In the Land of Burnt Out Fires

In the Land of Burnt Out Fires
A Tragedy of the Far Northwest
By Dr. Brady
The most costly war in which the United States ever engaged, considering the number of opponents, occurred in the winter of 1872-73 in the lava-beds of Oregon. Fifty Modoc 1 Indians, under the leadership of one Kientpoos – commonly known as Captain Jack, held that pedregal against overwhelming numbers of regular soldiers upon whom they inflicted defeat after defeat with little loss to themselves. They were not captured until treachery had played its maleficent part. To understand this tremendous drama a knowledge of the first act is essential.

In September, 1852, an emigrant train, comprising sixty-five men, women and children, was making its way northward into the lake region of southern Oregon.

The California-Oregon trail led between Lower Klamath and Tule Lakes. Huge bluffs several hundred feet high approached nearly the shore of Tule Lake, leaving a narrow road between the cliffs and the water. There the emigrant party mentioned was overwhelmed by Modoc Indians led by old Schonchin. The Modocs closed both ends of the trail and attacked from the bluffs. The settlers fought bravely, but to no avail. Those not killed were captured and tortured to death with every device of savage malignity. One man, desperately wounded, and left for dead, escaped to tell the tale. Two girls of twelve and fourteen were spared. The massacre of Bloody Point long remained a ghastly memory on the frontier.

This affair was the culmination of a series of unparalleled atrocities. The magnitude of this latest massacre, however, begot stern determination for revenge. One Ben Wright, a man of influence and standing in California, led a body of volunteers in pursuit of the Modocs. The Indians eluded him, and he was unable to bring them to a stand in order to crush them. Failing that he resorted to a stratagem – which was treachery of the deepest dye. He sent messengers to the Modocs with propositions of peace. They agreed to his proposition, that Schonchin and his principal warriors should meet the settlers for a peace conference at a point on the shore of the lake across from Bloody Point, both sides being unarmed. There was to be an armistice, each party was to come and go freely, unharmed of the other. It is alleged that Wright mixed strychnine with food which he prepared for a peace feast, hoping to poison the whole party. Two reasons are given for the failure of this enterprise. One, the Modocs refused to eat; two, the strychnine proved to be innocuous. 2

At any rate, out of conflicting stories one thing is clear. Some forty-six Modocs attended this conference. Schonchin was kept from it by illness, but his sub-chiefs and principal men were present. Wright’s men were armed, the Modocs were not. Giving a signal, Wright whipped out his pistol and shot the nearest Indian dead. In five minutes after the firing began forty-one guests of this Red Abencerrages feast lay dead. Five escaped, among them the younger brother of the chief, named Schonchin John.

It is true the Modocs had been guilty of numberless outrages. They had waged war in a cruel and unjustifiable manner, from the civilized standpoint, although quite in consonance with their savage customs. The settlers were justly exasperated, yet there was no excuse for the ineffable treachery of assassination under a flag of truce. Yet public opinion, highly wrought as it was, fully sustained Wright and his men. The chief murderer was acclaimed a popular hero and was subsequently made Indian Agent -for having shown that he possessed qualities which enabled him to deal successfully with the red men, I presume! He was killed by the Indians a few years later.

The lesson was a severe one to the Indians. The power of the Modocs was broken. They remained defiant, but their capacities for further mischief were greatly impaired. They remembered the transaction, however, and it bore bitter fruit in the end.

In 1864 a treaty was made with the Modocs by which they agreed to go upon the reservation, which had been set apart for the La-la-kes, or Klamaths, and themselves. The treaty was not ratified by the United States Senate until 1869. One or two minor alterations were made in it before the ratification, and the Modocs saw in these changes an excuse for complying with its provisions. The main body of them under old Schonchin finally accepted the treaty and went on the reservation. Captain Jack, one of the head chiefs, with a band numbering

about a score of warriors with their women and children, Curly-headed Doctor, one of his sub-chiefs, Hooker Jim, and others, with small groups of followers, proved recalcitrant. They were finally induced to go on the reservation, there to meet with bitter persecution from the malicious and overbearing Klamaths who greatly exceeded them in numbers.

Jack protested to the Indian agents who, instead of requiring the Klamaths to leave the Modocs in peace, moved them from one part of the reservation to another. This happened several times until the Modocs finally grew desperate. They refused to stay on the reservation any longer and migrated to their old home in the Lost River region, a country teeming with game and fish. Having accepted the treaty they had no right there, of course, and the section was rapidly filling with settlers who resented their presence. But they had been hardly dealt with; the Government had given them no protection on the reservation. They had been moved from pillar to post, and had never remained long enough in one stay to make a crop – even the poor crop of the Indian. Wherever they had been sent the Klamaths had followed them and had made life a burden for them. No other reservation was proposed to them. They naturally went back to the land of their fathers.

