California Indians — Part IV

The Modoc War

When the Commissioner of Indian Affairs failed to respond to Alfred Meacham’s request, Meacham took it upon himself to petition General Edward Canby[i], Commanding General of the Department of the Columbia, to move Captain Jack’s band to the Yainax Ranch area on the Klamath Reservation — his recommended site for Modoc use.  Canby forwarded Meacham’s recommendation to Lieutenant General John McAllister Schofield[ii], Commanding General of the Pacific — adding that the Army pursue peaceful negations before resorting to force.  While these steps proceeded, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs replaced Meacham with T. B. Odeneal, a man who knew almost nothing about the Modoc situation, but who was nevertheless charged with getting the Modoc out of Lost River.

On 3 April 1872, Major Elmer Otis held council with Captain Jack at the Lost River Gap (near present-day Olene, Oregon).  Otis advised Captain Jack that some of the settlers had complained about Modoc raiding parties; Jack argued that part of the problem was that the Modoc were being accused of behaviors perpetrated by other Indians.  Otis was unable to resolve this issue, but nevertheless determined to remove Captain Jack and his band to the Klamath Reservation.  At the time, Otis had insufficient forces needed to remove the Modoc; he recommended to his superiors that the army wait until later in the year when he could place the Modoc at a numerical disadvantage.

On 12 April, Odeneal received orders to move Captain Jack — if practicable, and ensure that the Modoc were protected from the Klamath tribe.  Within a month, Odeneal dispatched Ivan D. Applegate and L. S. Dyar to arrange a council with Captain Jack.  Jack refused to meet, however, and this prompted the Commissioner to order Odeneal to move Captain with the minimum force necessary.  In this process, there were a few minor skirmishes.  Captain Jack, feeling mistreated, grew angry.

On November 27, Superintendent Odeneal requested that the Commanding Officer at Fort Klamath provide sufficient troops to compel Captain Jack’s removal.  The next day, Captain James Jackson led 40 troopers to Lost River.  A militia force reinforced Jackson at Klamath Falls.

Wishing to avoid conflict, Captain Jack agreed to go to the reservation, but the situation became tense when Jackson demanded that the Modoc chief surrender his weapons.  Captain Jack had never fought the Army, so Jackson’s order confused him.  He finally agreed to relinquish his weapons and the Modoc band followed suite.

An argument suddenly developed between a Modoc warrior named Scarface Charley and Lieutenant Frazier A. Boutelle, of company B, 1st Cavalry.  They drew their revolvers and shot at each other, both missing.  The rest of the Modoc scrambled to retrieve their weapons.  A brief fire fight developed before the Modoc fled toward California.  After driving the remaining Modoc from the camp, Captain Jackson ordered a retreat to await reinforcements.  In the scramble for weapons, one soldier was killed and seven wounded.  Captain Jack’s band lost two killed and three wounded.  On 29 November a Modoc warrior named Hooker Jim led some number of men to the Lava Beds, south of Tule Lake.  On 29-30 November, 1872, Hooker Jim attacked and killed 18 white settlers.

Following this incident, Captain Jack and his band fortified themselves at the lava beds, and with the exception of a few hunting expeditions, remained there.  On 21 December, one of Captain Jack’s scouting parties assaulted a U. S. Army ammunition resupply wagon at Land’s Ranch.  By mid-January, the Army had 400 troopers in the field near the Lava Beds.

Then, after a small skirmish with the Modoc near Hospital Rock on 16 January 1873, the Army advanced on the stronghold at the Lava Beds on 17 January.  The Modoc occupied excellent positions and repulsed the troopers time and again.  Army losses included 35 dead troopers, 5 officers and 20 enlisted men wounded.  They were facing 52 well-positioned warriors.

On 25 January, the Secretary of the Interior appointed a peace commission to negotiate with Captain Jack.  General Canby served as counselor to the commission.  Its first meeting was held on 19 February at Fairchild’s Ranch (west of the Lava Beds).  A messenger was dispatched to arrange the meeting with Captain Jack, who agreed to the meeting so long as settlers John Fairchild and Bob Whittle would speak with him.  When he met with Fairchild and Whittle, he told them that he would meet with the commission if Judge Elijah Steele also participated at the meeting.  Steele had been friendly with Captain Jack in the past.

