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In 1873 tensions between homesteaders and Modoc Indians in Northern California flared into full-scale warfare. The U.S. Army had two divisions, horses and howitzers on its side, but the Modocs boasted two formidable advantages—an impregnable volcanic stronghold and a resolute chief.

As forbidding as the volcanic landscape of northeastern California’s Lava Beds National Monument appears from the overlook at Gillem Bluff, the jagged reality is far worse. The Modoc Indians, for whom the lava beds were a last refuge, called it the “Land of Burnt-out Fires.” For the cavalrymen fighting the Modocs—forced by the beds’ sharp-edged outcrops, deep cracks and hidden sinkholes to dismount—these blackened, haunted lands were “hell with the fires gone out.”

The lava beds formed a half-million years ago during the massive eruption of Medicine Lake Volcano. Each subsequent lava flow (eight alone in the last three millennia) reshaped the craggy geology, scarring it with blasted-out fumaroles, boulder fields, crevasses and long ridges in standing waves. Beneath the ground snakes the world’s largest concentration of lava tubes.

For many years prior to the arrival of homesteaders and the Forty-niners, the Modocs lived, hunted, fished and harvested shellfish along the shores of adjacent Tule (TOO-lee) Lake and the Lost River. As the land was considered useless for farming, the Army recommended granting the Modocs permanent rights to it. But the wary and land-obsessed settlers, as well as eager missionaries seeking to earn their conversion credentials, wanted the Indians penned up. In 1852 the tensions led to bloodshed when a band of Modocs ambushed a wagon train at nearby Bloody Point, killing 65 whites. The homesteaders retaliated by massacring 52 Modocs during a mock peace parley.

Hostilities continued until 1864, when the U.S. government signed a peace treaty with the Modoc, Klamath and Snake tribes. Ignoring tribal rivalries, the Army moved the Modocs 30 miles north to the newly created Klamath Reservation in Oregon. For the Modocs this was hostile territory. The Klamaths, who had already lost most of their own territory to white homesteaders, had no interest in sharing what little was left with unwelcome outsiders. They harassed the Modocs and demanded compensation for the use of their land and timber.

Within a few months the Modocs returned to their ancestral lands along the Lost River and requested a separate reservation. Following government assurances of protection from the Klamaths, they moved back. But nothing changed, and their repeated requests for Army intervention were denied. Thus, in 1870, 53 Modoc men and some 100 women and children left the reservation and returned to their old homes, this time determined to remain. Their leader was 33-year-old Kintpuash, better known as Captain Jack.

In the fall of 1872, following several fruitless council meetings and intermittent skirmishes between the Modocs and settlers, the Army’s 1st U.S. Cavalry was directed to return the tribe to the reservation using whatever force necessary. On November 29, a contingent of 40 cavalry troops arrived in Captain Jack’s Lost River camp to enforce the order. Verbal exchanges soon led to gunfire, and one soldier and two Modocs fell dead. Retreating from camp, a band of Indians under Hooker Jim also killed a dozen or so settlers. Fearful of reprisals, Captain Jack led the Modocs into the labyrinthine lava beds.

Among the irregular formations of a high rock plateau furrowed by deep crevasses, they soon carved out a cave-dwelling existence. The natural battlements of “Captain Jack’s Stronghold,” as it became known, certainly provided secure refuge. A warren of connected trenches allowed the Modocs to move freely and safely to and from Tule Lake to hunt and collect water. They even found a hidden pen for cattle and a staging ground for meetings. Buffering them on all sides was the harsh black volcanic landscape.

Undaunted by Captain Jack’s strong defensive position, Lt. Col. Frank Wheaton, the Army’s local commanding officer, wrote that he fully expected that a day’s battle would “make short work of this impudent and enterprising savage.” In fact, the war that transpired over the following months would be, in terms of lives lost and dollars spent per enemy combatant, one of the most expensive ever fought on American soil.

Wheaton planned a straightforward pincer strategy: His 310 infantry, cavalry and artillery troops and few dozen Oregon and California volunteers would march toward the lava beds from the west, while Major John Green would move his forces south, meet up with Captain Reuben Bernard and his 100 troops and approach from the east. Once within range, Wheaton’s howitzer crews would begin lobbing 9-pound shells into the Modoc defenses. With Tule Lake blocking escape to the north, the Modocs would have nowhere to run. “I don’t understand,” wrote Wheaton, “how they can think of attempting any serious resistance.”