It cannot be denied that they were a drunken, dissolute, disreputable lot. Just a sordid, squalid, degraded band of homeless, wretched Indians. They frightened the women and children, and worried and annoyed the settlers, although there is no evidence that they resorted to open violence. The situation, however, was plainly impossible. Something had to be done.

The commander of the Department was Gen. Edward S. Canby, a soldier of forty years’ experience, distinguished in three wars, familiar with Indian affairs, well-disposed toward his red brethren, a just and upright man of the highest qualities. The matter could not have been committed to better hands. Asserting that the Modocs had been unjustly and harshly treated, he deprecated the employment of force against them. He hoped to effect a settlement of the difficulties by peaceable methods. In spite of every effort the trouble grew, until it culminated in a formal request from the local Indian Agent upon Maj. John Green of the First Cavalry, who commanded at Fort Klamath, made at the instance of the Interior Department, that the Modocs be put on the reservation, “peaceably if you can, forcibly if you must.” Major Green despatched Capt. James Jackson with some forty troopers to Jack’s camp on Lost River, a few miles above Tule Lake.

Jackson had orders to arrest Captain Jack and several of his companions for the murder of an Indian medicine-man whom Jack had shot on the reservation because he had failed to cure the chief’s ailing children – a summary way to pay a doctor’s bill! Jack and Schonchin John with fourteen men and their women and children were encamped on the west side of the river, a deep, rapid stream some three hundred feet broad. On the other side were Hooker Jim and Curly-headed Doctor, with fourteen warriors and others. Twelve citizens had been apprised of Captain Jackson’s movement, and they came down on the east side to intercept any Indians who might retreat across it, thus cooperating with the soldiers. Leaving Fort Klamath on the morning of November 28, 1872, after a hard all-night march through a pouring rain, Jackson reached the Indian camp at daybreak on the morning of the 29th.

In his own expressive language he “jumped the camp.” The Indians, unsuspicious, knew nothing of his presence until they were ordered to surrender. They all came out of their tepees except Jack, and a parley began. The soldiers ordered the Modocs to disarm. One particularly bold savage, named Scar-faced Charley, whose father had been killed by the whites – lassoed and hung before his son’s eyes – refused to give up his weapon, and others followed his example. Jackson ordered Lieutenant Boutelle to take a squad of men and arrest him. Boutelle started toward the Indians and the battle began. It is asserted that Scar-faced Charley fired first, but it is probable that the officer and the savage fired simultaneously. At any rate, the soldiers poured in a volley, the Indians snatched up their guns and returned it, and then ran to the hills seeking concealment in the timbers and undergrowth on the bank of the river, from which they stoutly engaged the soldiers.

At the first shot Captain Jack came out of his tent and took charge of the defense. Meanwhile, the citizens engaged the party on the other side of the river and were badly worsted. Captain Jackson lost one man killed and seven wounded. Three citizens were shot down. In all fifteen Indians were killed, some of them being women and children. After fighting for about an hour, Jackson became convinced of the impossibility of whipping the Indians with his small force. Boats were at hand and the troops withdrew across the river. Leaving his wounded under a strong guard at Crawley’s Ranch, Jackson recrossed, found the Indians gone, burned their camp and retired. Meanwhile, Hooker Jim’s band had also escaped.

Jack retired post-haste to the lava-beds. He molested no one on his retreat. Hooker Jim and his followers killed everybody they met, in all some seventeen settlers. They did not molest any women. After this bloody

raid they joined Captain Jack in the lava-beds. Col. Frank Wheaton, commander of the district, repaired to the scene of the action at once. The nearest available troops (detachments of the First Cavalry and Twenty-first Infantry) were sent to him together with two companies of Oregon militia and one from California. In all, his force numbered over four hundred men.

On Hot Creek, an affluent of Lower Klamath Lake, another band of Modocs dwelt. Some of these broke away and joined the defiant in the lava-beds, so that Jack’s force was increased to fifty warriors and about one hundred and fifty women and children. They were well supplied with ammunition and food. They boasted that with the natural advantages of the lava-beds they could whip a thousand soldiers, a statement which was literally true, but which was laughed to scorn at the time. The fight they put up, whatever be their character, awakened the admiration of the world.

These lava-beds are among the most peculiar natural formations on the continent. They are a mass of volcanic debris included in a territory about eight miles long and four miles wide. The formation is thus described by Captain Lydecker of the United States Engineers, who surveyed and mapped it.

“They present the appearance on first view of an immense sage-bush plain, with no obstructions to easy movement in every direction. A closer examination, however, develops the fact that the plain is broken at irregular intervals by sections of low, rocky ridges. The ridges are not isolated, but occur in groups, and form a perfect network of obstructions, admirably adapted to a defense by an active enemy; they seldom rise to a height of ten feet above the bed, and are, as a rule, split open at the top, giving thus continuous cover along their crests.”

