath Reservation, but most (and their descendants) stayed in what was then the state of Oklahoma. As a result, there are federally recognized Modoc tribes in Oregon and Oklahoma today.


Events leading up to the war

Treaty with the United States

The specific events go back to 1852. Although the Modoc initially had no trouble with European Americans, after the murders of settlers in a raid by the Pit River Tribe, European-American militia, not familiar with the Indian peoples, in revenge attacked an innocent Modoc village, killing men, women and children.[2] (Kintpuash, the future chief also known as Captain Jack, survived the attack but lost some of his family.) In retaliation and to try to end European-American encroachment, some Modoc chose to attack the next whites they came across; they killed 65 white emigrants in a wagon train at what became known as Bloody Point.[2][3] In another round of retaliation, California militia led by Ben Wright killed 41 Modoc at a peace parley.[2]

Rounds of hostilities continued in the area until 1864, with warriors of the Klamath and the Yahooskin, a band of Shoshone, also attacking settlers and migrants in their turns. The United States and the Klamath, Modoc, and Shoshone (Yahooskin band) tribes signed a treaty, by which the Indians ceded millions of acres of lands and the US established the Klamath Reservation, within the boundaries of present-day Oregon. Under the treaty terms, the Modoc, with Old Chief Schonchin as their leader, gave up their lands in the Lost River, Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake regions of California, and moved to a reservation in the Upper Klamath River Valley.

Reluctant to leave their territory, the Modoc finally relocated in 1869 following a council between Captain Jack (also known as Kintpuash), a Modoc leader; Alfred B. Meacham, US Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon; O.C. Knapp, US Indian agent on the reservation; Ivan D. Applegate, sub-agent at Yainax on the reservation; and W.C. McKay. Meacham was from Oregon, and knew Captain Jack and the Modoc. When soldiers suddenly appeared at the meeting, the Modoc warriors fled, leaving behind their women and children. Meacham placed the women and children in wagons and started for the reservation. He allowed "Queen Mary", Captain Jack's sister, to go meet with Captain Jack to persuade him to move to the reservation. She succeeded. Once on the reservation, Captain Jack and his band prepared to make their permanent home at Modoc Point.

Major General E.R.S Canby

Mistreatment by the Klamath

Shortly after the Modoc started building their homes, however, the Klamath, longtime rivals, began to steal the Modoc lumber. The Modoc complained, but the US Indian agent could not protect them against the Klamath. Captain Jack's band moved to another part of the reservation. Several attempts were made to find a suitable location, but the Klamath continued to harass the band.

In 1870 Captain Jack and his band of nearly 200 left the reservation and returned to Lost River. During the months that his band had been on the reservation, a number of settlers had taken up former Modoc land in the Lost River region.

Return to Lost River

Captain Jack

Acknowledging the bad feeling between the Modoc and the Klamath, Meacham recommended to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. that Captain Jack's Modoc band be given a separate reservation at Yainax, in the lower southern part of the reservation. Pending a decision, Meacham instructed Captain Jack to remain at Clear Lake. Oregon settlers complained that Modoc warriors roamed the countryside raiding the settlers; they petitioned Meacham to return the Modoc to the Klamath Reservation. In part, there was raiding because the US did not adequately supply the Modoc on the reservation with food. Captain Jack and his band did better in their old territory with hunting.

Failure of US to respond to Modoc

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs never responded to Meacham's request for a separate reservation for the Modoc. After hearing more complaints from settlers, Meacham requested General Edward Canby, Commanding General of the Department of the Columbia, to move Captain Jack's band to Yainax on the Klamath Reservation, his recommended site for their use. Canby forwarded Meacham's request to General Schofield, Commanding General of the Pacific, suggesting that before using force, peaceful efforts should be made. Jack had asked to talk to Meacham, but he did not go.[4]

In the middle of the crisis, the Commission of Indian Affairs replaced Meacham, appointing T. B. Odeneal as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon.[4][5] He "knew almost nothing of the background of the situation and had never met Jack or the Modocs" but was charged with "getting the Modocs to leave Lost River."[4] In turn, Odeneal appointed a new US Indian agent, who was also unfamiliar with the parties and conditions.

On April 3, 1872, Major Elmer Otis held a council with Captain Jack at Lost River Gap, near what is now Olene, Oregon. At the council, Major Otis presented Captain Jack with some settlers who complained about the behavior of Jack's men, and Captain Jack countered that it was the Modoc who were being abused and unjustly accused of crimes which other Indians had committed.

