Captain Jack’s Stronghold

Lava Beds National Monument . . .

The trail in Captain Jack's Stronghold

The trail follows the path Indian warriors would have used to move quickly from one firing position to the next.

Captain Jack, Schonchin John and their band of Modoc Indians were attacked by the U.S. Army and local civilians at their winter village on the Lost River, just north of Tule Lake, California on November 29, 1872.  Some of the Modocs escaped the attack by crossing the lake in canoes while others  traveled around the east side of the lake, killing 14 settlers along the way.   One, maybe two,  Modoc warriors were killed and another wounded during the battle.  Three children were also believed to have died that day.   An ill Modoc woman died when the army burned the village.    Two soldiers were killed and six were wounded.  The Modocs regrouped the next day in the lava beds at a location that came to be known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold.  From this position fewer than 60 Modoc Indian Warriors held off a  regular U.S. Army contingent, numbering as high as 600 men, into May of 1873. Today, the Stronghold is within Lava Beds National Monument.  It is an outstanding place to explore the Indian perspective of the last Indian war in the U.S. and the only Indian war fought in California. The Park Service has created a double loop trail system. They call the inner loop the short trail (0.5 miles) and the outer loop the long trail (1.5 miles). You can walk most of the short trail and the entire long trail by entering the wide trail at the parking lot and following it until it reaches the fork to the right. There is a well marked junction where you can turn right again to return to the parking lot or turn left to continue around the outer perimeter. Be sure to pick up the 25 cent trail guide near the parking lot.

The Defenses

Natural Trench in Captain Jack's StrongholdThe stronghold includes a network of trenches and rock outcrops that were formed by flowing lava. The result is a nearly impenetrable fortress that the Indians improved by adding rock walls in the few poorly protected sectors. The Indians could quickly move from one firing position to the next without being seen while keeping the approaching army in full view.  In one spot, shown below, an Indian could walk inside the stronghold without being seen by the army, drop though a small hole and come up behind a firing position that required only a few rocks for reinforcement.  By placing his rifle between the small rocks he could shoot with no risk of being hit by army bullets – or of even being seen.  One army trooper complained that he had been shot twice in one day without ever  seeing an Indian. Today, you can follow the trails and walk among these defensive positions to see exactly what the Indians saw.  When we visited, the Park Service had roped off much of the area in an attempt to keep people on the trail while vegetation recovered from a fire.  As you can see in the photos there was a lot of grass, filled with seeds, at the time of our visit in 2010.  We expected the ropes to be gone by 2011, however they remained in 2012 and seem to have become a permanent fixture. The Park Service has also added some juniper logs along the trail in an apparently vain attempt to keep people on the trail.  These attempts at traffic control detract from the appearance of the area without having much effect upon trail users, so I hope they will eventually be removed. Even so,  there are many areas where you can get off the trail among the trenches to get a great feel for the war from the Indian point of view.  Be sure to watch for rattlesnakes!

Captain Jack's Stronghold Firing Position

Firing positions like this one provided the key defense perimeter. Notice the low stack of rocks to enhance what was already a superior natural position. This view shows exactly how exposed any approaching army force was.

The army – with 175 regulars, 104 volunteers and 20 Klamath Indian scouts -  began its first attack on the stronghold in the morning fog on January 17, 1873.  The stronghold appeared to be a fairly flat piece of ground from the army vantage points along the shore of Tule Lake.  They quickly found that it wasn’t flat at all.  A ravine prevented a group of Oregon volunteers from advancing from the north.  A ‘chasm’ stopped the army’s advance from the west.  A rush from the east was stopped by a steep gorge.  The army’s howitzers couldn’t be used for fear of hitting their own men.  The battle continued all day, but for much of that time the soldiers were pinned to the ground by accurate fire from the Indians.  They were only able to escape after dark.  At the end of the day,  no one had seen a single Modoc Indian.  Twelve soldiers died and 25 were wounded while the Modocs suffered no casualties.  After routing the army, the Indians collected rifles and a great deal of ammunition along with various field equipment left by the retreating troops.