Transversal crevices furnished excellent communication through which the Indians were enabled to pass from one ridge to another without the least exposure. Only a few of these cross passages and unseen positions, sufficient to satisfy the requirements of free communication, were left open by the Indians in that series of ridges which made up “Jack’s Stronghold.” The rest were in all cases blockaded by rolling in heavy stones.

The Modocs were familiar with every foot of it. None of the soldiers and few of the settlers had ever entered it; certainly, none of them had explored it. The ridge formation was not continuous. It broke out in spots separated by wide open places comparatively level, although the ground was everywhere terribly rocky and uneven. These open places, however, were cut up by deep, impassable ravines and pitted with holes or pockets. There was no way to tell the existence of a ravine or pocket, until one stood on the very brink of it.

During the campaign there were numerous small skirmishes for the description of which space is lacking. On the morning of January 17, 1873, a heavy fog lying low on the pedregal, the first effort at dislodgment began. The troops started out gleefully, shouting that they would have “Modoc steak” for breakfast. “A more enthusiastic, jolly set of regulars and volunteers I never had the honor to command. If the Modocs will only try to make good their boast to whip a thousand soldiers all will be satisfied,” wrote Colonel Wheaton, two days before.

The soldiers fought all day and scarcely saw a Modoc. They stumbled blindly forward over rocks, ranging in size from a cobble to a church, with points like needles and edges like razors. From the most unexpected places would come a spit of fire, followed by the crack of a rifle or musket. Somebody generally received the bullet. The soldiers fired volleys at the ridges and did not hit a single Indian. Their courage was of the highest order. They scrambled forward over the rocks, blazing away at every rifle flash, fearlessly exposing themselves, traversing impassable ravines, in a desperate endeavor to come at close quarters with the enemy, and all to no avail. The Modocs had made good their boast!

When evening came the troops withdrew to their camps on the shores of the lake -they had attacked the stronghold from both sides – utterly discomfited, with a loss of nine killed and thirty wounded: The infantry battalion under Major Mason lost nearly onefourth of its strength, the loss among the volunteers was trifling. Captain Perry and Lieutenants Kyle and Roberts were wounded. If the Modocs had been better shots the loss would have been vastly greater. Thereafter, Colonel Wheaton stated that he would require at least a thousand men with mortars and other artillery to dislodge the little Modoc band from its position. He and other experienced officers declared that they had never seen a position so thoroughly defensible, so impossible of successful attack, as the lava-beds. The soldiers, no longer cheerful, were in a state of complete exhaustion. Their shoes were cut to ribbons, their uniforms in rags, their ammunition expended, their spirits depressed by the hardships and struggles of the long and fruitless day. Wheaton had done his best with the means at his command. Neither he nor his men had dreamed of the difficulties of the situation.

He was superseded, however, and Col. A. C. Gillem, First Cavalry, was ordered into the field. Reinforcements were hurried to him until the thousand men

required were present. General Canby then took command in person. It was thought best, before proceeding further, to try the effect of negotiations. A Peace Commission was created charged with their conduct. From a humanitarian standpoint there can be no question as to the-propriety of this course. To the Indian an offer to negotiate is a confession of weakness. The Modocs concluded that the white soldiers were afraid of them.

The United States demanded that the Indians go back on the reservation and that the men, headed by Curlyheaded Doctor and Hooker Jim, who had killed the settlers after Captain Jackson’s unsuccessful “jump” of the Modoc camp, should be surrendered for trial as murderers. It is true they had shot down inoffensive men, yet the first act of hostility had come from the soldiers and the little band of settlers who had attacked them on Lost River. Jack had not participated in this slaughter, yet to have given up these men would have been a lasting disgrace in his eyes. He refused to surrender them, naturally. He demanded a complete amnesty and the withdrawal of the troops as his conditions of peace. He professed willingness to go upon the reservation, but he wanted to choose his own. Several localities that he suggested were regarded as impracticable. Finally, he proposed the lava-beds. Such a thing could not be thought of. The United States was not ready to name any definite reservation. They offered to place Jack and his people on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, and thereafter to transport them to some suitable reservation as might be desired.

Jack promptly refused this proposition. The Lost River country was his home and he wanted to stay there. For one thing the wily chief was playing for time. The negotiations were terribly protracted. Meanwhile, he had tried in vain to induce the other Indians to join forces with him, especially the main body of the Modocs on the reservation under old Schonchin. Failing in that, he was inclined toward peace, ultimately, if he could get it on his own terms. The majority of his warriors were clamorous for war. Boston Charley professed to be able to make medicine which would protect the Modocs from the soldiers’ bullets. He pointed out the fact that none of them had been killed in the recent attack as proof of his claims. Jack was a man of much native shrewdness and he realized what the end of the little handful of Indians would be. He stood out for a settlement as best he could. There were scenes of intense dramatic interest in the lava-beds. Finally, the warriors put a woman’s hat and shawl on their chief and called him a squaw. This insult, and his inability to agree upon anything definite with the commissioners, broke down his determination. He tore off the offensive garments and declared that if the band wanted war they should have it with a vengeance.

