The Modoc tribe survives

In my previous post, I talked about the traditional homeland, culture, food, hunting, clothing, and home-building of the Modoc tribe. I also talked about how it may have been a form of U.S. oppression to link the Klamath and Modocs tribes tightly together. You will see that this resulted in tremendous friction. This is the second part of my final paper for school.

Lower Klamath Lake. Modoc Country. Image by Cole, R.S. / Public domain

     Today, if the Modoc people are known at all, it is for the Modoc War of 1872-1873. The battles were located in what today is Lava Beds National Monument, near the northern California state border with Oregon. For six months that drama caught the attention of the world as a band of less than 60 Modoc men and their families held off the U.S. Army (Shanks, 261; Mark). It was the first Indian war covered by multiple reporters, who were on site and embedded in the military camps (Horton). The military commissioned professional photographers to document the story, so the public saw real images of Indians, and the conditions of an Indian battle in a way rarely seen before. “It wasn’t men fighting against men. It was an army against families,” said Devery Saluskin for an Oregon Experience documentary (Horton). Modocs at first were successful against the army, who outnumbered them 6 to 1, killing 38 soldiers and losing only one of their own. During the standoff, the military invited the Modoc leaders for peace talks. At the talks, after being refused his own reservation in Modoc territory, Chief Keintpoos mortally shot Brigadier General Canby, the only general ever killed in an Indian battle (Mark, Horton). This act shocked the nation, and an American public that had previously been criticizing the military and sympathizing with the Modoc people, began to call for extermination of the Modoc tribe. Army Commander in Chief General Sherman ordered the military to exterminate the Modocs (Horton). Once captured, Keintpoos and five other warriors were the only American Indians in U.S. history to be tried as war criminals (Terry).

How did it happen?

     There are many published accounts of the Modoc War, so I will not add another. I am compelled instead to understand the events that led to war and planned genocide with near-annihilation of a people. To find out how things got so bad so quickly for the Modocs, one has to look only as far back as 1846 to find the first contact with whites. There is a chance that early fur trappers met the tribe in the 1820s (Horton). Peter Skene Ogden, a fur trader, traveled south from the Columbia River through the Siskiyou Mountains in 1827, and trapper Jedediah Smith came into Southern Oregon from California in 1828. There are a couple of parties along the Umpqua and Rogue Rivers in the 1830s known to have had interactions with Indians which may have included a few Modocs. But the first documented white travelers in Modoc country arrived after April 24, 1846 when explorer J.C. Frémont headed north from the Lassen Farm, near today’s Susanville, CA (Most; Sproull; Walling, 187). Frémont and his well-armed contingent of sixty men passed through Modoc country and camped for a few days on the shore of Upper Klamath Lake, but Frémont left with about ten men to return south and meet Lieutenant Gillespie who had messages for him. They found Gillespie and made camp. Accounts differ on whether this camp was on the southern shore of the Upper Klamath Lake, which would have been Klamath Indian land, or on Hot Creek, which would have been Modoc land (Walling, 187; Most). Either way, accounts agree that it was probably a band of Modocs that had been following Gillespie, that attacked the camp unprovoked and killed three people. Delaware Indians from Frémont’s group killed the Modoc leader, forcing the rest to retreat. The next day in retaliation, Frémont’s party found a nearby Klamath village and attacked, killing 14 people, and possibly also burning the village (Most; Sproull; Walling, 188). Thus the seed was planted for the Modocs’ reputation as a warlike people, and the beginnings of the Modocs’ struggles under colonization.