Housing

Schonchin John's Cave

Schonchin John's Cave

During the war more than 100 Modoc women and children lived in the stronghold with the warriors.  They were protected in small caves scattered around the stronghold.  The cave to the left housed Schonchin John and his family.  You can enter the caves to get a feel for how life there might have been.  It was winter and it was cold, however the caves provided excellent protection from the elements.  Today, the floors of all the caves are covered with scattered rocks, these may have been used to close parts of the entry ways for further protection.  Fuel was very limited and generally used only for cooking, thus there was rarely supplemental heat for the caves.  It was a difficult time.

Food and Water

Natural Corral

This natural corral held captured cattle.

The water level of Tule Lake in 1873 was above what is now the parking lot.  It was a short walk from the safety of the stronghold to get water for the residents of the stronghold.  The Park Service has placed a sign at this point, at the beginning of the trail.  There aren’t many animals around this area in the winter, but the Modoc’s had captured a good supply of cattle from ranches to the south.  They housed these animals in a natural corral, pictured at the right.  To this day, bones of the cattle can be found scattered among the rocks.  Many of the larger bones were split open by the Modocs, so they could eat the nutritious marrow.  The Indian’s also attacked army supply wagons to supplement their provisions.  This access to meat and especially the access to water were critical to the ability of the Modoc’s to stay at the stronghold.

Escape

Their success in the first battle put the Modoc’s in a strong position.  Rather than risk another defeat, President Grant authorized peace negotiations.  After Captain Jack had negotiated his surrender, but failed to follow through,  the army began moving its units to positions closer to the stronghold.  Gillam’s Camp was one of those positions.  After a couple of ineffective peace discussions, interpreters Frank and Toby Riddle (with the Indian name of Winema) warned the peace commission that the Modoc’s were planning an attack at an upcoming meeting.  On April 11,  a group consisting of General Canby, Dr.Thomas, Indian Agent Dyar, A.B. Meacham and the Riddle’s met with Captain Jack, Schonchin John, Ellen’s Man, Hooker Jim, Black Jim, Bogus Charley and Boston Charley.  At this meeting the armed Indian’s killed Canby and Thomas and seriously wounded Meacham.  Dyar and the Riddle’s were unhurt.  The site of this action is still marked with Canby’s Cross.  At the same time, the Indians attacked at Hospital Rock.

Canby's Cross

Canby's Cross

National sympathy for the Modoc’s immediately evaporated and their future was sealed.   On April 15, the troops attacked again and moved close to the stronghold, but were unable to surround it. The troops spent the night behind rock walls they had quickly erected.  Some of these walls can still be seen.  The army had found that its howitzers were ineffective since they were unable to reach a trajectory that would get shells into the stronghold.  They shifted to mortars and kept up a bombardment of the stronghold.  On April 16, the army regrouped and was able to cut off the Modoc’s water supply at the north end of the stronghold.  Lacking water and under constant bombardment,  the Indian’s decided to withdraw from the stronghold.  That night the women, children and most of the warriors withdrew across the Schonchin Lava Flow toward the mountains leaving only a few snipers to slow the army.  The battle left six troopers dead and 17 wounded.  The Indians lost three men.  The army captured two old women and an old man and later killed another old woman. The long trail leads along the south side of the stronghold where one can see the ravine the Indian’s used in their escape and the plain across which they moved in the darkness of the night.  If you’d like to be more adventuresome, you can trace the Modoc’s escape through the lava flow to a point about four miles south from which they returned to aggravate the army and get water from Tule Lake (there is no trail).  If you’d like to pursue the adventure even farther,  we recommend Modoc War – It’s Miltary History & Topography by Erwin N. Thompson.

Modoc Escape Route

After the Modoc's evacuated the stronghold and headed south, the army feared they might try to return. The troopers built several fortifications, like this one, to prevent that from happening. The Modocs escaped across the flat plain to the right in this photo.

