Lava Beds
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Chapter 3
Gen. E.R.S. Canby

Dec. 1, 1872—Jan. 15, 1873

When word of the Lost River battle spread over Oregon, a few men among the excited populace came to the same conclusion as did Major Green—that the war might be a prolonged one. [1] A war meant men, and reinforcements began moving toward Captain Jackson's field camp at Crawley's ranch. Besides sending the readily available men of Company F, 21st Infantry, to Jackson, Green gave Agent Dyar 30 guns and ammunition for distribution to Citizens in the Modoc country. Fort Klamath was now stripped of nearly all its strength. [2]

Colonel Wheaton, at Camp Warner, wasted little time moaning over the Lost River battle. He urged instead the speedy march of the already-alerted Troop F, stationed at the post. On December 3 the troop was in the vicinity of Goose Lake where it joined up with a detachment from Troop G, patrolling out of Camp Bidwell. Both units made forced marches toward Crawley's ranch. [3] Capt. David Perry, already having experience in fighting Indians, commanded Troop F, while 2d Lt. John Kyle, only two years out of West Point, was in charge of the detachment from Troop G. [4]

Wheaton also ordered Capt. Reuben Bernard and the rest of Troop G to ride west from Camp Bidwell. The main reason for this, said Wheaton, was to give a sense of confidence to settlers in the Pit River valley, south of Tule Lake. [5] He thought the troop would "not be detained any length of time in the Modoc Country," since there were only 70 Indians to contend with. Wheaton would not prove to be a successful prophet. [6]

On the same day Wheaton ordered out Bernard, General Canby reached across the Columbia River to Vancouver Barracks and directed Maj. Edwin Mason to lead Companies B and C, 21st Infantry, to the scene of hostilities by special train — as far as the tracks led south. [7] "Today the garrison is alive with preparation for war," wrote a correspondent. "The greatest excitement prevails, but the troops are in good condition, and joyous over the expectations of coming events." The joy would evaporate soon enough; for the moment however the troops were enchanted by the "interesting and conspicuous appearance" of Major Mason, "mounted upon a snow-white war steed and wearing a fur cap." [8]

The two-company battalion crossed the Columbia by steamer. A train carried it from Portland to the end of the tracks at Roseburg, Oregon. From there the soldiers slogged on foot through the mud up the Umpqua Valley to Jacksonville, then through the snow on the Cascades, down into the Klamath country. They reached Crawley's ranch on December 21. [9]

Major Green, still at Fort Klamath, had a new crisis on December 3. Not all the rebellious Modocs had located on lower Lost River. A group of fourteen families, including such men as Bogus Charley, Shacknasty Jim, Steamboat Frank, and Ellen's Man George, had been living on their old homeland on Hot Creek, 25 miles southwest of the Lost River camps. This Hot Creek band had had little in common with Captain Jack's people and did not wish now to become embroiled in disorder. Also, several ranchers in that area, including John Fairchild and P. A. Dorris, persuaded the Hot Creek band that peace was preferred to war. Three of these ranchers wrote Captain Jackson on December 3, informing him that the Hot Creeks were willing to go to the reservation. Because of the temper of whites around Linkville, however, the ranchers asked Jackson to provide an escort for these Indians to insure their safe passage. [10]

Jackson turned the matter over to Green, who promptly informed the ranchers that if they brought "the forty Major Jackson's camp at the mouth of Lost River, they will be protected to the Yainax agency." However Green's directions were not carried out exactly, and these Modocs found themselves approaching Linkville rather than Jackson's camp. When the citizens of that community learned that Modocs would be coming through the town, a number of them, excited by alcohol, decided this would be a good opportunity to revenge their fellow settlers. Although this group was eventually talked out of the violent plan, the Hot Creeks heard about the threats and fled. Before long, the troops and the settlers learned that these Modocs had joined Captain Jack in the lava beds. The citizens of Linkville were not overly concerned about their own stupidity however; they still believed it would be easy to exterminate the Modocs. [11]

Other Oregonians reacted to the outbreak of violence in more regular ways. Although the army did not solicit his aid, Governor Grover ordered General John E. Ross and two companies of the Oregon Volunteer Militia into the field. [12] Company A, under Capt. H. Kelly, first camped ten miles above Crawley's on Lost River. Company B, commanded by none other than Capt. Oliver Applegate, was stationed at Yainax where, in fact, it was formed largely from Indian volunteers. By December 12, Ross had moved the companies to Van Brimmer's ranch on Willow Creek west of Tule Lake, where "we found the ranch deserted and a notice on the door to the effect that the proprietor had fled through fear of the Indians." [13]

Meanwhile the build-up at Crawley's ranch continued. Captain Bernard with 24 men of Troop G arrived on December 8. Two days later, Major Green, accompanied by Surgeon McElderry, left Fort Klamath to take direct control of the field forces. The two officers traveled south with Perry and Kyle who had arrived with Troop F and the rest of Bernard's Troop G. [14]

Green soon dropped to second-in-command when Wheaton, recovered from his illness, arrived at the "miserable shanty" of Crawley's ranch to assume command on December 21. With the arrival of the 21st Infantry companies the same day, the field force reached nearly its full force for the coming battle against the Modocs. At Crawley's ranch were Companies B and C, 21st Infantry, Troop B, the irregular company of Klamaths, and a few Indian scouts, all "camped on an open plain near the Lake with sage brush for fuel, cold winds, snow, and rain."

