California’s ‘Forgotten War’ Virtually Destroyed a 10,000-Year-Old Culture
California’s Modoc War of 130 years ago doesn’t rank among such watershed Native American battles as Wounded Knee, Little Bighorn or the Sand Creek massacre. But it was the only major Indian war ever fought in the state; the only Indian war in which a U.S. general was shot and killed; and a sad chapter in the saga of how the West was won, for it virtually destroyed the 10,000-year-old Modoc civilization.
In a remote corner of northeastern California, where a vast network of cave-riddled lava beds linked by natural trenches make up Lava Beds National Monument, a small band of Modocs held off the U.S. Army in 1872 and 1873 in what is known as the Forgotten War.
It was a war of five major battles and several skirmishes, all waged about 30 miles south of the Siskiyou County town of Tulelake. Against overwhelming odds, 52 warriors held nearly 1,000 soldiers at bay for six months.
Before the flood of white trappers and settlers arrived in the late 1820s, the Modocs had thrived for centuries in domed dwellings mostly along the shores of Tule Lake and Lost River. Except for occasional skirmishes with other native peoples, life was simple. But then settlers staked claims to river territory; prospectors’ operations hurt the salmon runs; and wagon trains frightened away wild game, on which the Modocs depended for food.
The Modocs retaliated by rustling cattle, kidnapping two teenage girls and attacking wagon trains. In retaliation, a rancher-turned-vigilante named Ben Wright led a massacre of 41 Modocs in 1852. He was later killed by an Indian woman whom he had stripped naked and whipped in public. It’s said she cut out his heart and ate it in revenge.
The two sides remained trapped in a cycle of attack and retaliation until 1864, when they signed a peace treaty. The government refused to grant the Modocs title to any of their homeland and instead forced the tribe of several hundred people to move to an Oregon reservation alongside Klamaths and Paiutes, their longtime foes.
The Modocs initially agreed to the unwelcome arrangement, but it didn’t last. Led by a chief known as Kintpuash or Kientpoos -- or “Captain Jack” to the Army -- about 150 Modocs bolted the reservation after dishonest government agents withheld their food and supplies. The Indians headed home and resettled on their ancestral land on the Lost River, alongside settlers.
Over the next several years, the settlers made increasing demands on the government to remove the Modocs, who were helping themselves to the settlers’ cattle because fishing was poor and the harsh winters diminished their food supply.
In November 1872, the cavalry arrived several hundred strong to force the Modocs back to the reservation. When one Indian refused to give up his rifle, a face-off ensued and shots were fired on both sides. When the exchanges stopped, a soldier and three Indians, including a woman and her child, lay dead on the frozen ground. Another Indian was wounded, as were seven soldiers.
The soldiers retaliated by burning the village. More than 150 Modocs fled through ranchlands, where they killed several men but left women and children unharmed.
They reached a natural rock formation in the lava beds that soon became known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold. It was ideal for defense, with a perfect view of approaching soldiers.
“I do not believe that a hundred thousand men in a hundred thousand years could construct such fortifications,” an unidentified federal officer remarked.
The Army pitched tents a few miles from the stronghold, near Tule Lake. Soon, the soldiers advanced into the lava beds, which looked relatively flat and easy to negotiate. What the troops didn’t know was that the rugged, inhospitable terrain was full of deep fissures and sharp rocks; the landscape alone took a toll on the force.
On Jan. 17, 1873, more than six weeks after the battle began, soldiers poured heavy but ineffective fire from rifles and howitzers into the impenetrable stronghold. Meanwhile, the Modocs took careful aim, killing nine soldiers and wounding 28. When the Army fell back, the Modocs gathered guns and ammunition from the fallen men.
Weeks later, Kintpuash agreed to an interview with a reporter from the New York Herald, giving him a long list of complaints going back 20 years and defending his tribe’s conduct.
Soon newspapers around the country sympathized with the Modocs. A playwright packed a Manhattan theater with his melodrama “Captain Jack and the Modoc War,” which portrayed Kintpuash as the hero.