Rating

This location is clearly a 10 for history.  The Park Service provides most of the historical information in the trail guide that is available near the parking area.  There is one interpretive panel near the parking lot, but the stronghold itself remains much the same as it was in 1873.  It’s also a pretty good adventure.  Not so much the Park’s trail system, but for the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the army over incredibly rough terrain and to follow the Modoc retreat into Schonchin Lava Flow at night.   The scenery is expansive with mountains in the far distance and details of the lava flows in the foreground, but it lacks water and trees.  It’s also a great place for kids.  They can get off the trail into several caves, climb on the rocks and scramble along the passageways in the footsteps of the Indians. There is some variety in the various viewpoints, the caves and the trail, but it is basically a hiking experience.  Overall we gave Captain Jack’s Stronghold a rating of 7.0.  If you’ve been there,  please leave your impressions using the comment section below.

Captain Jack's Cave

Captain Jack's Cave

Credits

The words, photos and video presented here are by Jerry Haugen, Pathfinder, and are ©2010 Global Creations LLC, all rights reserved.  Information for this article was derived from Erwin R. Thompson’s book Modoc War – Its Military History & Topography and from Park Service materials.

Captain Jack's Cave and the Trail

Captain Jack's Cave and the Trail (note the ropes mentioned above)

20 Responses to “Captain Jack’s Stronghold”

  1. Reece says:

    Captain Jack was a fierce leader, as well I am. I’m a Klamath River Indian trying to make it in this white world. I want to do anything in my power to help my suffering people. I will hunt for them. I will feed them. I will die for them. If only the white people would know how much they effected my people!

  2. Mike says:

    It’s not a white world..It’s a world where the weak are prayed on and die off, and the strong get smarter and flourish.. Don’t blame the whites for effecting your people, it was purely ignorance that killed off most native americans and the fact that the Klamath River Indians helped in the defeat of the Modoc’s proves that. And you are still here wich proves that you and your tribe are smart enough to survive this “white” world. Take some time to think about how you just relayed your opinion..through the internet from a computer… white people think of everything..

  3. robert says:

    Could be a great story,however if you can’t get through the first sentence without bungling the facts maybe you should go back to the 4th grade. the name was schonchin john. And yes 35 years ago,when they taught local and world history,THAT WAS COMMON KNOWLEDGE FOR A FOURTH GRADER!!!!

  4. Pathfinder says:

    Thanks Robert, you are absolutely correct. The name is Schonchin John (or John Schonchin). The article has been corrected. I apologize for the typo. If you find anything else that should be corrected, please leave another comment.

  5. robert says:

    Thank you pathfinder. I re-read your article and am impressed at your “to the point” information. It is my understanding that Gen. Canby was the only General to be killed in action during the Indian wars as Custer’s rank was awarded posthumously. Which in my opinion(that really doesn’t matter to anyone but me) makes this area not only historical, but quite spiritual.The midnight sky is magical.

  6. Terry Butler says:

    Reece and Mike! You’re both right and you’re both wrong.
    What you need to do is stop arguing over the past and learn to respect each other’s cultures, something both peoples were unable to do in the era of the Indian wars.
    Personally, I can relate to Reece’s point better than Mike’s, and this is based on a lifelong fascination with native American culture.
    Mike, there is no doubt that the Natives were willfully near-exterminated by the Europeans. Reece, there is no doubt that natives committed atrocities upon innocent settlers. This is what happens all over the planet when one dominant culture overwhelms another.
    For instance, the Modocs used to raid into Achumawi territory for slaves long before the Europeans ever arrived in what is now N.E. California. In my own case, I was raised in an Irish household that still harbored a grudge against the British for crimes committed against ancestors gone from earth for decades!
    But honestly Mike, you must know that what happened to Native Americans on this continent is still ongoing. Visit Rosebud S.D., or Browning, Montana or Gallup N. M. and you’ll see the devastating poverty and hopelessness that still pervades the culture of once free roaming and perfectly adapted peoples.
    Conditions in those “capitals” of the First Peoples are as dire as any in the urban ghettos of NY, Chicago and LA, and are even more hidden because of their rural nature.
    Ask yourself why this is; why there is still no respect for Native culture, why Natives lag behind suburban white kids in every category except drug and alcohol abuse. If “white people think of everything” why can’t we solve this cultural devastation? Please don’t bring in Religion, Mike, please don’t talk of “motivation” or of “laziness”. Don’t perpetuate the myth of racial superiority any longer. Think instead of the psychology of being a foreigner and a refugee from genocide in your own land. Think of yourself as a teenager growing up on the rez and trying to figure out how to get out of there and make the life you see on TV for yourself. Read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and don’t fight its message. Evolve.
    Reece, stop letting hatred and sorrow bring you down. Take your pride in your culture and let it fill your heart and your very being without the cancer of anger. Let the energy of your heritage point you in healing ways. Read “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn and learn from it that white and black and brown and Asian people have had to struggle against a corrupt system just as you have. Join that culture, not the one you scorn as “white”, which is your shared oppressor. Evolve.
    I hope you both have read this far. Peace Love Compassion
    Terry Butler

