Published on October 26, 2010 by John
The Modoc occupied ancestral territory along what is now the southern Oregon and northern California border, in the vicinity of Modoc Lake, Little Klamath Lake, Clear Lake, Goose Lake, Tule Lake, and Lost River. Their homeland was just south of that of the KLAMATH, who spoke a similar dialect of the Penutian language, sometimes referred to as the Lutuamian language isolate. The Klamath called them Mo-adok for “southerners”; the modern pronunciation is MO-dock. Both the Modoc and Klamath are thought of as tribes of the Plateau Culture Area, like their more northern Penutian kin, with whom they often traded. PLATEAU INDIANS were seminomadic hunter-gatherers. Their migrations revolved around the seasonal availability of food. Salmon runs were an important time of year.
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When these ocean ﬁsh swim upriver to lay their eggs, they make for an easy catch. So the houses of the migratory peoples of the Columbia Plateau included not only permanent, semi-underground earth lodges, but also temporary mat-covered tents. Although their way of life was similar to that of peoples to their north, the Modoc are often discussed historically with CALIFORNIA INDIANS living south of them because of the Modoc War, one of the few Indian wars to occur within the boundaries of the state of California. Because California Indians generally tolerated mistreatment by whites without resorting to large-scale violence, and because the federal government under the post–Civil War administration of President Ulysses Grant had a Peace Policy toward Native Americans at the time, the Modoc uprising of 1872 proved shocking to much of the nation.
The Modoc War
The causes of the Modoc War dated back to 1864. At that time, the Modoc and Klamath signed away most of their territory and retired to the Klamath Reservation in Oregon, northeast of Upper Klamath Lake. But the Modoc never felt content among the Klamath. There was not enough food for both tribes. Many people became sick. Tensions mounted among respective tribal members over petty issues. The Modoc longed for a separate home and asked for their own reservation across the California border, along the Lost River north of Tule Lake. The federal and California governments turned down the tribe’s request.
A group of Indians under a young leader named Kintpuash, nicknamed Captain Jack by whites, took matters into their own hands. In 1870, they set out for their longed-for homeland and reestablished a village in the Lost Valley. For a time, ofﬁcials ignored their move. But as non-Indian settlement in northern California increased, so did complaints about the Modoc presence. The federal government ordered out troops. In November 1872, Captain James Jackson set out from Fort Klamath with instructions to bring back the renegades. When Jackson announced his intentions to the Modoc, a ﬁght broke out in the village. One Modoc and one soldier died in the shooting. Captain Jack and his followers escaped to Tule Lake, then worked their way farther south to what the Indians called the “Land of Burnt Out Fires.” This was a volcanic highland formed by hardened lava, a rugged and desolate place that made for natural fortiﬁcations. Meanwhile, a party of Modoc under Hooker Jim, who had been away from the village, eluded a posse of civilians trying to round them up. This group carried out several attacks on ranchers in the region, killing 15. Then they too ﬂed to the lava beds. Captain Jack had hoped that perhaps peace negotiations might be possible. On learning of Hooker Jim’s actions, however, he assumed war was inevitable. California and Oregon regulars and volunteers under Lieutenant Colonel Frank Wheaton massed near the lava beds. The attack came in January 1873. While the bluecoat infantry advanced, the artillery ﬁred rounds into the dense fog enveloping the “Land of Burnt Out Fires”. But the shells fell closer to the advancing infantry than to the Indians. And the Modoc warriors, moving along lava trenches with sagebrush in their hair as camouﬂage, successfully counterattacked. The soldiers, suffering many casualties at the hands of Modoc sharpshooters, retreated.
The third phase of the war began. General Edward Canby, the military commander of the entire Northwest District, decided to lead the campaign personally. He built up a force of about 1,000 men. To his credit, he also set a peace plan in motion. With the help of Captain Jack’s cousin Winema, who was married to a white man, he arranged for negotiations with the Indians. President Grant’s peace commissioners, Alfred Meachem and Reverend Eleasar Thomas, represented the government along with General Canby. Captain Jack thought that peace might still be possible. But he refused to turn over Hooker Jim and the militants who had killed the ranchers. A medicine man named Curly Headed Doctor convinced Captain Jack that if he killed the leaders of the army, the troops would be powerless to act. Captain Jack and his best friends among the warriors agreed to a plan of treachery. At a parley on April 11, Captain Jack drew a hidden revolver and shot and killed General Canby. Boston Charley killed Reverend Eleasar Thomas. Then the warriors escaped.
Now there would be no mercy for the Modoc. Any hope for their own reservation had ended. Some outraged whites even called for their complete extermination. The new commander in the ﬁeld, Colonel Alvan Gillem, launched an attack that was again repulsed. The Modoc managed to sneak away to another lava formation farther south. A war party under Scarfaced Charley led an ambush on one army patrol in a hollow. Twenty ﬁve soldiers, including all ﬁve ofﬁcers, died in that one sided ﬁght.
Yet the Modoc rebellion was winding down. The Modoc lacked food and water and were arguing among themselves. A new commander, General Jeff Davis, organized a relentless pursuit of the now-scattered small bands. Hooker Jim turned himself in and, bargaining for his own life, betrayed Captain Jack, who had faithfully protected him. He led the troops to Captain Jack’s hideout. Cornered in a cave, Captain Jack and his friends—Boston Charley, Black Jim, and Schonchin John—surrendered. At the court-martial, Hooker Jim served as a witness against the others. Captain Jack and his friends were sentenced to hang. The execution took place on October 3, 1873. On the night after the hanging, grave robbers dug up Captain Jack’s body, embalmed it, and displayed it in a carnival that toured eastern cities. Surviving Modoc were sent to live among the QUAPAW in the Indian Territory. In 1909, 51 Modoc were allowed to return to the Klamath Reservation. Today, Modoc descendants live in both places. The Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma centered in Miami gained federal recognition in 1978 and approval of their constitution in 1991. Tribal members are working to preserve language, oral traditions, and ceremonies and pass them to their young people.
Source: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES by CARL WALDMAN