Although the council's results were inconclusive, Otis resolved to remove Jack’s band of Modoc to the Klamath Reservation. He needed reinforcements and recommended waiting until later in the year, when he could put the Modoc at a disadvantage.[6]

On April 12, the Commission of Indian Affairs requested the US Superintendent, T. B. Odeneal[7] to move Captain Jack and his Modoc to the reservation if practicable. He was to ensure they were protected from the Klamath.

On May 14, Odeneal sent Ivan D. Applegate and L. S. Dyer to arrange for a council with Captain Jack, which the latter refused. On July 6, 1872, the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs repeated his direction to Superintendent Odeneal to move Captain Jack and his band to the Klamath Reservation, peacefully if possible, but forcibly if necessary. Minor skirmishes occurred during the summer and early fall, but some of the settlers in California were sympathetic to the Modoc, as they had gotten along well with them before. They felt they had been mistreated.

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, reinforced by citizens from Linkville (now Klamath Falls, Oregon) and by a band of militiamen under Jump Off Joe, arrived in Jack's camp on Lost River about a mile above Emigrant Crossing (now Merril, Oregon) on November 29.

Wishing to avoid conflict, Captain Jack agreed to go to the reservation, but the situation became tense when Jackson demanded that the Modoc chief disarm. Captain Jack had never fought the Army, and was alarmed at this command, but finally agreed to put down his weapons. The rest of the Modoc warriors began to follow his lead.

Suddenly an argument erupted between the Modoc warrior Scarfaced Charley and Lieutenant Frazier A. Boutelle, of company B, 1st Cavalry, who pulled their revolvers and shot at each other, both missing. The Modoc scrambled to regain their weapons, and fought a short battle before fleeing toward the border of California. After driving the remaining Modoc from camp, Captain Jackson ordered the troops to retreat to await reinforcements. Jump Off Joe and his militia decided to press the attack against the Modoc. The casualties in this short battle included one Army soldier killed and seven wounded, and two Modoc killed and three wounded.

A small band of Modoc under the leadership of Hooker Jim retreated from the battlefield on Lost River to the Lava Beds south of Tule Lake. In attacks on November 29 and November 30, they killed 18 settlers. Learning of this, Jump Off Joe and his militia decided to pursue the main body of Modoc toward the Lava Beds.

Accounts vary regarding the first clash. One version says that the soldiers and militia had gotten drunk in Klamath Falls and arrived at the Lost River camp disorganized, and were outfought. That the militia arrived last and retreated first, with one casualty. And that the Army did not drive the Modoc away; some warriors held their ground while the women and children loaded their boats and paddled south. That Scarfaced Charley, who had good English, was foul-tempered from lack of sleep because he'd been gambling all night, and possibly drunk, too. Since there was a warrant out for his arrest on a false murder charge, he wasn't going to go quietly. The official report concealed that the operation had been badly managed, as Captain Jackson later admitted.

Fortifying the Stronghold

U.S. soldiers inspect Captain Jack's cave in the Lava Beds.

For some months, 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. The Modoc retreated there after the Battle of Lost River. Today it is called Captain Jack's Stronghold. 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 52 Modoc warriors occupied the Stronghold, Tule Lake bounded the Stronghold on the north and served as a source of water.

On December 3, Jump Off Joe and his militia reached the outskirts of the Stronghold. While reconnoitering the area around a dry creek bed, they were attacked. They attempted to take shelter in the creek bed, but were quickly overcome; and the Modoc killed all 23 men.

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, 12 miles west of the Stronghold. Troops were also stationed at Land's ranch, 10 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

On the morning of January 17, 1873, troops advanced on the Stronghold. Hindered by fog, the soldiers never saw any Modoc. Occupying excellent positions, the Modoc 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. Captain Jack's band included approximately 150 Modoc, including women and children. Of that number, there were only 52 warriors. The Modoc suffered no casualties in the fighting, as they had the advantage of terrain and local knowledge over the militia.

Peace Commission appointed

On January 25, Columbus Delano, Secretary of the Interior, appointed a Peace Commission to negotiate with Captain Jack. The Commission consisted of Alfred B. Meacham, the former superintendent for Oregon as chairman; Jesse Applegate, and Samuel Case. General Edward Canby, commander in the Pacific Northwest, was appointed to serve the Commission as counselor. Frank and Toby Riddle were appointed as interpreters.

