Ghosts Haunt the Lava Beds

The history of the Lava Beds National Monument is rough, with a bloody history of the Modoc Indian War.  Many people died there during the war under horrible circumstances.  Do their spirits live on?

Frank Bagges was quite certain they do.  He related his first person report to the The Morning Call, a San Francisco newspaper.  The story was published on August 23, 1894.  Here is what he had to say:

“Just before we entered the beds an old settler near Goose Lake told us of a legend that is current  in the vicinity to the effect that certain sections of the bleak lava beds are haunted by the spirits of the Indians who once roamed through them, and considered them a home and refuge safe from the encroachments of the white man.  Men who spent nights in the beds told of having heard unearthly sounds, such as shrieks and warwhoops.  All the noises made by the Indianss in their festival dances or their war fandango’s were heard, and some even went so far as to say they had seen ghostlike phantoms flitting about them in the gloom of the night and could feel the rush of cold wind caused by the passage of their form.

“We were not deterred by these weird talks and pushed on with our outfit.  I wanted to get to the scene of the Canby Massacre.  I was with the soldiers that were stationed at the time only a short distance from the fatal spot where General Canby and Dr. Thomas were so cruelly butchered by Captain Jack and his band of cut-throats.  I can never forget the wild rush the soldiers made when they learned of the treachery of the Indians, and the frantic zeal born of horror and indignation with which we chased after the human butchers, who had scattered and dodged around in the mystic mazes of the subterranean passages like squirrels in their burrows.”

Canbv Killing

A version of the scene described here, from Harpers Weekly, 1873.

“The spot is a wild one now as then. It is in a sort of basin-like depression and can be overlooked by anyone standing on the surrounding higher ground.  It was here that the soldiers had their signal men stationed while the fatal conference was in progress.

“We reached the place rather late in the afternoon and decided to camp there for the night. I described to my friends the scene of the bloody massacre as it had been told to me by Riddell, the interpreter, and his Indian wife, ‘Toby,’ who were in it, but escaped, and guided the soldiers to the spot.  I showed them where General Canby stood when he refused Captan Jack’s request that the soldiers be withdrawn from the beds, and how Jack gave the signal, ‘Kaw-tux’ (all ready) and then shot the noble general in the face.  I pointed out where Canby fell, about fifty yards away after another shot had struck him.  Then there was the spot where Dr. Thomas had been kneeling, pleading with the Indians in the name of God to come to peaceable terms, when the cowardly Boston Charley opened fire upon him.  In another spot was where United States Commissioner Meecham was shot by Shacknasty Jim, and afterward partially scalped by Boston Charley.  He survived the wounds, though.  Dr. Dyer, Riddell and Cinema, or ‘Toby’, his wife, escaped – the first two on their horses, and the last because she was a Modoc.  I described, too, how the troops came up, and the horror that thrilled us when we saw the stripped and mutilated bodies of Canby, Thomas and Meecham.

“Well, I got considerably worked up by the recital of the events which came back to my memory with startling vividness, and I could see that my friends were also affected by the horrible details, and one of them even said: ‘I wish,  Frank, you had waited until morning before telling us all that.’

“However, after supper these feelings passed away somewhat, and after chatting awhile around our fire we lay dow on out blankets to sleep.  I lay quite a while gazing at the glittering starts of the night, and in spite  of myself a queer feeling of nervousness came over me, and and the events that I had been describing to my friends came back to me with a vividness that was startling. I though of the queer noises of the night that others had heard, and wondered if there was any truth in their tales.”

Canby Kiling

Another depiction of the events. Harper’s Weekly, May 3, 1973

“Now comes the experience.  I was not asleep.  I remember seeing the stars glimmering above me when on a sudden a weird sound like the wailing of a mourner struck in my ears.  It swelled into a sort of dirge-like shout, and I remembered it distinctly as an Indian death dirge, for I had heard many of them in the early days.  Fear came over me and I tried to cry out to my friends, and to reach out to awaken them, but I as powerless to do either.  Wild and weird was the chant, now grating harshly on the ear in guttural sobbing, and then changing into almost an ear-splitting shrillness.  Mind you, through it all I could see the stars  shining above me and seemed awake, though powerless.  Finally the chant died away, and after a moment of silence a loud and piercing yell rang out.  It was followed by others of more or less intensity.  My fear became a sickening horror and then the stars faded from my sight, a dun, yellowish light spread itself over the spot, and I saw every feature of the place where we were encamped distinctly in this hazy glare.  He yelling became inaudible.

