The Great Lava Bed Wars


Initially, I started writing a series of articles on the war between a band of Modoc Indians and the U.S. Army after reading Terry Johnston’s 1991 novel, “The Devil’s Backbone: The Modoc War, 1872-3.” It was an interesting subject as my step-dad and I used look for arrowheads in those lava fields and outside what he told me and what I’d read, this piece of Northern California history had been skipped-over when I was in school…

Also known as the Modoc War, or the Modoc Campaign, the Great Lava Bed Wars was an armed conflict between the Native American Modoc tribe and the United States Army in southern Oregon and northern California from 1872 to 1873. The Modoc War was the last of the Indian Wars to occur in the region.

During the Modoc War, the Modoc had no more than 53 warriors engaged in the fighting. Including the four Modoc executed at Fort Klamath, Captain Jack’s band suffered the loss of seventeen warriors killed.

The casualty lists for the US Army are as follows:  7 Officers killed and 4 wounded; 48 Enlisted killed and 42 wounded; 16 Civilians killed and 1 wounded; and 2 Indian Scouts killed.

In the First Battle of the Stronghold, January 17, 1873, there were about 400 Army troops in the field. The troops included U. S. Army infantry, cavalry, and howitzer units; Oregon and California volunteer companies, and some Klamath Indian Scouts.

Lt. Col. Frank Wheaton commanded all troops.

In the Second Battle of the Stronghold, April 17, 1873, about 530 troops fought. These included U. S. Army infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and Warm Spring Indian Scouts.

The volunteer companies had withdrawn from the field. However, the Army employed a small number of civilians runners and packers.

Col. Alvin C. Gillem was in command.

The Modoc War cost the United States over an estimated $400,000; a very expensive war in terms of lives and dollars, considering the small number of opposing forces. In contrast, the estimated cost to purchase the land requested by the Modoc for a separate reservation was $20,000.

Captain Jack led 52 warriors in a band of more than 150 Modoc people who left the Klamath Reservation. Occupying defensive positions throughout the lava beds south of Tule Lake, for months those few warriors waged a guerrilla war against United States Army forces sent against them and reinforced with artillery.

In April 1873, Captain Jack and others killed General Edward Canby and another peace commissioner, while wounding others. After more warfare with reinforcements of US forces, finally some Modoc warriors surrendered, leading to Captain Jack and the last of his band’s capture

Jack and five warriors went on trial for the murder of two peace commissioners; He and three of his warriors hanged after being found guilty and two others received life sentences. The remaining 153 Modoc of the band ended up being sent to Indian Territory, where they were held as prisoners of war until 1909.

Some at that point returned to the Klamath Reservation, but most, including their descendants stayed in what was by then the state of Oklahoma. As a result, there are federally recognized Modoc Tribes in California, Oregon and Oklahoma today.

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