California: Lava Beds National Monument

Soliders at Lava Beds
During the Modoc War, soldiers like those pictured here at Gillem’s Camp, fought to remove American Indians from their native homelands.

Courtesy of National Park Service

Located in far northern California, Lava Beds National Monument is a place of contrasts. From scrubland to mountains with hundreds of caves in between, Lava Beds supports a variety of animal and plant life above and far below ground. Beginning approximately 7,000 years ago, American Indian tribes began to use the lands within Lava Beds. The Modoc called the area their homeland from 5,000 BC until the 1870s. 

Though Lava Beds continues to be important to the Modoc, they no longer inhabit the land there as a result of the Modoc War. Today, the Modoc live among the Klamath Tribe of Oregon and the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma. Visitors to Lava Beds National Monument can explore some of the ancestral homeland of the Modoc, including possibly sacred places with petroglyphs and pictograms, and tour the site of the last great Modoc stand against the United States. Visitors will also enjoy the diverse natural habitat.

The Modoc War continued a policy of Indian Removal begun under President Andrew Jackson. Indian Removal was the forced relocation of American Indian tribes from their ancestral lands to other lands, usually with the hope of freeing up better lands for white settlers. The Modoc War of 1872 – 1873, was the only major conflict to occur in California. The war was costly to the Modoc, forcing them to leave their homeland and relocate with other tribes.

The Modoc were a mobile people until the 19th century, migrating seasonally between hunting grounds to take advantage of game and plant life at various locations along the present-day California-Oregon border. When white explorers first made contact with the tribe in 1826, they planted the seeds of the Modoc War. Initial interactions were beneficial to the Modoc providing them the opportunity to incorporate horses into their culture. Fights over land escalated, however, and by the 1860s, some white settlers asked for the removal of the Modoc to the Klamath Reservation. Most of the Modoc wanted to stay. The Modoc War determined whether the Modoc would stay or go.

Between November 1872 and June 1873, fewer than 200 Modoc fought roughly 1,000 soldiers. The entire Modoc War demonstrated the tribe’s commitment to preserving their land and culture, but the conflict at Captain Jack’s Stronghold best demonstrates this commitment. In 1864, the Modoc signed a treaty with the United States agreeing to move to the Klamath Reservation in Oregon. A Modoc named Captain Jack, or Kientpoos, led a group of 200 Modoc who felt that the United States was not offering the protection and other benefits guaranteed in the treaty. Captain Jack and his band alternated between living on and off the reservation until 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant ordered their relocation to the reservation by force. Captain Jack’s group fought US troops in a number of battles around Lava Beds.

President Grant created a commission to seek peace with the Modoc and convince them to leave their homeland again and return to the Klamath Reservation. Immediately preceding these efforts at peace, troops from the United States attacked roughly 70 Modoc men at Captain Jack’s Stronghold. The Modoc were able to turn back the 300 attacking US soldiers. After their repulsion by the Modoc, the troops began negotiating peace using a Modoc woman (Winema, also called Toby Riddle) and her husband Frank Riddle as translators.

In the peace negotiations, the Modoc sought the creation of a reservation along the Lost River and immunity from prosecution for killing settlers. During one of the meetings between representatives of the United States and the tribe, the Modoc killed the head of the peace commission, General Edward Canby, and other representatives sparking additional battles.

More than 600 troops attacked Captain Jack’s Stronghold for a second time in April 1873. Despite having successfully defended their claim for months against a larger force, the Modoc were not able to turn back the federal troops again, although they managed to hold on until June 1873 when Captain Jack surrendered. Following the surrender, he and three other Modoc were sentenced to death for their killing of white settlers and hanged. The remaining group of Modoc was sent to the Quapaw Agency in the Indian Territory (later known as Oklahoma). Very few of the Modoc who went to Oklahoma survived the difficult initial years in a new land. The descendents of the survivors are still in Oklahoma.

Lava Beds National Monument preserves parts of the Modoc homeland relatively unchanged including natural features of the landscape, plants, and animals. The Modoc had difficulty in adapting to the Klamath Reservation or the Quapaw because the plants, animals, and spiritual places of the Modoc were not in their new home. Visitors to the park can explore the spiritual home of the Modoc with the plants and animals that were there when they lived in the area.

Visitors can also see pictograms and petroglyphs, some of which are in Tule Lake on Petroglyph Point. Until recently, the water level in Tule Lake fluctuated naturally. Petroglyph Point was once submerged, except during long dry spells. Modoc ancestors painted the pictograms on the cliff face, most of which date from between 1500 and 400 years ago. The Indians also carved petroglyphs into the rock. Elsewhere in the park, Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave also have pictograms that appear to be done by the Modoc, although this is not certain since the Modoc tribe has lived away from this area for so long. Petroglyph Point is a separate unit of Lava Beds National Monument approximately two miles west of the East Wildlife Overlook.

Remnants of the Modoc War are still visible, including federal troop and Modoc constructed fortifications at Captain Jack’s Stronghold. Lower to the ground than those of the US soldiers, the Modoc defenses followed the natural contour of the land, often making use of natural trenches in the lava. In contrast, the US military built round stacked stone defensive structures above ground. Gillem’s Camp also has military fortifications along with a howitzer ring, a horse corral, and cemetery wall--all made of lava rock. The Thomas-Wright Battlefield was the site of a Modoc ambush of US troops during one of the battles. Trails lead through Captain Jack’s Stronghold, the Thomas-Wright Battlefield, and Black Crater.

Formed of the lava from which Lava Beds National Monument takes its name, the many caves were spiritual places for the Modoc. The park includes more than 700 caves, most of which are open to the public. Mushpot Cave is easy to tour, because the cave has lighting and offers interpretive exhibits.

Lava Beds National Monument is located off California State Routes 161 and 139 in northern California near Tulelake, CA just south of the California-Oregon border. Forest Service Routes 49 and 10 provide seasonal access, though these and other routes are not fully paved. Several sites within Lava Beds National Monument have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Click here for the registration file for Captain Jack’s Stronghold (text and photos) and Thomas-Wright Battle Site (text and photos). A fee is charged to enter the park. The park maintains seasonal hours and is open every day of the year except for Christmas Day. For more information, visit the National Park Service Lava Beds National Monument website or call 530-667-8100.

Exploring the caves at Lava Beds National Memorial is a popular activity. Reservations that are required for ranger-led tours of Fern Cave and Crystal Ice Cave may be made by calling 530-667-8113. Hiking and camping facilities are also available.

Last updated: August 4, 2017