     “The white travelers were actually passing through peoples’ homelands. They were passing through areas that were already occupied by people, and this is something that usually gets scant notice in the historical literature,” said William G. Robbins in the Oregon Experience documentary (Horton).  A Modoc Indian explained years later to Modoc Agent Lindsay Applegate that they attacked the party as a deterrent to future travelers (Walling, 188). Old Chief Schonchin of the Modocs echoed that explanation when he said, “I thought if we killed all the white men we saw, that no more would come. We killed all we could, but they came more and more, like the new grass in Spring. My heart was sick. I threw down my gun. I said I will not fight again” (Horton). It is possible that the Modocs were well aware of the problems when white people enter Indian country and were already planning what they would do when first contact occurred. Settler and miner contact had been erupting in violence on the Oregon coast at that time. It is also possible the Modoc tribe attacked out of fear. “On seeing the first emigrant wagon, they all ran for the hills. But they soon learned that white people were human, so they became friendly toward the emigrants” (Riddle, 15).

The woman in the back middle is Tobey Riddle (also called Winema), and her husband is Frank Riddle, standing right. They are the parents of Jeff Riddle, cited here. Notice the basket hats, mentioned in my previous blog post.

     In the same year of Frémont’s appearance, the Applegate Trail – also known as the “Southern Route” of the Emigrant Trail to Oregon – opened up, bringing travelers directly into Modoc country and along the Lost River (Walling 148-49; Sproull). Right away the trail became crowded. Jesse Applegate explained that an exceptional drought in 1846 pushed emigrants to the new trail (Walling, 148). Furthermore, gold was discovered in northern California and miners were determined to get through during 1848-50 (Walling, 188). In 1851, gold was discovered in Yreka, on the western edge of Modoc country (Sproull). Jesse Applegate confirmed that, “Every year from the time of opening the road in 1846 until 1855 when the fierce hostility of the Modocs and other Indians along the route closed it – this route…was used by thousands of immigrants entering Northern California and Southern Oregon” (Walling, 149). Not everyone passed through, and settler homes were built around Tule Lake and along Lost River. The Modocs didn’t have a chance to get used to white miners and settlers because their world went literally from no white contact to a busy wagon train thoroughfare directly through their homeland in less than a year.

     The strain of integration erupted in two events in 1852 recalled vividly. The Bloody Point murders were remembered by white settlers as unprovoked and brutal Modoc violence, and Ben Wright’s sickening retaliation was identified later by Modocs as the reason for the killing of General Canby in 1873. Differing accounts are hard to reconcile. What accounts agree on (for the most part) is that a band of Modocs hid in the tules beside Tule Lake when settler immigrants came past what is now called Bloody Point, making their way to Yreka along the Applegate Trail. Two accounts say the leader of the band was Keintpoos’ father (Sproull; Riddle, 22). The Modocs conducted a surprise attack and killed anywhere from 36 to 65 white settlers, depending on the source you use (Walling, 205; Sproul; Riddle, 22). At least one person was able to escape to Yreka and sound the alarm. A party left Yreka immediately to investigate, and they found the bodies of the slain white settlers, and buried them. (Riddle, 25; Walling, 205; Sproull; Curtis, 164).

     Ben Wright, paid as an Indian hunter by the California legislature, sought revenge. Cheewa James said, “In 1852 a man known throughout northern California as the Indian fighter of his time, Ben Wright, made the decision to exterminate as many Modocs as he could find” (Horton). It is not clear how much time passed between the burials and Wright’s attack. Some accounts describe a single trip from Yreka to bury the slain settlers, then kill the Modocs. Walling noted that three months later the approach of winter spurred Wright to action (206). Riddle said that Modoc factions split and the people not responsible for the murders remained in the valley with Old Schonchin while the murderers hid for two years before Wright got to them (27).

Lava Beds National Monument, May 2021.

     At some point then, Wright gathered volunteers from Yreka, anywhere from 16 to 100 of them – again, there are differences in reporting (Walling, 205; Sproull; Riddle, 27). Sproull wrote that Ben Wright was outnumbered by the Modocs, and that compelled him to trick the Indians with a white flag of peace. Accounts agree that Wright made declarations of peace and called the Modocs to join him for a feast. In his efforts to assist Wright, Major Fitzgerald led a cavalry troop to round up Modocs, who escaped to an island in Tule Lake. Fitzgerald then took a boat through the tules of the shore, found and destroyed large caches of fish, grass seeds, wocus, and camas. It was a dreadful loss for the Modocs as winter approached, and they agreed to peace talks with Wright (Walling, 206). Forty to forty-five Modoc men and their wives camped near the natural bridge on Lost River in preparation for the feast (Riddle, 28; Walling, 207).