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. He 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 return with Judge Elijah Steele of Yreka as the judge 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 Steele's opinion. The Secretary instructed Meacham to continue negotiations for peace. Judge A. M. Roseborough was added to the commission. Jesse Applegate and Samuel Case resigned and were replaced by Rev. Eleazer Thomas and L. S. Dyar.

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

L to R, standing: US Indian agent, Winema (Tobey) and her husband Frank Riddle (interpreter), with four Modoc women in front, 1873

On April 2, the commission and Captain Jack met in the lava beds midway between the Stronghold and Gillem's Camp. At this meeting Captain Jack demanded: (1) Complete pardon of all Modoc; (2) Withdrawal of all troops; and (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 Modoc guilty of killing the settlers be surrendered and tried for murder. After much discussion, the meeting broke up with no resolution.

The Modoc began to turn on Captain Jack, who still hoped for a peaceful solution. Led by Schonchin John and Hooker Jim, they put pressure on Jack to kill the peace commission. They believed that if the Americans lost their leaders, the Army would leave. They shamed Jack for his continuing negotiations by dressing him in women's clothing during council meetings. Rather than lose 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 Meacham. Accompanied by John Fairchild and Judge Roseborough, with Frank and Toby Riddle serving as interpreters, Meacham met Captain Jack at the peace tent; it was erected about one mile east of Gillem's Camp. The meeting lasted several hours. Captain Jack asked for the lava beds to be given to them as a reservation. The meeting ended with no agreement. After Meacham returned to camp, he sent a message to Captain Jack, asking that he meet the commission at the peace tent on April 8. While delivering this message, the Modoc interpreter Tobey Riddle learned of the Modoc plan to kill the peace commissioners. On her return, she warned the commissioners.

On April 8, just as the commissioners were starting for the peace tent, the signal tower on the bluff above Gillem's Camp received a message; it said that the lookout had seen five Modoc warriors at the peace tent and about 20 armed Modoc hiding among the rocks nearby. The commissioners realized that the Modoc were planning an attack and decided to stay at Gillem's. Rev. Thomas insisted on arranging a date for another meeting with Captain Jack. On April 10, the commission sent a message asking Captain Jack to meet with them at the peace tent on the following morning.

Murder at the peace tent

Boston Charley in 1873

On April 11, General Canby, Alfred B. Meacham, Rev. E. Thomas, and L. S. Dyar, with Frank and Toby Riddle as interpreters, met with Captain Jack, Boston Charley, Bogus Charley, Schonchin John, 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.

Angrily, Schonchin John demanded Hot Creek for a reservation. Captain Jack got up and walked away a few steps. The two Modoc Brancho (Barncho) and Slolux, armed with rifles, ran forward from hiding. Captain Jack turned, giving the signal to fire. His first shot killed General Canby. Reverend Thomas fell mortally wounded. Dyer and Frank Riddle escaped by running. Meacham fell seriously wounded, but Toby Riddle saved his life and interrupted warriors intending to scalp him by yelling, "The soldiers are coming!" The Modoc warriors broke off and left.

US efforts for peace ended when the Modoc killed the commissioners. Canby's Cross marks the site where Canby and Thomas died.

Second Battle of the Stronghold

The Modocs in Their Stronghold, an 1873 wood engraving

The U.S. Army prepared 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 April 16 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 Stronghold. 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 Modoc 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 begun to charge the Stronghold, the Modoc escaped through an unguarded crevice. During the fighting at the Stronghold, April 15–17, US casualties included one officer and six enlisted men killed, and thirteen enlisted men wounded. Modoc casualties were two boys, reported to have been killed when they tried to open a cannon ball and it exploded. Several Modoc women were reported to have died from sickness.

Battle of Sand Butte

Warm Spring Indian scouts in the Lava Beds with their leader, Donald McKay, center

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 they were eating lunch at the base of Sand Butte (now Hardin 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. US casualties included four officers killed and two wounded, one dying within a few days, and 13 enlisted men killed and 16 wounded.

Following the successful Modoc attack, many soldiers called for Col. Gillem to be removed. On May 2, Bvt. Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, the new commander of the Department of the Columbia, reported to relieve Gillem of command, and assume control of the army in the field.

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 man in the band. This was the first defeat of the Modoc in battle.

With the death of Ellen's Man, dissent arose 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. In return, they received amnesty for the murders of settlers at Tule Lake, Canby and Thomas.

Captain Jack and the last of his band were finally captured in Langell's valley, June 4.

