The Klamath Basin – 2

This is part 2 of a multi-part series. Read part 1 here.


To the south of Tule Lake is Lava Beds National Monument, forty-six thousand acres of volcanic flows, cinder cones, lava tubes, pit craters, and jagged igneous rock. It is a maze that will easily abrade even the most attentive traveler, and can cause worse damage—sprains, punctures, lacerations—to the mindless and distracted.

We are at the northern edge of the park on a small loop trail that helps us avoid many of these dangers. Still, with a nine-month-old strapped to my back I am especially aware of my surroundings. Every step demands an acknowledgement that I am here only by the consent of the land, who suffers no fools or disrespect. The Modoc Indians who lived here instructed their children that “these mountains, these rivers hear what you say, and if you are mean they will punish you.” Even on a trail, the demand on my attention is complete enough that I lose my sense of time passing. Without the trail, my mental resources would be quickly exhausted. Those who lived on this land must have been subject to a brutal discipline.

We are on the Captain Jack’s Stronghold trail, the site of an 1872 war between the U.S. Army and a band of Modoc Indians who refused to leave their native lands, on the historical rim of Tule Lake, just above where water would have reached during wet years. I can see north to Mt. McLoughlin, southwest to Mt. Shasta, and east to the Warner Mountains. Between me and the Warners is Petroglyph point, what would have been an island within the historical reach of Tule Lake, and which still preserves rock carvings from the ancient indigenous peoples of this region, either the ancestors of the Modocs or their predecessors.

The Modocs were a fierce tribe. Most accounts describe them as one of the most warlike of all the California peoples, and the events of the Modoc War seem to give evidence of their warriors’ skill in battle. But much of their time was occupied with the day-to-day business of living and society. They migrated seasonally from Medicine Lake in the south, where they gathered nuts and berries and hunted mule deer, to Tule Lake in the winter, where they lived in earthen lodges near the shores and captured geese with nets made of tule reeds. “When I was a child,” one Modoc said, “the first thing I did in the morning was go out and play. I played around Tule Lake where the tules and grass grow thick on the north shore. Many of us boys played there together.”

The first white homesteaders began to come into the area around 1846 by way of the Applegate trail, an alternative westward route to the Oregon trail. Tensions between the new settlers and the native tribes led to a number of violent altercations, and the retaliations that followed were often wrought against the wrong parties. An army unit led by John C. Fremont was attacked by a band of warriors who were likely Modoc, and retaliated against a neighboring Klamath tribe; a band of Pit River Indians attacked nearby settlers, and a militia unit took revenge on the Modocs and killed several family members of the warrior Kintpuash, later known as Captain Jack. The Modocs, who were already considered one of the most warlike of California’s native tribes, began to raid and ambush any white emigrants. Tensions grew over the next several years, punctuated by repeated massacres and retaliations on both sides.

In 1864, seeking peace, the tribes of the Klamath, Yahooskin, and Modoc Indians signed a treaty with the US Government: the Modocs would cede their homelands in Tule Lake, Lost River, and Lower Klamath Lake, and join the other tribes on the newly established Klamath Reservation in southern Oregon.

The new arrangement proved difficult, especially for many of the younger Modocs. The reservation did not provide enough food, and tensions rose with the Klamath Indians who had long been their adversaries. Though most of the Modocs remained on the reservation, in 1870 the young chief Kintpuash (Captain Jack) led a group of almost 200 back to their homeland along the Lost River.

When the US Army was sent to force the Modocs back to the reservation in 1872 it was almost certainly in response to raids that were not carried out by Captain Jack’s band. The US government had failed to provide enough food to the Indians on the reservation, and many of them had taken to raiding nearby homesteads in order to eat. Captain Jack’s group, hunting and foraging in their traditional homeland, had fared much better with food and was unlikely to be involved in the raids.

Captain Jack initially agreed to return to the reservation with his people, but when they were asked to surrender their weapons, an altercation broke out between one of the Modoc warriors and a lieutenant in the army. It quickly erupted into a battle, now called the Battle of Lost River, after which the Modocs fled south to the stronghold where I am now standing.

As we walk through the lava fields, it is easy to see how 53 warriors were able to hold off three thousand troops for several months. It is a labyrinth of sharp walls and hidden pockets, each of which could protect and hide a well-armed warrior, and which would give him an elevated view of the approach routes. The lava forms natural crenellations in a raised circle, and the surrounding landscape is pocked with small craters from collapsed lava tubes and more of the razor-sharp rock. It is no wonder that the US army, even with its superior numbers, found the fortress nearly impenetrable.
During the stalemate, the US and Captain Jack continued to work toward a peaceful resolution. Captain Jack requested that the US grant pardons to all Modocs, in particular some who had been accused of killing settlers, and the right for the tribe to choose its own reservation. The US was demanding that the killers stand trial and that the tribe return to the government-selected reservation. As the months wore on, some of Captain Jack’s warriors began to pressure him to kill the peace commission. In fear of losing control of his tribe, Captain Jack agreed to attack if the commission would not cede to his demands.

In early April 1873, Captain Jack and a small band of warriors killed General Edward Canby and other members of the peace commission when they would not agree to give the Modocs a reservation at Hot Creek. It was the beginning of the end of the Modoc War.

Continue to Part 3…

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