Judge Steele attended Captain Jack at the stronghold.  The next morning, Steele returned to Fairchild’s ranch and warned the peace commission that the Modoc planned treachery.  Meacham telegrammed the Interior Secretary and informed him of Steele’s suspicions.  The Secretary ordered Meacham to proceed — and added Judge A. M. Rosborough to the commission’s membership.

On 1 April, Colonel Alvin C. Gillem was placed in overall command of troops.  He established his camp at the edge of the Lava Beds.  Captain Jack met with the commission on the next day at a location midway between the stronghold and Gillem’s camp.  Captain Jack and the commission exchanged several proposals, but there was no resolution on the first day.  It was then that the Modoc turned on Captain Jack.  He wanted a peaceful solution — but believing that if the Americans lost their leaders, Hooker Jim and his group pressured Jack to kill the peace commissioners.  The proposition was that either Captain Jack step down as Modoc chief, or comply with the will of most of his band.  Jack agreed attack the commission.

Captain Jack

Captain Jack met with Meacham for several hours on 5 April.  Again, there was no resolution, but  Modoc interpreter Toby Riddle learned of the plan to kill the American commission.  She duly warned the commission of the plot.  Another meeting was schedule for 8 April.  Forewarned of the assault, army scouts concealed themselves to observe Modoc behavior.  When the observers noted twenty or more armed Modoc laying in wait, and signaled this information to Gillem’s camp, the commissioners cancelled the meeting — but asked Captain Jack to meet with them on 11 April.

Despite all advance warnings, General Canby and others met with Captain Jack as scheduled.  At a pre-arranged signal, three Modoc Indians ran forward from the hiding places, killed Canby, mortally wounded Reverend Thomas, and wounded Meacham.  Two others of the commission escaped.  The United States could not allow such atrocity go unpunished.  Colonel Gillem organized a general assault of the stronghold on 15 April.  During the night of 15-16 April, Gillem’s troops cut off the Modoc water supply.  By the 17th Colonel Gillem was positioned for a final attack.  By this time, the Modoc realized that their water supply had been cut off, they left the stronghold through a passage unknown to the army.  Thus far in the fight, the army lost one officer and six troopers killed, thirteen wounded.  Two young Modoc boys were killed while playing with unexploded ordnance.

On 26 April, Captain Evan Thomas commanded 71 men who were detailed to perform a reconnaissance of the Lava Beds to locate Modoc warriors.  Twenty-two Modoc led by Scarface Charley attacked Thomas at around noon.  Surprised, some of Thomas’ men fled in disorder.  Others, remaining behind to fight, were killed or wounded.  Five officers and 13 enlisted men died; one officer and 16 men were wounded.  Afterward, Gillem’s troops demanded that he step down from command.  Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis relieved Gillem and assumed command of all operational troops.

Another fight took place on 10 May at Dry Lake when Modoc attacked the army camp.  Aggressive troopers counter-attacked.  Five troopers were killed, along with 5 Modoc, and the Modoc were thwarted.  Dissent among the Modoc split their force.  In exchange for amnesty, Hooker Jim and his group surrendered to the army and agreed to help capture Captain  Jack.  Jack’s capture, along with his wife and daughter, occurred on 4 June.  A month later, the army delivered Captain Jack and his band (as POWs) to Fort Klamath for trial.  Captain Jack and five others received death sentences.  President Grant approved the penalty on 10 September, commuting two of the death penalty cases to life imprisonment.  Captain Jack and two others were hanged on 3 October 1873 at Fort Klamath.

The remainder of Captain Jack’s band (39 men, 64 women, 60 children) were consigned to the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma.  One long-term consequence of the Modoc War was that the American people lost confidence in President Grant’s Indian peace policy; thereafter, there was little sympathy for the plight of American Indians — no matter where they lived.


There can be no question that the arrival of Europeans in California had a devastating impact on California Indians.  It was a clash of Stone Age people with overwhelming numbers of modern human groups who possessed superior technologies.  That the California Indians became the victim of European encroachments may not now matter beyond learning the lessons of history.  The past cannot be changed, undone, or adequately compensated.

