The Modoc and the Last Indian Wars

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

American expansion brought incredible cruelty and violence to the central and northern parts of Native California during the mid-to-late 19th century. Numbering some 700 people and located near Tule Lake and the Lost River in northern California and southern Oregon, the Modoc were spared the worst consequences of colonial settlement until the 1850s and 1860s. But, not for long.

A picture of a Lava tube cave.
The Lava Beds are defined by great ridges, massive boulders, and intricate caves and caverns. (Image: Stephen Moehle/Shutterstock)

The Invasion of Miners and Settlers

During 1850s and 1860s, non-Native settlers began encroaching on Modoc land by way of the Applegate Trail, which led to gold fields in southern Oregon. In the early 1850s, the Modoc defended themselves against an invasion of miners and settlers. And in response, the state of California’s militia conducted a devastating campaign between 1851 and 1852 that culminated in the massacre of 50 Modoc men and women during what was supposed to be a peace parley.

In 1864, the Modoc sought accommodation and turned once more to diplomacy, signing a treaty that required them to move to the Klamath Reservation in southern Oregon.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Return to Ancestral Land

The federal agent overseeing the reservation treated them with disdain   and without proper food, clothing, or shelter—the Modoc suffered. The following year, 300 to 400 Modoc decided to leave the Klamath Reservation and return to their ancestral lands around Tule Lake and the Lost River.

Some of them followed Kintpuash, a man non-Indians called Captain Jack because of the military jacket he often wore. Kintpuash moved in and out of mining communities and had been a part of Modoc efforts to resolve their differences with non-Indians diplomatically.

Learn more about the Seven Years’ War in Indian country.

Petition for a Reservation

Kintpuash well understood that the Modoc were living in a world that was becoming too narrow—a world that offered few opportunities to find common ground with non-Natives.

Nonetheless, having returned home, Kintpuash focused once more on building peaceful relations and petitioned the federal government for a reservation. But conflict arose with non-Indian ranchers, who now considered the Modoc to be trespassing on their land. And by the early 1870s, the federal government sent the Army in to force the Modoc to return to the Klamath Reservation.

Federal troops arrived at Kintpuash’s village along the Lost River in late November 1872. Some Modoc resisted being disarmed and tempers flared—fighting broke out—leaving several soldiers dead.

Lava Beds

As Kintpuash’s people fled, settlers simultaneously attacked the village of another Modoc named Hooker Jim. That fighting took both Modoc and settler lives. Kintpuash and approximately 150 Modoc men, women, and children sought refuge in an area known as the Lava Beds.

Defined by great ridges, massive boulders, and intricate caves and caverns, this labyrinthine place was highly defensible. But it was also important to the Modoc because it contained a number of sacred places and gathering sites for special materials and resources.

Cheewa James, a Modoc citizen and former park ranger at Lava Beds National Monument, explains: “What most people don’t recognize is that this was their home … It wasn’t just 53 warriors who faced nearly a thousand soldiers of the U.S. Army, but their families, too.”

A Stinging Defeat

A photograph of Kintpuash.
Kintpuash and five others were convicted of murders, in violation of the laws of war. (Image: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Public domain)

When Hooker Jim arrived at the Lava Beds and told Kintpuash what had happened, Kintpuash knew the situation had become even more volatile and dangerous.

In early January 1873, the U.S. Army surrounded and attacked the Modoc. The Modoc not only held their ground but also dealt the army a stinging defeat—exacting a number of casualties without suffering any of their own.

Over the weeks and then months that followed, Kintpuash engaged in negotiations with a federal peace commission, which culminated in a series of talks in March and April.

A Stalemate

The Modoc were divided. Some, aligned with Kintpuash, wanted to continue to press for the establishment of a reservation in the Lost River Valley or the Lava Beds and, therefore, remain in their homeland.

While Kintpuash didn’t want to give up on diplomacy, he did refuse to turn over Hooker Jim and the other Modoc, whom the army now called killers because of what had happened in November.

“Who will try them?” Kintpuash reportedly asked federal commissioners, “White men or Indians?” Having been told the jury would be white, Kintpuash responded, “Then will you give up the men who killed the Indian women and children on Lost River, to be tried by the Modocs?”

The peace commissioners ultimately drew an even harder line. The Modoc would not only have to surrender to the U.S. Army, but also move to a reservation in Arizona, Oklahoma Indian Territory, or Southern California. Kintpuash, in turn, relented to the pressure exerted by Hooker Jim, among others. Perhaps the time for talk had passed. Perhaps fighting was the only option that remained if they were to stay on the land.

Forced to Surrender

During yet another council on April 11, 1873, with federal troops tightening the perimeter they had established around the Lava Beds, the Modoc delegation attacked the federal officials, killing General Edward Canby and the minister Eleazer Thomas and wounding the former Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Alfred Meacham.

Over the next six weeks, more than 1,000 U.S. troops hounded the Modoc. The Army eventually compelled Kintpuash to surrender. Ironically, the soldiers were aided by Hooker Jim, among others, who abandoned Kintpuash and agreed to help the Army in return for their own exoneration.

Learn more about Iroquoia and Wendake in the 1600s.

The Trial

A speedy trial followed. Kintpuash and five others were convicted of murders, in violation of the laws of war. As their wives and children looked on, four of them, including Kintpuash, were hanged at Fort Klamath on October 3, 1873. The 150 Modoc who survived—including those who had facilitated the capture of Kintpuash—faced indignities of their own.

In the fall of 1873, the federal government shipped the Modoc survivors to the Quapaw Indian Agency, located on land that had been carved out of the Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma and used as a place to forcibly relocate more than 20 tribal nations. In all too typical a fashion, the promised provisions didn’t arrive, and many Modoc died there. While some stayed in Oklahoma, where the Nation is still headquartered, 51 others convinced the federal government to allow them to return to the Klamath Agency in 1909.

Thus, indeed it is a narrative of cruelty and inhumanity. Yet, it is also a testament to the courage and determination the Natives exemplified. Needless to say, although the Native people faced impossible odds fuelled by incredible cruelty, they still found ways to survive.

Common Questions about the Modoc and the Last Indian Wars

Q: How did the federal agent treat the Modoc in Klamath Reservation?

The federal agent treated them with disdain and without proper food, clothing, or shelter—the Modoc suffered.

Q: What advantage did Lava Beds have?

Defined by great ridges, massive boulders, and intricate caves and caverns, the Lava Beds were highly defensible.

Q: Who was Kintpuash?

Kintpuash or Captain Jack moved in and out of mining communities and had been a part of Modoc efforts to resolve their differences with non-Indians diplomatically.

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