    There are multiple rumors that the feast food was poisoned with strychnine, countered by reports that the Modocs were shot. Perhaps the compromise suggested by Walling is the truest  version of the story: “That poison was prepared by parties in Yreka is true, but all the surviving members of Wright’s company deny any attempt to use it, and give as their reason the very evident fact that there was no fun in it; most of them were there killing Indians for the pleasure of doing so, and the use of poison would have taken all the amusement away” (Walling, 208).

     Accounts also vary on whether the feast went ahead, but all agree that the feast was the precursor to the massacre of Modoc Indians. One account from Captain Goodall was that 5 Modocs were killed with poison, one account accepted by Superintendent Meacham was that poisoned meat killed 40 Modocs and a few slipped away, and a historical recounting published in 1881 reports that 47 Modoc men and some women were killed with gunfire during a dawn attack on their camp while only two escaped (Walling, 206-7). Another account is that the Modocs were afraid that the food was poisoned and refused to eat, at which point Wright’s men opened fire and killed 43 of the 46 Modocs gathered (Sproull). A story that claims Frank Riddle as its source says Wright hid revolvers under a poncho and shot the chief. This was the signal to the other men, who opened fire and murdered most of the group (Thompson, 82). Another version is that Wright and his men opened fire during the feast, killing 36 Modocs (Curtis, 164). Jeff Riddle’s version matches the 1881 report, in that Wright’s men surrounded the Modoc camp the night after the feast and opened fire at dawn, killing 40 men and some women (Riddle, 30).

     In the years that followed, the trouble never stopped as both white settlers and Modocs lost lives (Sproull; Riddle, 27). Just to their west, clashes from 1851-1856 with militant volunteers and the US Army, collectively referred to as the Rogue River Wars, included Shasta, Athapaskan-speaking tribes, Umpqua, Klamath, and Modoc Indians. Immigrants continued to pour into the region, and they pressured the US government to remove the Indians to reservations. In October 1864 a meeting was held with Klamaths, Yahooskin Paiutes, and Modocs, and a treaty was agreed upon (Shanks, 258; Cooley, 101-102). A young Modoc chief at that time, Keintpoos (known to many as Captain Jack), asked for a small piece of land for a Modoc reservation on the Lost River. This was not granted, and Keintpoos and Old Chief Schonchin signed the treaty for the Modocs (Sproull). “The government was busy with the Civil War and Reconstruction and didn’t fully ratify the treaty for years but still expected the Indians to give up their lands and move to the reservation” (Horton). The treaty was ratified by executive order issued March 14, 1871 (Shanks, 258).

Keintpoos. Also called Kintpuash, and Captain Jack. These are not traditional Modoc clothes. Photo taken 1864, public domain.

     The reservation was entirely within Klamath lands, and the Klamaths outnumbering the Modocs, subjugated them (Shanks, 373). Keintpoos appealed to Captain O.C. Knapp, Administrator of the Klamath Indian Reservation, for help, but received none. Instead the Modocs were told to move to a new place in the reservation (Riddle, 34; Shanks, 259; Curtis, 164). Conditions grew so drastic over the winter that the Modocs were forced to kill their horses for food (Horton, Terry). In 1865, aware that the treaty was not yet ratified, Keintpoos repudiated his signature on the treaty, took 371 followers and left the reservation while followers of Old Schonchin remained (Shanks, 258; Sproull). When they arrived back at their homes in Lost River, the Modocs found that settlers had occupied most of their land. They demanded rent, and managed to get it from most of the settlers. In 1866 Agent Lindsay Applegate tried to talk Keintpoos into returning to the reservation, but failed, and in 1867 Superintendent Huntington also tried and failed (Sproull).