Perry had taken Troop F to Van Brimmer's on December 14, where he joined Companies A and B, Oregon Volunteers. From there, Perry and 30 men from Troop F, Kelley and 25 men from Company A, and 1st Lt. J. H. Hyzer and 10 men from Company B (the latter two the Oregon Volunteers), made a patrol to the southwest corner of Tule Lake. There, from a high ridge, they could see across the lava beds that sheltered the Modocs. [15]

To complement Perry's move to the west side of the lava beds, Bernard's Troop G had moved to Louis Land's ranch near the southeast corner of Tule Lake. With the troopers were ten of the fifteen scouts who had recently been recruited among the Snakes around Yainax. [16] From here, Bernard could keep a distant eye on the eastern side of the lava beds should the Modocs emerge from that side.

The approximate strength now at Wheaton's disposal was 320 men (Troops B, F, and G—150; Companies B and C, 21st Infantry—64; Oregon Volunteers—60; Klamaths—30; and Snake scouts—15). A modest supply system served the troops. It consisted of a field depot at Crawley's ranch, under the supervision of 1st Lt. William Boyle, and a sub-depot at Jacksonville, under 1st Lt. E. W. Stone. The latter also had a key role in communications since Jacksonville possessed the telegraph office nearest to Wheaton. [17]

As yet, only a few of the troops had seen the lava beds, that vast place "broken like the waves of an ocean." [18] Few, if any, had any realization of the terrible difficulties the terrain would provide. Rumors had spread that the Modocs were in a part of the lava beds located on the south shore of Tule Lake, a strongpoint as yet unnamed but which would soon be known as Captain Jack's Stronghold. It was also believed, correctly, that the Indians had made themselves self-sufficient by acquiring a herd of 100 cattle as a source of food. [19]

Despite this herd that the Modocs had found grazing in the grassy gullies of the lava field, the Indians were anxious to acquire more supplies. An opportunity arose on Saturday, December 21, when they spied a lone army wagon moving north on the road east of the lava beds. An escort of only six men guarded it.

When Captain Bernard had left Camp Bidwell, he had understood that he would be in the field for only a few days and had traveled as lightly as possible. When he had learned that his troop would be in the field for some time, he had sent back to Bidwell for additional ammunition and commissary stores. The wagon was carrying these supplies.

At three p.m., only two miles from Bernard's camp at Land's, the Modocs rode down on the wagon. Their first fire killed one man, mortally wounded a second (who died the next day), and killed five horses. [20] Bernard could hear the gunfire from the camp. He ordered Lieutenant Kyle and ten men to the rescue and, in haste if not in order, the troopers drove off the Indians and rescued the wagon intact. The troopers could not be sure that they inflicted any casualties among the Modocs, but they had saved the supplies. [21] Even while the skirmish was going on, Bernard dispatched a message to headquarters. Before midnight, Captain Jackson's Troop B arrived at Land's ranch to reinforce Bernard. Although the threat had passed Jackson remained at Land's. [22]

The day after Christmas, Wheaton, who was getting the feel of his command, wrote Canby a long report. Besides describing the present locations of the various units, he outlined briefly his plan for a major attack: "The day before the fight I shall move up with the Troops on the west side to a point 3 miles from the Modoc day light next day we will skirmish into the lava beds and close on the Modoc Cave or fortification...while the Troops on the east side, close...simultaneously." He was not yet ready for such an attack. Among the immediate problems was a critical shortage of small-arms ammunition. Green had issued nearly all Fort Klamath's Spencer carbine ammunition to nervous civilians after the Lost River battle. In addition, there were not enough rounds available for the Sharps and Springfields: "some of the troops today have but 5 or 10 rounds apiece." [23]

Progress continued however. On January 1 Wheaton moved his headquarters and Mason's infantry from Crawley's ranch to Van Brimmer's. This placed him on the west side of the lava beds from where he would mount his major attack. Here the troops experienced a further delay, for Wheaton decided not to move until a section of two twelve-pounder mountain howitzers arrived. [24]

The Oregon Volunteers found this wait irritating for they had been certain at the beginning that it would be a short campaign. When the howitzers finally did arrive at Van Brimmer's early in January, a relieved Wheaton reported that the 30-day volunteers "would not have remained a day longer than January 6 had it not have been certain that the guns were coming." [25]

During this wait, a number of patrols went out from Van Brimmer's to learn more about the country and the Modocs. At least two of these patrols exchanged fire with Modoc pickets on the bluff overlooking the lava beds from the west. [26]

Finally all was ready, and Wheaton selected January 17 as the date for the attack. On the 15th, he assured Canby that "a more enthusiastic jolly set of Regulars and Volunteers I never had the pleasure to command." He could not believe that the Modocs would attempt any serious resistance, but if they should "make good their boast to whip a thousand soldiers, all will be satisfied." [27] Wheaton had no cause to think he was overly optimistic.

sketch of Peace Commission attack
William Simpson was not a witness to the attack on the Peace Commission but he did have the opportunity to talk to people who had been present. His version is as good as most others and better than many.


Modoc War
©1971, Argus Books
thompson/chap3.htm — 11-Nov-2002