The first step resolved upon was the murder of the commissioners and the commanders of the soldiers. The commission had been variously constituted at different times, but at present included General Canby, whose function was of an advisory nature; Colonel Gillem; the Rev. Dr. Eleazer Thomas, a Methodist minister, a man of the deepest piety and widely known as a friend of the Indians; the Hon. A. B. Meacham, formerly an Indian Agent, who was also famed for his just treatment of these very Modocs who knew him well, and Mr. L. S. Dyer, another Indian Agent of character and standing.

The Modoc stronghold was in the center of the north line of the lava-beds, about three-quarters of a mile from Tule Lake. Jack had roughly fortified his position by joining several ravines by rudely made stone walls, and by filling some of the exits and entrances with huge boulders, rolled into the crevices with prodigious labor.

On the east side of the lava-beds near the lake front, about two miles from the stronghold, Major Mason’s men were posted. About the same distance on the west, General Canby had his headquarters with the main body under Colonel Gillem. About three-quarters of a mile from headquarters the peace tent had been pitched under the shadow of a bluff, a short distance from the lake shore. Meacham and others had visited Jack in the lava-beds during the negotiations, and various Modocs had returned these visits to Gillem’s and Mason’s camps. There had been a rather free exchange of courtesies and calls.

After he had decided upon treachery, Jack requested that the five commissioners with Riddle, a squaw-man, who had married a Modoc woman named Toby, and who acted as interpreter, should meet an equal number of the Modocs at the council tent for final conference, both parties to come unarmed. The meeting was agreed upon, but before it took place it was reported from the signal-station on the bluffs back of Gillem’s camp, from which the peace tent was in full view, that, in addition to the six Modocs who were of the council party, some twenty armed warriors were concealed in near by ravines. The commissioners refused to go to the meeting. They were not surprised at this evidence of bad faith.

Undeterred by this another meeting was arranged under the same conditions. So confident was Riddle, an unusually intelligent man, that treachery was intended, that he remonstrated personally with each member of the commission. Meacham and Dyer agreed with him

that the meeting should be declined, and urged the two officers and Dr. Thomas to refuse it. General Canby realized the danger. He did not doubt that the Indians desired to murder the commissioners. He did not believe, however, that they would be so short-sighted as to commit an act which would inevitably bring summary punishment upon them. In any event he felt that it was his duty to leave no stone unturned to bring about a peaceable solution of the difficulty. In this conclusion Dr. Thomas agreed. He said the whole matter was in God’s hands and that, if necessary, he would go alone to the meeting.

Meacham was chairman of the commission. Since the others looked at it in that way, he bravely decided against his better judgment and agreed to go. He felt that without its chairman the conference would be a failure. It was his duty to accompany the others; his honor would not permit him to withdraw from danger that they were willing to face. Like considerations influenced Dyer. Therefore, the meeting was arranged for eleven o’clock on the morning of April 11, 1873.

Riddle demanded that the commissioners go with him to the bedside of Colonel Gillem, who was too ill to go with them, and he there made a formal protest. He, too, would have backed out except for an unwillingness that any man should say that he was afraid to go where other men went.

Jack had sent two Indians, Bogus Charley and Boston Charley, to make the final arrangements. Dr. Thomas had entertained these Indians at his tent the night before. Piloted by them, he and General Canby on foot started for the peace tent. A short distance behind them Meacham, Dyer, and Riddle followed on horseback with the faithful Toby. The signal-station reported that there were no warriors concealed in the vicinity and that the only persons present were Jack and five other Indians and that they had no rifles with them. These Indians were Schonchin, Black Jim, Hooker Jim, Ellen’s Man and Shacknasty Jim 3 .

A fire had been built and stones piled around to form a council ring. It was noticed that the tent was between the council ring and the signal-station on the bluffs, concealing the council from the observation of the officers. The commissioners, to their great dismay, at once saw that the Indians were armed with revolvers. Beneath coats and shirts which they wore, the butts of the weapons were plainly visible. But two of the commissioners were armed. Before they started Meacham had suggested that each of the commissioners carry a concealed weapon.

General Canby and Dr. Thomas positively refused. Each had given his word of honor to come unarmed and that word he would not break. They pointed out that the suspicions of the Indians were highly excited and that the least evidence of bad faith would probably result in breaking off the negotiations. Mr. Meacham then proposed that in case affairs looked threatening they should immediately agree to any propositions made by the Indians in order to get away. General Canby and Dr. Thomas again refused. They declined to promise anything which they could not perform. Dr. Thomas said, “I will be a party to no deception under any circumstances; this matter is in the hands of God.” General Canby said, “I have dealt with Indians for thirty years. I have never deceived an Indian and I will never consent to it -to any promise that cannot be fulfilled.” Meacham and Dyer gave up after that. Before they started some one gave each of these two a small derringer pistol, single shot, which they slipped in their pockets.