“In another moment, though, I saw strange shadows begin to flit through the haze, and they resolved themselves into forms that I soon recognized  There were eight or ten of them, and my blood seemed to cease running in my veins, which had been palpitating with fear as I recognized the group.  There was General Canby and Dr. Thomas, both of whom I had known so well, stating in the midst of a group of Indians in whom I recognized Captain Jack, Sconchin, Boston Charley, Steamboat Frank, and Shacknasty Jim.  The general stood calm and dignified, as was his usually mien, while the genial face of Dr. Thomas had a pleading, reproachful look upon it.  he Indians were facing and glaring at them with sardonic scowls of hate in their countenances.  Suddenly they yelled and leaped forward.  I saw the gleam of their weapons and heard a succession of reports.  General Canby and Dr. Thomas sank to the ground covered in blood, and then ––

“I felt a cold hand upon my face, the noises died away and the yellow haze faded.  I saw the stars gleaming at me and realized that my limbs were shaking as with an ague.  But the cold hand was on my face, and with a nightly effort I sat up.  As I did so,  I came face to face with one of my companions, who was leaning over me with a countenance on which by the dim light of our fire, I could see fear and terror stamped.

“‘Frank,’ he chattered, while he shook like myself, ‘let us leave here. I-I’ve seem ’em.’

“We compared notes, and he had had the same experience as myself, fro the chant to the killing.  Our other friend was apparently sound asleep, but we woke him up and asked him if he had seen, heard or dreamed anything.  He had not, so we told him our joint experience.  He saw by our agitation that we had passed through something unusual, and, impressed by the gloom of our surroundings as well, he did not pooh-pooh it.  We built up our fire a bit first, and drew close to the cheerful blaze.  Sleep for the time being was out of the question.  We talked in low tones, and all felt kind of creepy, as the saying is.

“It was about an hour the we sat thus, and then we all had an experience.  The night air was the least bit chilly and there was some wind stirring.  From the western side of the spot came a series of weird sounds like drawn-out moans.  Sometimes they were quite loud and at others low and almost indistinct.  We felt decidedly creepy and , to cut matters short, we sat through that night hearing these sounds at intervals.  At daylight you can’t we lost no time in wending our way out of the lava beds.  And while I have no desire to go there again I know my friends could not be hired to spend a night there for untold wealth.

“Since then I have thought the matter out, and have satisfied my self that the noises were nothing more nor less than the rushing of air through the crevices and subterranean passages of the beds.  But that vision which I and my friend saw bothers me yet.  He says he was not asleep and I could almost swear I was not.  Again a queer feature of it that struck me is that the only participants that either of us saw were General Canby and r. Thomas, who were killed, and the five Indians who were executed by the Government for their murder.  Neither Colonel Meecham, Riddell and Dr. Dyar, or Scar-faced Charley and the other Indians who survived took part in what we saw.

“Again, if it was a dream or nightmare how was it that scenes which we both saw tally exactly in details and all particulars.  I am not a superstitious man,  but I think our experience is something that is inexplicable.”

Canby Cross

Canby’s Cross now stands at the location of the General’s death. ©2010 Global Creations LLC, All Rights Reserved


If you choose to wander around the Lava Beds at night now,  you may encounter the same mystifying occurrences.  The location of this story is easy to find as it is marked with Canby’s Cross on a short road off of the main road on the north side of Lava Beds National Monument.  This may not be the only place in the lava beds where the sprits still lurk.  There was an even greater massacre of U.S. soldiers at Thomas-Wright Battlefield, perhaps you’d like to check it out.

This Story and Many More

The Library of Congress has collected full editions of many newspapers across the country.  This is an outstanding resource for those of you that enjoy historical explorations.  You can see the actual edition of the newspaper that included this story at:

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