At three in the morning on January 17, 1873, his troops in place, Wheaton sent up a rocket to signal the advance. The light afforded by the brief flare might have given the colonel some pause: Moisture from the lake, near freezing temperatures and light winds had combined to envelop the lava beds in a dense fog. The approaching dawn did little to dispel the vapor—if anything, it was worse. Approach on horseback became impossible. Concerned he might shell his own troops, Wheaton silenced the howitzers. Barely able to see in the blanketing fog, the soldiers called out to one another, giving away their positions to the Modocs.

While the fog also hampered the Modocs, they knew the terrain and had spread out along the perimeter of their stronghold, secreting themselves behind sagebrush and rocky outcrops. Opening fire at close range, they chose their targets carefully, seeking officers first. The soldiers never saw their attackers, and by the time they fired back at glimpsed muzzle flashes, the shooters had moved on. The Modocs pinned down Green’s and Bernard’s troops and inflicted heavy casualties on Wheaton’s men, who faltered at a defensive trench around the stronghold. By 4 p.m., the fog had vanished, but so had Wheaton’s soldiers, many of who were willing to risk the lake’s frigid waters to escape the Modocs’ withering fire.

With daylight fading, the colonel ordered a retreat. “We have lost too many men already,” a veteran of the conflict quoted Wheaton. “The country will not justify this sacrifice of human life.” The Modocs turned the retreat into a rout, outflanking Wheaton’s forces to the north and setting up a gauntlet of fire along Green’s and Bernard’s escape route. The next hour became a free-for-all, as soldiers sought shelter from their shadowy attackers and the wounded were left to suffer. Only when darkness fell and the Modocs vanished back into the lava beds were the cold, weary cavalry, their uniforms and skin ravaged by the torturous lava, able to crawl their way back to safety.

Wheaton, who had commanded some 20,000 troops at the Battle of the Wilderness during the Civil War, now faced the demoralizing fact that 53 Modocs had routed his 400-plus troops, volunteers and scouts, killed five of his officers and 16 soldiers and wounded 44 without taking a single casualty. Chastened by the defeat, he wrote, “I have never before encountered an enemy, civilized or savage, occupying a position of such great natural strength as the Modoc stronghold, nor have I ever seen troops engage a better-armed or more skillful foe.”

Captain Jack had long boasted he could hold out forever in the lava beds. His lieutenants, John Schonchin, a survivor of the 1852 peace parley massacre, and Hooker Jim, had developed the fortifications and a plan of attack that could change along with the battle conditions, with running communications amid the rugged terrain. While Wheaton lost his command, Captain Jack earned grudging respect—and fear—among settlers, and his notoriety spread east as far as Europe. Some newspapers went so far as to send reporters to interview the Modoc leader in his stronghold.

The defeat didn’t play well in Washington. Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano (a distant relative of FDR’s on his mother’s side) appointed a peace commission headed by Oregon Superintendent of Indian Affairs Alfred B. Meacham and Brig. Gen. Edward Canby, commanding general of the Department of the Columbia. Delano hoped the commission would have more success at wooing the Modocs back to the reservation.

Despite favorable public relations, Captain Jack recognized the Modocs’ precarious position. After all, the Army could simply continue sending in troops and guns against his 53 men. Over the next few months, he indicated his willingness to negotiate, holding out hope the government would allow the Modocs to remain on their 3,000 acres. But as the negotiations wore on, Jack also noticed an increase in the number of surrounding troops, now under the command of Colonel Alvan C. Gillem. A new assault was being readied should the talks fail.

Complicating matters, Jack was losing support among his warriors. Many faced trial, imprisonment and perhaps hanging if they returned, and Jack had been unable to secure pardons for them as part of a settlement. They had also noticed the Army’s tightening grip. Two divisions had closed within two miles on either side of the stronghold and moved cannons into position. They had taken the Modocs’ horses. Jack’s pleas for a permanent home for the Modocs went unanswered. The Army, too, wanted to save face.

From the Modoc perspective, the peace talks were just another form of waging war, as the end result would be the same. In a mock ceremony, warriors dressed Jack in women’s clothes and demanded that he and his men go armed to the next meeting. If they killed the peace commission leadership, the Modocs reasoned, the troops were certain to fall back, and the government would leave them alone.