General Canby passed cigars to the savages and then the speech-making began. The council was short, but full of excitement. The Indians were insolent in their behavior and extravagant in their demands. In spite of the endeavor of the commissioners so to group themselves that they were mingled with the Indians they found the Modocs gathered on one side of the fire and themselves on the other. During the council another white man approached, but at Jack’s request he was sent back. At one period Hooker Jim got up and took Mr. Meacham’s overcoat from the pommel of his saddle and put it on with an insulting remark. Thinking to pacify him, Meacham gave him his hat also with a careless jest.

Everybody knew now what were the intentions of the Indians. There was nothing then to be done but brave it out. No one exhibited the least sign of fear. After perhaps an hour’s conference the demands of the Indians culminated in a peremptory request for the immediate removal of the soldiers, which was proffered by Schonchin John. Captain Jack had withdrawn from the council fire a moment or two previously. He came back just as Schonchin John finished his speech and Canby rose to reply. The General’s answer was a prompt, unqualified negative. The soldiers were there and there they would stay until the thing was settled one way or the other. Schonchin John again began speaking vehemently. Before he had finished two Indians, Barncho and Sloluck, suddenly appeared from the cover of the

rocks, each with his arms full of guns. At this Jack stepped from behind Dyer’s horse, pistol in hand. He spoke one guttural word, “At-tux!” (All ready!) and as he did so snapped the pistol in Canby’s face. The revolver missed fire. The General started toward the Modoc, but Jack recocked the pistol with the barrel almost touching the old soldier and pulled the trigger. The bullet struck Canby under the eye. Dazed, he staggered back.

Dr. Thomas had been kneeling on one knee, his hand on Meacham’s shoulder. He had just made an eloquent plea for peace. Boston Charley deliberately shot him through the breast. Schonchin shot Meacham while the others opened fire upon Dyer and Riddle. To each Indian had been apportioned a victim. Dyer had risen and was standing some few feet away from the fire. He and Riddle ran for their lives, hotly pursued by the Indians. Bullets cut the air about them. One grazed Dyer. Hooker Jim drew near to him. His pursuit was checked by a shot from Dyer’s derringer. He and Riddle succeeded in escaping. Meacham snapped his pistol at Schonchin, wounding him slightly. He was instantly shot by half a dozen Indians, receiving five wounds.

Canby was shot twice more, once by Ellen’s Man. Toby was knocked over by the butt of Sloluck’s rifle and would have been killed had it not been for a threat of Scar-faced Charley, who said that he would shoot the first man who touched her. He was attached to Toby for some reason and was watching the scene from a hiding-place in easy range. General Canby had gone but a short distance when he was shot dead. Dr. Thomas, unable to move, raised himself on one arm, and put out his hand in faint protest, exclaiming:

“Don’t shoot again, Charley. I am a dead man already.”

“Damn ye,” returned the Indian, who spoke English, “may be you believe next time what squaw tell you.” He shot the dying man again and again until life was gone.

The Indians stripped Canby, Thomas, and Meacham, and Boston Charley started to scalp the latter who was thought to be dead. He had made a long cut in the head and prepared to tear away the scalp when Toby, to whom Mr. Meacham had been very kind, raised herself from the ground where she had been lying tremblingly awaiting her doom, and shouted with quick wit, “Soldiers are coming!” The murderers fled instantly to the lava-beds. The tragedy was over. 4

While all this was going on another band of Indians had approached the camp of Colonel Mason on the east side and had requested a parley with him. The officer of the day, Lieut. Walter Sherwood, met them with Lieut. W. H. Boyle. The Indians opened fire upon them at once. Sherwood was mortally wounded and Boyle escaped by the skin of his teeth. The plan had been for the Indians to kill all the commissioners and ranking officers in the belief that by so doing the soldiers would withdraw and their freedom would be achieved.

The cowardly attack on Lieutenant Sherwood was signaled from Mason’s camp to the station on the bluff. Scarcely had the message been received when the officers there discovered that the peace commissioners had been attacked. Scrambling down the bluffs they burst into Colonel Gillem’s tent with the dire news. The sound of the firing had been heard throughout the camp. The soldiers, without orders, sprang to arms, yet there were moments of unaccountable delay. The advance was not made promptly. There was some question as to Gillem’s course later on. Finally, the several companies and troops went forward on the double quick. Sergeant Wooten, with twenty men of K Troop, First Cavalry, led the advance without orders. They arrived too late, of course. There was nothing to be done but bring back the dead bodies and the wounded Meacham. His life was despaired of, but he finally recovered.

