The Modoc War

Find out about the last stand of the Modocs.

The American West was a hotbed of Indian warfare in the period between 1860 and 1890. From the rolling hills of Montana down to the scorching deserts of Arizona the landscapes became bathed in blood. But one conflict broke out in an unexpected place - California. California was a booming, wealthy state which was free of the lawlessness and Indian savagery of its neighboring states.

The Modocs were once a proud band of warlike Indians who had raided the Gold Rush wagon trains of the early 19th Century. By the mid 1860's, however, they had been reduced to a scraggly remnant of about 300 people, living among the Lava Beds of Tule Lake in California's northeast corner. The Government was set to herd the Modocs onto a reservation north of Tule Lake. However, white ranchers and farmers were keen to get their hands on this land and the Modocs were forced to coexist with their long standing enemies the Klamaths on the Klamath reservation.

The existence at the Klamath Reservation was difficult for the Modocs. The Klamaths outnumbered the Modocs and did their best to make life miserable for the newcomers. In 1865 the chief of the Modocs, a man known as Captain Jack, took his people away from the reservation and returned to the Tule Lake area. The Modocs were allowed to stay there for another four years before being pressured back onto the Klamath Reservation. The situation with the Klamaths, however, had not improved. The Modocs continued to be treated unfairly. In 1870 Captain Jack once more led his people away from the Klamath Reservation. He tried to settle peacefully back onto his old grounds. But local settlers wanted him taken back "╦ťwhere he belongs.'

The Army moved to return the Modocs to the Reservation. Captain James Jackson rode forth from Fort Klamath with 43 men of the 1st Cavalry to escort them back. Captain Jack's camp was surrounded. When approached, Captain Jack agreed to return to the Reservation. But when he was asked to hand over his rifle, he became angry. He yelled at Captain Jackson, "I have never fought white people yet, and I don't want to." He did, however, hand over his weaponry. His men began to follow suit. One warrior, known as Scarfaced Charley, placed his rifle on the pile but retained his holstered pistol. A soldier barked at him, "Give me that pistol, damn you. Quick!" The proud young Indian retorted that he was not a dog to be spoken to in such a manner. The soldier replied, " You son of a bitch! I'll show you how to talk back to me." With this he lifted his gun to fire. At the same time, Scarface Charley pulled out his pistol. Both ,men fired. Both bullets missed their mark. In the next few moments the Modocs dived for the rifles they had just given up. A sharp exchange of gunfire followed, leaving one Army sargeant dead and seven privates wounded. The Modocs managed to fight their way out of the camp. They retreated into the cover of the Lava beds.

Meanwhile another group of Modocs, led by Hooker Jim, was the target of a civilian posse. The white men opened fire on the Indians, killing one woman and her baby. The Indians retaliated, killing 14 white people in strikes on ranch houses. This band joined with the band of Captain Jack. The stage was set for a dramatic confrontation.

On January 16, 1873 The Modoc stronghold at Tule Lake was attacked by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Wheaton. The harsh terrain was further complicated by dense fog. As the soldiers stumbled over the sharp rocks and boulders, warriors would secrete themselves in little hideaways taking pot shots at the hapless soldiers. The Indians moved swiftly from one point to another. Wheaton believed there must be at least 150 Indians in the Lava Beds. In fact there were just 51. A final charge against the soldiers that night by Captain Jack totally demoralized the Army forces. Wheaton returned to base.

Wheaton was removed from his position and replaced by General Canby. Canby sought to find resolution through peaceful means. A Peace Commission was established and,on April 11, 1873 the two sides met. Unknown to the whites, however, the Modocs had already held their own council in which Captain Jack, who wanted peace, was humiliated and thrown to the ground. The only way to save face, he was told, was to kill Canby. Finally he agreed to do so. The Modocs who turned up for the Peace Commission were heavily armed, although secretly. As Canby began his opening statement, Captain Jack jumped to his feet, and yelled "All ready!" He then fired a pistol he had concealed twice at Canby's face. Drawing his knife, he then stabbed Canby several times. Captain Jack then stripped off General Canby's uniform and put it on himself. The Indians then fled the scene.

The nation was shocked by these events. 1000 men now advanced on the Lava Beds under Colonel Alvin Gillem. Gillem firstly cut the Modocs off from their water supply at Tule Lake. Yet the first blow went to Modocs. On April 26, Scarface Charlie surprised 65 members of the 4th Infantry as they ate lunch among the rocks. All five officers and 20 men were killed. But slowly the Army gained the upper hand. Gillem was replaced by General Jeff Davis who soon overran Captain Jack's camp. A major bonus came when a group of Modocs surrendered and their leader, Hooker Jim, promised to lead the Army to Captain Jack. Soon Captain Jack was cornered. In early June he surrendered.

For the murder of General Canby, Captain Jack and five of his men were sentenced to die. On October 3, 1873 Captain Jack was hanged for this crime. The remaining Modocs were sent to the Quapaw Reservation in Indian Territory.

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