  7. Pathfinder says:

    Reece, Mike and Terry,

    Thanks for your comments. They illustrate the conflicting feelings people have when visiting this place and highlight the way an individual’s world view can affect their interpretation of what they see. The illustration is complete, so there will be no further comments along these lines.

    If you have visited Captain Jack’s Stronghold and would like to express your impressions of the place, please do so here. If you would like to discuss your view of the world, please do so elsewhere.

    Thanks!

    -Jerry-

  8. ken says:

    I have been looking forward to going her for a few years. How is the hike on children? Would love to take my daughter just not sure how much she would enjoy it , she isnt much for hikeing much more than to the car for her ipod.

  9. Pathfinder says:

    Kids won’t have any trouble making the hike in the summer- it’s fairly short and the trail is good. There are lots of rocks to climb and caves to explore and even a bridge to cross. Kids tend to have good imaginations and can usually relate well to the history of the stronghold. The weather can be a factor – it can get very very hot in the summer and snow can make the trail difficult in the winter. There are lots of other adventures at the Lava Beds so if this one doesn’t work out, try another.

  10. Kent Pettus says:

    Would like more interpretive signs and more prominent signs regarding length and difficulty of “long trail”. I took the long trail in a clockwise direction and grew fearful of running out of day light, Unlike the Modocs, I don’t think I could even walk the Park Service’s trail in the dark.

  11. Pathfinder says:

    Hi Kent.

    It might be an interesting jaunt with a full moon. It is about a mile-and-a-half long and the rocks do make it a bit difficult. I too would like to see more interpretive signage in places like this. The brochure is helpful and it does tie to numbered posts along the trail. I suspect this approach, rather than larger signs, is intended to keep the area looking as ‘natural’ as possible. One of the options in the draft management plan for the monument calls for making the trail accessible to those with handicaps, including a portion accessible to those in wheelchairs. While this would open the area to more visitors, it would also make the trail less like it was when the Modoc’s used it. The Monument is also looking at other ways to interpret the area, but not with signs.

    -Jerry-

  12. D says:

    We happened across Captain Jacks Stronghold after a long day on the road from Seattle heading to Reno (this was in 1993). We were just looking for a place to park and sleep for the evening.

    As we parked, the headlights illuminated a sign that told us about Captain Jack and the events that had transpired here (the park is much different now, it was very sparse back then). We grabbed our bottle of Jack Daniels and got out to stretch and investigate.

    As soon as we closed the doors to the van, the cool night air lit up with the sounds of what seemed to be a hundred coyotes or other animals. It was cacophony, but there was nothing around us, nothing we could see anyways. Both o us are highly tuned persons, and we knew we were in the presence of something very heavy, spiritually. We were taken aback, but stayed out to read the sign fully. It told us of the plight of the Modocs and Captain Jack, and the events that had gone on here. Then we knew what was going on. I opened the bottle and spoke to the spirits that were there with us. They did not know our intentions, and were protecting their place. I offered them the first splash of the whiskey and spoke to them, telling them we were there as brothers (I am part Cherokee). The sounds of creatures surrounded us until I spoke and made the peace offering. When I finished, we both drank with the spirits, and suddenly the full moon lit night became silent. They had heard us, and accepted us, and ceased their calls, welcoming us to their land.