It was plain now to every one that the Modocs must be subdued at whatever cost. Colonel Gillem and Major Mason attacked the lava-beds on the 14th. There were three days of fierce fighting exactly of the character of Wheaton’s battle. This time the soldiers were reinforced by several mortars, which finally got the range of Jack’s Stronghold and threw shell after shell into it. One of the shells did not explode. The Indians seized it and, their curiosity excited, tried to open it and find out what it was. One Indian attempted to draw the plug

with his teeth. The shell blew up and killed several of the Indians. Convinced that his lair had become untenable on account of the artillery, Jack withdrew. For three days he had been cut off from the lake which was his only water-supply, the lava-beds being as dry as a bone.

The troops had surrounded the place, and on the morning of the 17th they moved forward to the final attack. There was some skirmishing by a rear-guard of Modocs, but the soldiers at last rushed the ridges that had been so gallantly defended against such heavy odds. They found the place deserted. An underground passage connected with the distant ravines had afforded the Modocs a way of escape. They were still somewhere in the maze of the lava-beds, but just where no one knew. The troops had lost eight killed and seventeen wounded. They found the bodies of three men and eight women in the Modoc stronghold.

On the 21st of April a party of soldiers with fifteen Warm Spring Indians, auxiliaries, eighty-five in all, under the command of Capt. Evan Thomas, with Lieuts. Albion Howe, Arthur Cranston, G. M. Harris, all of the Fourth Artillery, and Lieut. T. F. Wright of the Seventeenth Infantry, with Act.-Asst. Surg. B. G. Semig, was sent to the lava-beds to discover the location of the Indians. They were instructed to proceed cautiously and to avoid an engagement. These soldiers were from the Twelfth Infantry and the Fourth Artillery, the latter being used as infantry in the lava-beds and sometimes as cavalry in the open country, in this campaign.

They proceeded carefully with skirmishers thrown out on both sides, the Warm Spring Indians far on the flanks. By this time the soldiers had conceived a wholesome respect for their antagonists which almost amounted to fear. The ground was admirably adapted for surprise, and it was with difficulty that the flanking parties could be kept to their proper distance. They were constantly shrinking in toward the main body. They were not molested in their advance, however, and at noon halted for dinner.

They had stopped at the base of a sand-hill in comparatively open ground, with lava-beds several hundred yards distant on either side, and were quietly eating when a rifle-shot from one of the ravines, which two men had been directed to reconnoiter, gave the alarm. This shot was followed by a volley from the hidden enemy and a number of men fell. The officers, the non-commissioned officers and some of the veteran privates coolly ran to cover to some of the pits and ridges before mentioned and returned the fire. The sand-hill in front was charged by a detachment which occupied it, only to find that it was commanded by another hill to which the unseen enemy had retired. The place was a regular death-trap, and the Modocs got on both sides of the soldiers and coolly shot them down. The plain was alive with fire.

A panic took possession of some of the men, a panic which is remembered with shame by the Army of the United States to this day. Half of them turned and fled headlong, abandoning their officers and their braver comrades who disdained to fly. Every officer was killed or mortally wounded except the surgeon, who was desperately wounded in two places. The total loss was twenty-two killed and eighteen wounded. The cowards who fled reached the camp in safety. The Warm Spring Indians were scouting at the time, and being mistaken for Modocs by the troops, they were unable to succor them. These all escaped. Fortunately for some of the wounded who remained on the field, the nature of the ground was such that the Modocs could not come at them. They were found still alive by the rescuing party, which reached them from the main camp late in the evening. The Modocs had but twenty-one men in the field. None of them was hit. 5

In the meantime Col. Jefferson C. Davis, a brilliant and energetic old soldier with a distinguished record, was appointed to the command with instructions to prosecute the campaign vigorously until it closed. He restored Colonel Wheaton to his place at once. He also set about restoring the somewhat shattered morale of the soldiers. He reorganized the troops, brought up supplies and reinforcements, and prepared to force the fighting.

The Indians finally separated, roughly speaking, into two bands. A portion remained with Captain Jack and the rest under Hooker Jim, and others withdrew. By a series of scientific and gradual approaches, by occupying the lava-beds just as the Indians had done, General Davis constantly tightened the cordon around the Modocs. The situation of the Indians had become exceedingly difficult. They had been forced away from their water-supply ; their provisions and ammunition were running low; they were practically surrounded in the lava-beds with little hope of escape. Dissensions arose, as was natural in a body so loosely coherent and comprised of so many diverse and mutually

independent elements. Finally, they decided to leave the lava-beds.

On the morning of the loth of May Hasbrouck’s light battery of the Fourth Artillery, mounted as cavalry, and two troops of the Fourth Cavalry were encamped on Sorass Lake on the west side of the pedregal. The Indians, who seemed to have temporarily reunited, made an attack upon this force. Captain Jack, clad in General Canby’s uniform, led a company of thirty-three Modocs in a charge on the camp, while a detachment was absent for water. They succeeded in stampeding the horses and mules and for a time things looked serious. Hasbrouck, however, rallied his men, checked the advance, and, by a series of brilliant charges directly upon the lines the Modocs had established in the surrounding hills, cleared them out of the country, killed one man and – most important of all-captured twenty-four pack-animals, carrying most of the Indians’ ammunition, all with a loss of but two killed and seven wounded. This was the first clean-cut defeat the Modocs had sustained, and proved conclusively that they could not fight the troops in the open.