After the war

General Davis prepared to execute Captain Jack and his leaders, but the War Department ordered the Modoc to be held for trial. The Army took Captain Jack and his band as prisoners of war to Fort Klamath, where they arrived July 4.

Captain Jack, Schonchin John, Black Jim, Boston Charley, Brancho (Barncho) and Slolux were tried by a military court for the murders of Canby and Thomas, and attacks on Meacham and others. The six Modoc were convicted, and sentenced to death on July 8.

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

On October 3, 1873, Captain Jack and his three lead warriors 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 Quapaw Agency in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In 1909, after Oklahoma had become a state, members of the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma were offered the chance to return to the Klamath Reservation. Twenty-nine people returned to Oregon; the Modoc of Oregon and their descendants became part of the Klamath Tribes Confederation.

The historian Robert Utley believes that the Modoc War and the Great Sioux War a few years later, undermined public confidence in President Grant's peace policy.[8] There was renewed public sentiment to use force against the American Indians to suppress them.

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 commanded 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.

During the Modoc War, the Modoc had no more than 53 warriors engaged in the fighting.

The casualty lists for the Modoc War are as follows:

Rank Killed Wounded
Officers (U.S.A.) 7 4
Enlisted Men 48 42
Civilians 16 1
Indian Scouts 2 0
TOTALS 73 47

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

The Modoc War is estimated to have cost the United States over $400,000; 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.

Commemorative Plaque for Edward Canby.

Battlefields of the Modoc War are among the outstanding features of the Lava Beds National Monument. These include Captain Jack's Stronghold, where numerous cracks, ridges, and knobs were used by the Modoc to defend their positions. In addition there are numerous Modoc fortified outposts, smoke-stained caves occupied by the Modoc during the months of the war, corrals in for their cattle and horses, and a war-dance ground and council area. Around the Stronghold are numerous low stone fortifications built by troops advancing on the Stronghold.

After the Modoc left the Stronghold, US troops built fortifications to protect against their possible return. The Thomas-Wright battlefield, near Hardin Butte, is a feature of the monument; as is the site of Gillem's camp, the former military cemetery, Hospital Rock, and Canby's Cross. The National Park Service provides self-guided trail maps for two walking tours of the battle field.


The creek where Jump Off Joe and his men were killed was renamed in his honor. A small commemorative plaque was placed there, but it was stolen August 7, 1924 and never replaced.

Canby's memorial plaque and cross

A memorial plaque and a reproduction of Canby's Cross have been set up at Lava Beds National Monument outside of Tulelake. The names of all the fallen (both Modoc and US Army) are listed at Gillem's Camp; another historical marker is at the Lave Beds.

Over the years, various individuals and groups have made efforts to memorialize the death of General E.R.S. Canby, the only general to be killed in the Indian Wars. The wooden cross is a replica of an original erected by a U.S. soldier in 1882, nine years after the event. Some of the same troops whom Canby had commanded at the Lava Beds were fighting other Indian Wars, and public interest ran high.

See also


  1. ^ Beck, Warren A. and Ynez D. Hasse. The Modoc War, 1874-1876. California State Military Museum. (10 Feb 2008)
  2. ^ a b c Riddle, Jeff C., The Indian History of the Modoc War, pages 28-30, 1914; reprinted Orion Press, 1991.
  3. ^ "Modoc War", California State Military Museum
  4. ^ a b c [ Keith A. Murray, The Modocs and Their War, 1965; reprint, University of Oklahoma Press, 1984, p. 71
  5. ^ Don C. Fisher and John E. Doerr, Jr., "Outline of Events in the History of the Modoc War", Nature Notes From Crater Lake, Volume 10, No. 2 - July 1937, Crater Lake Institute, accessed 1 November 2011
  6. ^ Reports of the Otis Conference, 3 April 1873; and Otis to Odeneal, 11 April 1872. ([1]
  7. ^ Don C. Fisher and John E. Doerr, Jr., "Outline of Events in the History of the Modoc War", Nature Notes From Crater Lake, Volume 10, No. 2 - July 1937, Crater Lake Institute, accessed 1 November 2011
  8. ^ Robert Marshall Utley, Frontier regulars: the United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891‎ (1984) p. 206 online


  • 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.

Further reading


  • Johnston, Terry C. Devil's Backbone: The Modoc War, 1872-3, New York: Macmillan, 1991
  • Riddle, Paxton. Lost River, Berkley Trade Publications, 1999

External links

External images
Map of the campaigns during the Modoc War

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