    We proceeded to drink the better part of the bottle, and were pretty buzzed up as we went out into the range to explore. Being a full moon, we could see pretty well, but not great. We wandered thru the fields without any problems for hours, amazed at the place we had arrived at. The walking was tough; big lava rocks everywhere, just waiting to bust an ankle, but we walked as if being guided, no injuries for us this night.

    Upon waking the next day, in the sun we could see just where we had been, and were amazed that we hadn’t killed ourselves that previous evening. The terrain is brutal, with large lava rocks and numerous holes to step in. We had somehow missed them all, even in our drunken state. We both knew we had been guided, and that was only because we had shown respect and friendship before we entered this sacred place.

    I spoke with a ranger from this area a few years ago, and told her my story. She confirmed that other, certain people had had some interesting encounters there as well, though not as intense as ours. Some had seen things, or heard a voice or something.

    There is definitely a strong presence at Captain Jacks, and it is a good idea to have some respect when you go there.

    The reason I share this is I just watched a movie called “Drum Beat”, a western from 1954, which was totally inaccurate. It was a shame to watch, even if it was Charles Bronson’s first movie. Shot in Sedona, AZ, it was a poor depiction of what really happened here.

    Please enjoy this place if you go, but enjoy it with reverence to the people who died here.

  13. Debbie says:

    Several years ago we took about 30 boys and siblings from a local boy scout troop. Captain Jack’s Stronghold was fabulous. The kids played non-stop for over an hour: running through the trenches, dodging make believe arrows, planning “surprise” attacks, and enjoying good old fashion fun!

  14. Ed says:

    I have visited the stronghold many times. The picture of Captain Jacks you feature on this web page looks nothing like the cave I have always been told was Captain Jacks cave.

  15. Pathfinder says:

    Thanks for your comment Ed. Schonchin John’s cave looks quite similar to Captain Jack’s from certain vantage points, but I believe you are correct. I updated the narrative to identify the original photo as Schonchin John’s cave. I also added a couple of photos of Captain Jack’s cave, as identified by the Park Service, to the bottom of the story. Click on the smaller one for a larger view of it. I trust this looks more like the cave you remember. These two photos were taken a couple of days ago.
    -Jerry-

  16. Ed says:

    I have been interested in this story since I was about 10 years old. I am now 48 years old and still go to the stronghold every chance I can. I have been to the natural bridge and the site of the events at bloody point. I have also been to the sites of the graves of Winema and the historical people that were influential in the Modoc war. I would be honored to talk to you and learn from you the places and the stories that I can’t seem to be satisfied from the many books I have read. Thank you, Ed

  17. Pathfinder says:

    Hi Ed,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the story. The best new resource I have found is the chronology, map and site list developed by Daniel Woodhead III in 2009. It pinpoints many of the places associated with the Modoc War including Willow Creek Canyon where Boston Charley and Captain Jack were eventually captured; Applegate Ranch were Colonel Davis was headquartered; Sorass Lake where the army fought off a Modoc attack and Captain Jack was seen wearing Canby’s tunic; and many more. The document is titled “1873 Modoc War Tour Map” – ask for it at the Park’s visitor center or the Klamath County Museum.
    -Jerry-

  18. Daniel Woodhead says:

    What I have learned from my study of the Modoc War is that it is not for us to judge the past in the context of the present.

  19. Fred says:

    I helped escort my daughter’s forth grade class on a field trip though the caves as well as the trails through the rocks several years ago. Incredible. Fortunately her 4th grade teacher had been a park ranger there so we got quite the tour. We are going back tomorrow to re-explore/examine the area for her college paper. Incredible, spiritual, sad and wonderous place.

  20. [...] Captain Jack’s Stronghold A virtual tour of the lava crevices and caves where the Modoc Indians managed to hide for weeks and defeat the calvary sent to capture them and put them back on a reservation in Southern Oregon. There are caves in this area of northern California.More on the History of the Lava Beds National Monument [...]

  21. Mb in reno says:

    Excellent site. Passed thru there and sadly I was on crutches while wife went for a walk. Got to stay, guard car and read the history. Leg all healed up and ready to return. We also took the back road from LB visitor center to medicine lake. Just a dusting if snow and did not pass another vehicle until hitting 89. Magical place!

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