After this the differences between the two parties of Modocs became permanent. They separated, left the vicinity of the lava-beds, and fled. A vigorous advance all along the line disclosed the fact that the Indians had abandoned their stronghold and were at last in the open. A hot pursuit was instituted in every direction. The first large party, numbering about a hundred, was captured on the 22nd of May after some hard marching, but Jack and his immediate following were still in the field.

Davis determined to use the leaders of the first party to effect the capture of the remainder. These Modocs saw the game was up and were willing to save their own lives by betraying the others. Hotly pursued by the soldiers, who were guided by the traitors, the remaining Modocs were gathered up in little bunches here and there, and on the 1st of June Jack was captured in Willow Creek Canon by Captain Perry’s troop. He had been literally run to earth by the cavalrymen. As he came out of the canon and surrendered his gun, he sank to the ground exhausted, with the remark that his legs had given out.

General Davis made preparation to hang Jack and the other murderers of the commissioners out of hand. He was stopped by an order from Washington, and after considerable discussion as to the legality of the proceedings, upon the opinion of the Attorney-General, Captain Jack, Schonchin, Boston Charley, Black Jim, Barncho, and Sloluck were ordered for trial before a military commission. Hooker Jim, Bogus Charley, and Shacknasty Jim turned State’s evidence. Ellen’s Man had been killed. The charge was violation of the laws of war, attacking a peace commission under cover of a flag of truce. The prisoners were not represented by counsel. As Jack remarked, they had been unable to obtain any. The trial was fairly conducted, nevertheless. The testimony of the witnesses, both white and Indian, was strong against the prisoners. The captives asked these witnesses no questions. They called a few witnesses to the stand in their turn, and these only with the apparent object of establishing the fact that the Klamaths, their hereditary enemies, had urged and incited them to war, and had furnished the weapons and supplies to enable them to carry it on, all of which may possibly have been true, but none of which was material.

Jack made a speech, pitiful in its futility, in which he brought out one point that hostilities had commenced by Captain Jackson’s attack on his camp on Lost River. Jack also stated that the Modocs who had betrayed him and turned State’s evidence were the very Modocs whom he had refused to surrender at the beginning of the war, and if he had done so there would have been no trouble. It was also shown that these men were the most guilty and that it was their insistence in their desperation which had induced him and others to commit the murders.

In closing, the Chief Advocate specifically acquitted the prisoners of any participation in the murder of the citizens after Captain Jackson’s attack. The verdict was guilty, and the punishment death by hanging.

Peace societies and earnest, intelligent, but misguided individuals, some of them of great eminence, all over the country, pleaded with the Government for a suspension or commutation of the sentence. Public agitation rose to fever heat. The Government, however, declined to interfere and stood firm in the case of the greater culprits.

It was shown that Barncho and Sloluck were merely tools of the others. President Grant, therefore, commuted their sentences to imprisonment for life, but that was all. In the case of the other four the sentence was carried out with due solemnity and all the forms of the law at ten o’clock in the morning of Friday, October 3, 1873.

They were hanged in full view of the Klamaths and their own women and children, who, from the stockade in which they were confined, saw all that happened. The prisoners met their death with calm fortitude. A wail of anguish rose from the stockade, in which even the stoical Klamaths joined when the trap was sprung and the men swung in the air. justice had had her innings. The murder of the great general and of the devoted

missionary had been avenged. The dignity of the United States had been upheld.

It was right that Jack should die, but what might he not have said had he possessed the fluent tongue of some of his race, as he stood on that scaffold, looking southward toward that point where but twenty-one years before, when he was scarcely fourteen, Ben Wright had violated a flag of truce in the same way as that for which he was being punished, only to receive reward and promotion thereafter from his fellow-citizens? What must Schonchin John, who had escaped from that catastrophe, have felt as the noose was placed about his neck?

The history of the Modocs thereafter is unimportant. To the number of thirty-four men who had been in the lava-beds, five other men who had joined them, fifty-four women and sixty children, they were translated to a reservation at Baxter Springs, Kansas. To-day a handful survives.

In the war the Modocs lost twelve killed, four executed, one a suicide – all warriors, and an unknown number of women and children. The total loss of the white settlers and soldiers was one hundred and sixtyeight, of whom eighty-three were killed. The cost of the war was over half a million dollars. They say it takes a ton of lead to kill one soldier in battle: to put down these fifty Modocs about twelve hundred men were employed. Each Modoc accounted for three men and cost the United States Government over ten thousand dollars before he was himself killed or captured – a fearful price, indeed.

Insignificant people they were, but in their brief hour they managed to stamp themselves on the pages of history. The name of Captain Jack will not be forgotten,

Note on the present status of Modocs furnished by the Department of the Interior.