He “endures the most frightful oppression,” then “butchers promiscuously, with a fervent curse on the pale faces,” as one critic put it.
President Grant ordered a peace treaty, and Brig. Gen. Edward Canby, 56, a West Pointer who was experienced in fighting Indians, was brought in to broker an agreement. After weeks of stalemate, during which he sent gifts ranging from barrels of biscuits to bolts of cloth, Canby persuaded Kintpuash to leave his stronghold for peace talks.
Kintpuash proposed that he travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with Grant and secure 2,000 acres of the Modocs’ homeland near Lost River.
Canby brushed this aside as naive and insisted that the 150 Modocs, including women and children, return to the Oregon reservation. Feeling defeated, wanting peace and knowing the hardships endured by his people in the lava caves, Kintpuash consulted with his warriors.
A Modoc shaman named Curley Headed Doctor opposed surrender and denounced Kintpuash for weak leadership and unquestioning deference to white authority. The shaman called the chief a “fish-hearted woman,” while men wrestled Kintpuash to the ground and threw a woman’s shawl and hat over his head. Kintpuash finally yielded and accepted his tribe’s plan to kill Canby.
On Good Friday, April 11, 1873, Kintpuash and six Modoc lieutenants met Canby and three other peace commissioners halfway between the Army camp and the Modoc stronghold. The Modocs were armed, violating the terms of the meeting; neither Canby nor his companions were.
When the general again refused the Modocs’ demands, Kintpuash shot Canby in the head, killing him. In the barrage that followed, Methodist minister Eleasar Thomas was hit in the head and killed, and Supt. of Indian Affairs Alfred B. Meacham was shot four times. Government Indian agent L.S. Dyar escaped to summon help. But before the Modocs fled, they slashed the dead Canby’s throat and partly scalped Meacham, who nevertheless survived.
Today, a memorial cross stands on the site.
While the heretofore sympathetic nation recoiled in outrage, most of the 150 Modocs escaped the stronghold through trenches and tunnels. The Modocs ambushed a 60-man Army patrol at nearby Hardin Butte, killing 36 and wounding 19.
After several weeks on the lam, many warriors had surrendered to the Army by late May. A pair of settlers killed at least four Modocs in an ambush as the Indians were being taken by wagon to an Army post. In exchange for amnesty, a few Modocs offered to help the Army capture Kintpuash and the other ringleaders.
On June 1, troops surrounded the Indian camp. Exhausted and hungry, more than two dozen warriors eventually put down their arms. The very group of Modocs that had incited Kintpuash to carry out the violent plan ended up betraying him.
A peace commissioner called the affair “an expensive blunder.” The battle cost the federal government almost $500,000 and nearly 60 soldiers’ lives. Altogether, almost 100 people died, including 16 civilians, 15 Modoc warriors and several Indian women and children.
After the war, the remaining band of 153 Modocs was banned from California forever. The government exiled them by train to the Quapaw Indian Agency in Oklahoma and insisted that they no longer speak the Modoc language or practice their culture. It would take more than three decades before the government allowed Modocs to return to the Klamath reservation in Oregon.
Four months after their capture, two Modocs were convicted of murder and got life terms at Alcatraz. Kintpuash and his lieutenants -- John Schonchin, Boston Charley and Black Jim -- were convicted of murder and hanged at Ft. Klamath.
The warriors’ heads were cut off and shipped in alcohol to the Army Medical Museum for “scientific investigation.”
“This is vengeance, indeed,” screamed the San Francisco Chronicle. “Captain Jack said that he would like to meet the Great White Chief in Washington face to face. The government evidently intends that his dying wish shall be respected.”
The Army Medical Museum’s collection was transferred to the Smithsonian at the turn of the last century, and the skulls were eventually turned over to the Indian community.
In 1988, descendants of the Modocs, soldiers and settlers gathered to resolve any bitter feelings as the National Park Service dedicated a plaque at Gillem’s Camp Cemetery. It lists nearly 100 names, everyone who died in the Modoc War.
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