The Modoc War, 1872-73



From the late 1860s there was an uneasy peace until the outbreak in 1872 of the Modoc War, one of the smallest, and certainly one of the oddest, campaigns the US Army ever had to fight. As usual, problems arose from political pressure exerted by land-hungry settlers: in this instance, they wanted the fertile lands of the Modoc tribe of northern California. As a result, the Modocs were ordered from their ancestral lands to a reservation in southern Oregon, which they were to share with the more numerous Klamath tribe.

The Modocs and Klamath had a longstanding antipathy to each other, and placing the two tribes an a single reservation inevitably produced friction. In 1872, a small number of Modocs left the reservation under the leadership of a man known as Captain Jack, and returned to their traditional homeland in the Lost River country of northern California. In November, 1872, the army attempted to take the Modocs back to the reservation. The local military unit was a detachment of the 1st Cavalry at Fort Klamath under Major John Green, who sent a party under Captain James Jackson to roundup the Modocs. The Modocs resisted and, during the fighting, Captain Jack escaped with a small number of warriors and their families. They headed for a natural fortress, the lava beds south of Tule Lake that offered the possibility of a sustained defence. Here, Captain Jack’s band was joined by dissidents from another Modoc settlement. They raised his strength to between 50 and 70 warriors, as well as some 150 women and children.

Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack (c.1837 – October 3, 1873)

Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack (c.1837 – October 3, 1873)

Known to the Indians as the “Land of the Burnt Out Fires,” the lava beds are an extraordinary geological feature about eight miles long and four miles wide. They offered Captain Jack and his followers exceptional possibilities for a defensive stand. The first efforts to extract the Modocs were made by civilian posses. They were unsuccessful, but they provided time for the army to concentrate a force of 400 men from the 1st Cavalry, 21st Infantry, and three militia companies (two from Oregon and one from California) under Brigadier General F. Wheaton. There were many skirmishes between the Modocs and the army; the following outline of the most important actions reveals the skill of the Indians in this type of fighting.

The Battle of the Lava Beds

At dawn on January 17, 1873, the army began trying to dislodge the Modocs. The confident soldiers exclaimed that they would have “Modoc steak” for breakfast. The soldiers fought all day in the so-called Battle of the Lava Beds, but their fight was against the terrain and not against the Modocs, whom they rarely saw. Yet, throughout the day, the Modocs fired on the soldiers from concealed positions. When the exhausted Americans pulled back at nightfall, they had suffered nine dead and 30 wounded, most of them in Major Mason’s battalion of regular infantry.

Modoc Indians at the Lava Beds

Modoc Indians at the Lava Beds

Wheaton reported that at least 1,000 men would be needed. While extra men were sent forward under Colonel Alvan Cullem Gillem of the 1st Cavalry, Wheaton was replaced by Brigadier General Edward Richard Sprigg Canby, who was commanding the Department of Columbia. Canby decided to try negotiation, but on April 11, 1873, the army’s peace commissioners, including Canby, were treacherously killed during the talks. At the same time, a sneak attack was launched against the headquarters of the army detachment, but failed. The Modocs’ intention had been to kill all senior army and civilian personnel, in the belief that the soldiers would then withdraw and leave the Modocs alone. The high command now recognized that Wheaton’s earlier demand for 1,000 men and light artillery was justified, and a small but methodical campaign to reduce the Modoc stronghold began. On April 15, Gillem launched a major effort. It reflected the Battle of the Lava Beds in everything, except that the soldiers were now prepared for the terrain and the tactics of the Modocs. Slowly, the soldiers fought their way forward with the increasingly effective support of some newly arrived mortars. The weapons soon found the range, and shells began landing in the main Modoc stronghold. One of the shells did not explode on impact, and as one of the Indians tried to draw the fuse with his teeth, the device finally detonated, killing several of the inquisitive Indians.

Brigadier General Edward Richard Sprigg Canby

Brigadier General Edward Richard Sprigg Canby

Over a period of three days, the army closed in on Captain Jack’s stronghold, which had been cut off from the water of Tule Lake since the beginning of the attack. Finally, on April 17, the soldiers stormed over the last ridges into the Modoc camp, only to find it deserted: the Modocs had made a getaway through an underground passage. The battle had cost eight soldiers killed and 17 wounded, against 11 Modoc dead. The surviving members of Captain Jack’s band had escaped east to another area of ravines in the lava beds. About 85 men, including 15 Warm Springs Indian scouts, were detached on April 21 under Captain Evan Thomas to find the escapees, but were ordered not to engage them. Most of the men were from the 12th Infantry and 4th Artillery; by now, they had a healthy respect for the tactical skills of the Modoc. Even so, the detachment was ambushed by the Modocs during a meal halt. With fire from hidden marksmen pouring into their position, some of the men let their respect for the Modocs’ skills turn to fear, and they fled back to the main camp. The result was a major reverse for the army, for the 85-man detachment lost 22 killed and 18 wounded. All six of the officers were hit; five died, and only Acting Assistant Surgeon B.C. Semig survived despite two grievous wounds. It was later discovered that the ambush party numbered only 21 men, of whom not one was wounded.

A Scientifically Planned Siege

Colonel Jefferson Columbus Davis took command of the task of crushing the Modoc resistance, and he decided to reinstate Wheaton. After reorganizing his forces and bringing up supplies, Davis launched a scientifically planned campaign to trap the Modocs: to occupy the ridges of the lava beds, so tightening the noose around Captain Jack’s band. The Modocs, meanwhile, had divided into two parties with different objectives: one under Captain Jack and Hooker Jim wanted to fight, the other wanted to escape. Under Davis’s siege, Captain Jack’s party was soon in dire straits. It was practically surrounded, had been forced to move away from its water supply, and was fast running out of food and ammunition. Captain Jack decided that he and his men had to escape to the east. They intended to pass around Tule Lake to reach Oregon. On May 10, a break-out was launched by Captain Jack and 33 Modocs, but they ran into a detachment of the 4th Cavalry and 4th Artillery near Sorass Lake.

Chief Scarface Charley. Modoc. 1873. Photo by Louis Herman Heller. Source - Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Chief Scarface Charley. Modoc. 1873. Photo by Louis Herman Heller. Source – Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

The Indians managed to stampede the soldiers’ horses, but Captain H.C. Hasbrouck rallied his men and repulsed the Modocs. The soldiers suffered two killed and seven wounded to one Modoc killed, but the action was the army’s first success against the Modocs, who lost 24 pack animals carrying most of their ammunition. The divisions within the Modocs now came to a head, and the survivors divided into two groups to make their separate ways north. The Indians were now in the open, and the advantage swayed to the army. A vigorous pursuit was immediately organized, and on May 22 the less warlike party of about 100 Indians was captured. Davis persuaded some of the captured Modocs to tell him Captain Jack’s intentions, and he maintained a close pursuit and gradually captured small groups of the fleeing warriors.

Captain Jack Pays the Ultimate Penalty

Captain Jack was finally seized at Willow Creek Canyon on June 1. Davis planned to hang him immediately but orders from Washingtort halted his summary execution. Six warriors were tried and sentenced to death, though two had their sentences reduced to life imprisonment. Captain. Jack and the other three were hanged on October 3 at Fort Klamath; the others were transferred to a reservation at Baxter Springs, Kansas. The Modoc War had been small, but costly. It should have emphasized again the scale of the problems created when tribes were uprooted from their ancestral lands. Yet, it failed to halt settlement, with the inevitable result: another conflict in the northwest in 1877.

A Modoc Warrior on the Warpath, 1873

A Modoc Warrior on the Warpath, 1873

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