This office is in receipt of your communication of the loth instant, in which you state you are anxious to know the present status of the Modocs who were translated from California and Oregon to Baxter Springs, Kansas, in 1873; and you ask if these Indians are still at Baxter Springs, and if they still retain their tribal existence. You further inquire as to their number and their temporal condition.

The Modoc reservation embraces a tract of land about two and one-half miles square, and is situated about one and one-half miles northeast of the Quapaw Agency. It was formerly a part of the Shawnee Reservation and contained in round numbers about 4,000 acres, equally divided as to timber and prairie land. The reservation was obtained for them by agreement with the Eastern Shawnees, made June 23, 1874, which was confirmed and ratified by Congress in an Act approved March 3, 1875 (r8 Stats. 447): 3,976 acres were allotted to sixty-eight Indians, 8 acres being reserved for church and cemetery purposes, 2 acres for a school, and 24 acres were set aside as a timber reserve to supply timber to allottees living on the prairie.

The last annual report of Mr. Horace B. Durant, Superintendent of the Seneca Indian Training-school (address at Wyandotte, Indian Territory), and in charge of the Modocs, gave the following statistics concerning the Indians under consideration:

Population. . . . . . . . . . 54
Males. . . . . . . . . . . 25
Females. . . . . . . . . . 29
Males over eighteen. . . . . . . . . .17
Females over fourteen. . . . . . . . . .16
Males under eighteen. . . . . . . . . .8
Females under fourteen. . . . . . . . . .13
Children between six and sixteen. . . . . . . . . .11
Number of allotments. . . . . . . . . .68
Acres in each allotment. . . . . . . . . .48
Indians of one-half Indian blood and over. . . . . . . . . .40
Indians of less than one-half Indian blood. . . . . . . . . .14
Living out of the Agency, inclusive of children in non-reservation schools. . . . . . . . . .15
Males over eighteen who are farmers. . . . . . . . . .4
Children in non-reservation schools. . . . . . . . . .1
Children attending all other schools. . . . . . . . . .5

He further reported that all of the Modocs wore citizens’ clothes and that all were engaged in civilized pursuits and were living in very poor houses of mainly one room each and with dirt floors.

From the above you will see that the Indians practically no longer sustain their tribal relations, they having received their allotments of land in severalty; that they all wear citizens’ clothes and that they are still near Baxter Springs.Citations:

  1. According to some etymologies, the word means a stranger.[]
  2. Perhaps the person who sold it may have tricked the purchaser, being unwilling to further such wholesale assassination.[]
  3. The curious names of these Modocs were given them by white men for various trivial reasons: Jack was called Captain because of a fondness for brass buttons and uniforms, Hooker Jim had worked for a man named Hooker, Boston Charley was very light colored, like the “Bostons; ‘ i. e., the soldiers, etc.[]
  4. In writing about the Modoc War I hope you will not get the two Thomases mixed. The other Thomas was Dr. Thomas, the Methodist preacher from Petaluma, who had been appointed a member of the Peace Commission of which Meacham was chairman, and who was butchered at the council tent. He made the mistake, in the absence of the chairman, of promising a committee of Modocs that the commission would go out and hold a talk with them the neat day. Toby Riddle, the Modoc wife of Frank Riddle, warned them that they were to be killed, and from what I have heard from soldiers I should judge that Meacham did all he could to prevent the commission going out. When Meacham was superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon and Washington, he issued an order compelling all white men living on reservations with squaws either legally to marry them or get off the reserves. This resulted in Toby being made a legal wife and she always felt grateful to Meacham for it. Everybody said she made a good wife. She saved Meacham from being completely killed.

    They used to illustrate the strength of commissary whisky in the army by telling that when Dr. Cabiness, contract surgeon and a very brave man, was reviving Meacham with the whisky, the latter refused to take it and said that he was a teetotaler and had taken the pledge. Cabiness replied, “Damn it, if that’s the case, pry his teeth apart and pour canteen and all down him,” which was done as nearly as possible. That kind of whisky is said to have had sufficiently strong reviving qualities to set equestrian statues of General Jackson cavorting around single-footed on their Pedestals. Note By J. W. Redington.[]

  5. General Davis thus comments on the battle in his report:

    “An error was made by the officer in command in not pushing his skirmish-line further to the front and on the flanks before balting, but this mistake could have been easily and quickly remedied had the men, as a few did, stood by the officers and obeyed orders. This they did not do. The result was conspicuous cowardice on the part of the men who ran away, and conspicuous bravery and death on the part of the officers and men who stood. The lesson taught by this affair is that a great many of the enlisted men here are utterly unfit for Indian fighting of this kind, being only cowardly beef-eaters. My recommendation is, however, that they be kept here, trained, and made to fight. I shall take such steps while here as I think will insure this training.”[]

Modoc, Modoc War,


Search Military Records - Fold3

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top