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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.