Spanish explorers and conquerors viewed native populations as a source of labor in furtherance of Spain’s dominion in the Americas.  The Spanish treated American natives no differently than they did the indigenous people of other regions of the world.  The Spanish system was one of conquest, domination, assimilation, and exploitation. 

Not every American Indian group was as easy to conquer as the California tribes, however.  After 1821, Mexico’s treatment of California Indians was similar in many respects to the Indian policies of New Spain (less the Mission System).  Neither was the United States’ treatment of California Indians any long-term benefit to California Indians after 1848.  Despite the sympathies of some Americans with the plight of California Indians, a greater number of Americans preferred extermination to coexistence.

Generally, with some exception, when compared to the Plains Indians, one can argue that native Californians were peaceful.  More specifically, however, this conclusion is at best ambiguous and at worst, simply not true.  There may have been no large-scale warfare among California tribes (as existed in most other areas of North America), but there are numerous examples of continual violence among Indian tribes within California.  Tribal conflicts were both inter-tribal and external lasting for hundreds of years.  Every tribe had a traditional enemy.  The essential cause of California tribal warfare was economic competition and revenge.  What makes the California Indians different from the Plains Indians, excepting the Mohave and Yuma Indians, was that most California tribes didn’t glorify warfare — but they certainly did engage in it.  It was both frequent and bloody.

Some examples of tribal warfare in California include the Northern Paiute against the Atsugewi, Shasta warred with Achomawi, Modoc battled Shasta, and some of these conflicts involved several tribes at the same time.

Considering all we know of native populations in California and the events surrounding Spanish, Mexican, and American dominion over them, there has never been much interest, by Indian or European, of creating or maintaining peaceful relationships.  History teaches us that in all human interactions, the winner of every cultural contest is not only the one that possesses a more sophisticated technology, but also the one that is willing to use it to their advantage. And the winner gets to write the history books.


  1. Bradley, B. And D. J. Standford.  The Pre-Clovis First Americans.  University of California, 2012.
  2. Castillo, E.  D.  The History of California Indians.  California Native American Commission, Online.
  3. Dixon, E. J.  Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  4. Lightfoot, K.  California Indians and Their Environment.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
  5. Quinn, A.  Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War.  New York: Faber & Faber, 1998.


[i] Edward Canby (1817-1873) graduated from the USMA Class of 1839 served in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican-American War, and served as the US Custodian of Spanish and Mexican Records in California.  He later served in the Utah Territory during the Utah War, Commanded the Department of New Mexico, the Military Division of Western Mississippi, commanded Union forces against Mobile, Alabama, served as Governor of Louisiana, commanded the Department of Washington, the military district of North and South Carolina, the Military District of Texas, and as Commander, Pacific Northwest.  His assassination enraged the American people and set them firmly against making peace with native Americans.

[ii] John Schofield (1831-1906) graduated from the USMA Class of 1853 with service in the Civil War which included several high-ranking postings.  Under President Johnson’s administration, Schofield served as a special emissary to France, commanded the military district of Virginia, Secretary of War, and Commander, Department of Missouri.  As Commander, Military District of the Pacific, Schofield first proposed the establishment of a naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Commanding General of the US Army. 

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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2 Responses to California Indians — Part IV

  1. Andy says:

    Reading the title, I thought I knew exactly how the war with the Modoc would turn out: most of the Modoc would be slaughtered and the remainder would be driven to reservations. I hadn’t counted on the Modoc putting up such a determined fight against overwhelming odds. But they did. One can only wonder how things would have turned out if the Modoc remained unified and not turned on one another. Probably, most would still have been killed, but surely there would have been many, many more dead Whites.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      I’m no longer sure that any of our troops ever gave up their lives for their country or its symbol — the U. S. Flag. Of course, we do enjoy our symbols, but dying for them seems to be a very obscure concept. Many of our medals of honor in Vietnam, for example, were awarded in recognition of young men rolling over from their fighting positions onto a grenade to save the lives of their fellow soldiers/Marines — surely there was no final vision of flags flying, or of Mom, apple pie, or Chevrolet. There had to be something of far greater significance. “Greater love hath no man than this …” But in the case of the Indians, generally, their ‘homeland’ is all they had, and without that connection to the past, nothing worthwhile was left to them in this life.

      On the other hand, what do I really know?


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