Bogus Charley interpreted for Keintpoos. Photo credit: Louis Herman Heller, 1839-1928.

     When newly appointed Superintendent Meacham arrived to inspect conditions at Ft. Klamath, Meacham found that the bored soldiers had been harassing the Indians and raping the Indian women (Horton). Nevertheless, Meacham used the Army in 1869 to force Keintpoos and 43 of his people back to the reservation, while about 200 Modocs remained at Lost River and refused to go. Meacham observed, “The Modocs were ill-treated and abused by the Klamath Indians. The Klamaths ceaselessly annoyed them with threats and insults” (Horton). Denied a third time for assistance from Knapp, Keintpoos, 30 years old, responded through his interpreter, Bogus Charley, “Tell this man I am not a dog. Tell him that I am a man, if I am an Indian.” Speaking of the Klamaths, he said, “Tell him I and my men shall not be slaves for a race of people that is not better than my people. If the agent does not protect me and my people I shall not live here” (Riddle, 37; Terry). In 1870, only three months after his return, Keintpoos and 180 of his followers left again (Terry).

     Jeff Riddle explains that for two years Keintpoos and his people lived in peace on Lost River. They were friendly with the settlers, and found work in Yreka (38). Not all of the white settlers were comfortable with the Modocs in their midst, and lodged complaints of cattle-killing and petty thieving. Again there was pressure to return them to the reservation. Keintpoos asked Meacham for his own reservation, promising that if they were allowed to live at Lost River, they would accept the jurisdiction of the Army. Meacham agreed that this was the best solution. February 17, 1872, after listening to Superintendent Meacham’s recommendation, General Canby agreed to consider a new Modoc reservation, as well as prohibit the use of military force to compel the Modocs to return to the reservation until the question was decided (Shanks, 261; Sproull).

An image labeled: Modoc Indian prisoners. These are followers of Keintpoos. I typically hate the photos of Indians we only get because some white colonialist snapped a gawking photo during a time of pain, but this one somehow left them some dignity. Some of the most famous Modocs: 1-Scar Faced Charley 2-Bogus Charley 3-Hooka Jim (also Hooker Jim) 4-Long Jim 5-Shacknasty Jim. Image source

     Meacham did not get the chance to offer a reservation to the Modocs because he was replaced with Superintendent T. B. Odeneal, who knew nothing about the history or politics of the tribes. Odeneal was inclined to take settlers at their word. May 8, 1872, Ivan Applegate, son of Lindsay and Commissary in Charge at Ft. Klamath, wrote a letter in which he agreed that the military understood the order by General Canby and were abiding by it. Applegate then insisted that the Modocs be forcibly returned to the reservation anyway, which he expected would result in violence and loss of life of both Indians and settlers but was “the only practicable solution.” He provided the rationale that it would set a bad precedent if the U.S. let the Modocs have some of the land back that they gave up in the treaty of 1864. He said it would be less expensive to provide for the Modocs if they were on the Klamath reservation. And finally, as quoted in my previous post, he wrote, “These Modocs really are only a fragment of the Klamath Nation, having common sympathies, speaking the same language, and being closely intermarried with several bands on the reservations, and if located on a new reservation a constant and annoying intercourse would be the effect; and their success in being located there, in violation of treaty stipulations, would have a demoralizing influence on the other Indians” (Shanks, 261). Bolstered by Applegate’s letter, the new Superintendent Odeneal wrote to Commissioner Walker calling the Modocs insubordinate desperadoes whose insolence needed to be controlled or there would be war. He insisted that the Klamath reservation was “the best place in the whole country for Modocs,” and that “they will be as well contented and easily kept there as any place” (Shanks, 260). Commissioner Walker responded July 6, 1872 that he approved of Odeneal’s recommendations and directed him to remove the Modocs to the Klamath reservation “peaceably if you possibly can, forcibly if you must” (Shanks, 263).