The scene on April 11, 1873, Good Friday, unfolded in cinematic fashion: Greetings were cautious and perfunctory. Captain Jack and Schonchin demanded the Army withdraw before further negotiations took place. General Canby said the soldiers would remain until a settlement had been reached. Suddenly, two armed Modocs rushed from the brush. When asked to explain, Captain Jack pulled a pistol and fired point blank at Canby, killing him. The Modocs then killed the Rev. Eleazar Thomas, another commission member. Schonchin fired six shots at Meacham, hitting him four times and leaving him for dead. The other commissioners escaped in the chaos, as did the Modocs.

Incensed by Canby’s death, General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman wrote Gillem, “You will be fully justified in their utter extermination.” Readying his troops in just four days, the colonel set out after the Modocs with some 500 men, howitzers and mortars, employing the pincer movement conceived by Wheaton. This time, however, the skies were clear, and the troops used the terrain to their advantage. Casualties were relatively light: Only one officer and six enlisted men were killed, with just 13 wounded. The artillery barrage continued throughout the 16th. The next day, under diminishing gunfire from the Modoc defenses, the Army lifted its siege and marched on the stronghold.

It was Gillem’s turn to be humiliated. The Modocs had vanished.

Livid, Gillem sent out patrols to find them. At noon on April 26, a force of five officers, 66 troops and 14 native scouts under Captain Evan Thomas halted for lunch in a broad sloping basin at the foot of present-day Hardin Butte, a 200-foot grassy ridge. The basin landscape was typical of the lava beds, full of rocks, depressions and caves—a perfect place for an ambush.

While his men removed their boots and relaxed, Thomas, a lieutenant and two enlisted men began climbing the butte to signal Gillem all was well. Rifle fire from all directions cut short their climb as the men below scrambled to their feet, under sudden intense fire. Many panicked and fled toward Gillem’s camp. Seeking refuge in a shallow depression, Thomas, a couple of officers and a handful of men found themselves trapped. There, they fought until they were killed or wounded. His other lieutenants and men fared no better.

Although the sounds of gunfire were clearly audible back at the main camp, Gillem refused to believe Thomas was in peril, even when retreating soldiers appeared with news of the ambush. When finally convinced of Thomas’ predicament, Gillem reportedly lost control, unable or unwilling to give orders. By the time rescue forces headed out, darkness, biting winds and the threat of further Modoc ambushes slowed their progress. Reaching the battle scene at midnight, they spent the night gathering the wounded and shoring up against further attack.

Dawn of the 27th revealed the extent of the massacre. Soldiers’ corpses lay in piles—many shot several times, many stripped bare.

Gillem lost his command to Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president). Over the next few weeks the Army would chase down the Modocs, who, outside the safety of the stronghold and having split into smaller bands, lost their capacity to fight. Captain Jack surrendered to an Army patrol near Clear Lake on June 1.

After brief trials, Captain Jack, Schonchin and four other Modoc leaders were found guilty of war crimes—a charge unique in all of the Indian Wars. Two had their sentences commuted to life, but Jack, Schonchin and the two other leaders were hanged on October 3, 1873. The tribe was forced to watch.

While souvenir mongers callously sold sections of the rope and locks of the Indians’ hair, the government committed the worst humiliation of all—removing the Modocs’ heads and shipping them to the Army Medical Museum and then to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. In 1984 the Smithsonian returned the remains to their descendants. Following the war, the surviving Modocs were sent to a reservation in Oklahoma, where they languished until 1909, when the few remaining members were permitted to return to Oregon.

Over the course of the war, Jack’s band of 53 men faced more than 500 soldiers, including infantry, cavalry and artillery units. They killed 83 and wounded 47 while losing only a dozen men in battle. The cost to the government of the Modoc insurgency was estimated at $4 million. And the estimated cost of the land that the Modocs wanted for a separate reservation? Twenty thousand dollars.


For further reading, Bruce Stutz recommends: Modoc War: Its Military History and Topography, by Erwin N. Thompson; Burnt-Out Fires, by Richard Dillon; and Imperfect Justice: The Modoc War Crimes Trial of 1873, by Doug Foster

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.