The Modocs Survive

     Thus began the Modoc War. In a tense situation in which a military unit was tasked with forcing a group of people to move against their will, both groups with a history of violence, there was really only one possible outcome, and that was more violence. As mentioned earlier, I will not include an account of the war, because others already have. Please use the reference list below if you are interested in reading more about the war in the lava beds.

The most remarkable fact of this history is that the tribe survives. Some followers of Old Schonchin remained on the Klamath reservation after 1864 (Shanks, 257). Some followers of Keintpoos who left the reservation with him in 1865 stayed at Lost River and did not return to the reservation with him in 1869 (Sproull). The surviving Modocs who had fought for their lives in the lava beds were all captured. A jury including soldiers who had just battled the Modocs in the war found six Modoc warriors guilty of war crimes. Two were sent to Alcatraz with life sentences and four were hung. After his hanging, Keintpoos’ head was severed and sent to the Army Medical Museum for study (Cothran). One hundred and fifty-five Modocs were put onto cattle cars and sent to the Quapaw Reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. During the first year, no government assistance was provided to the tribe in Oklahoma, and they lived only on handouts from local people who already lived there. By 1879 only 99 Modocs were still alive in Oklahoma. In 1909, the Oklahoma Modocs were allowed to return to Oregon, but some stayed (Mark; “History”). Both the Oregon and the Oklahoma Modoc tribes are recognized today by the U.S. government. Today they number about 600 enrolled with the Klamath-Modoc-Yahooskin tribes, and 253 enrolled with the Oklahoma tribe.

An image of Modocs in Oklahoma.

11 thoughts on “The Modoc tribe survives

    1. This stuff was tough to grapple with. So many indignities. Part of me thinks, “well, yeah, a conquering people isn’t going to be nice to the people they conquered.” But it’s worse than that. The white settlers in America didn’t even think of Indians as people. That’s sickening. And you are right, this superior attitude and blind thoughts and behavior continue. Thanks for reading, Derrick.

  1. That’s a lot of good research, Crystal. It’s the same same old story generations later. We just keep doing this to each other. It hurts my heart that we just don’t learn.

    1. I had the same thought, Marlene, that we are still doing these kinds of things to each other. It’s heartbreaking. Its devastating that it’s so ingrained into some people’s heads that the colour of skin makes any difference at all in the level of respect that is deserved.

  2. Hi – I never heard of the Modoc War or people and this is an interesting post.
    You write about history well and could imagine the part with them hiding in the Tule
    back in 1992 I had the chance to cut and ru and then weave some Tule (we studied the Ohlone Indians for a science center in San Jose)
    Anyhow – I am
    Back to the finish the more recent post (the one that linked this one)

  3. You’ve done a great job. This is the history that is hard to read even for me. I remember coming to California on my only visit to the USA and expressed my desire of talking to Indians to my hosts. They thought I meant people from India. In Slovenian we say “Indijanci” and I’ve always felt a certain admiration.

    1. Thank you for the compliment. It was a passion project and I enjoyed the research though the things I discovered were painful. I admire Indians too. Though I am one, I look white and I have been able to take advantage of the privileges of looking white in America. So I am aware that my experience is not the same as other Indian experiences. I admire the strength in Native communities that fight to keep their culture alive in any way they can. It’s a constant struggle and it speaks to the thing that is inside all humans who are proud of who we are and want to be taken seriously. I have mentioned that one small thing I do is share what I learn in my blog. I think it’s amazing that people in other countries learn about and respect the Native people in the Americas.

  4. I was searching online for information about the Modoc War and saw and have read your articles. About 20 years ago, I acquired a newspaper from a dealer in western memorabilia. It is the New York Herald from Monday, April 14th,1873 and concerns the events of April 12th and the subsequent call for punishment of the Modocs in retaliation. I have collected memorabilia for most of my life in order to save it and place it with those who will find it meaningful. As you are a writer, please let me know if you would like me to send it to you to keep or place where it will preserved. History is important.

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