Lava Beds
National Monument
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter 7
Hooka Jim

April 17-25; Thomas Patrol, April 26, 1873

Gillem had no idea where the Modocs had gone. He worried that they may have slipped away to the southeast to join their occasional allies, the Pit River Indians. On the other hand, he was concerned they might return to the shore of Tule Lake. The day following the capture of the Stronghold, he decided to take action to counter either possibility. He placed the infantry and artillery at both Gillem's Camp and the Stronghold; the cavalry and the Warm Springs prepared for patrols around and into the lava beds.

Fitzgerald recalled F and K Troops' hike back to Gillem's Camp to get their horses and supplies. Two nights without sleep and the tension of battle had worn out the men, "and by the time we reached camp, we were 'all in.' Never have I been so completely exhausted as after that [three-mile] walk." On the way they found the body of a young civilian packer from Yreka, Eugene Hovey. Hooker Jim and a few cohorts had made a raid on Gillem's Camp during the last day of the battle, hoping vainly to draw at least some of the soldiers from the Stronghold. These Modocs had accidentally come upon Hovey who was leading a pack mule toward the Stronghold. When the troopers found his body they saw that the Indians had "flattened the packer's head between two rocks to almost the thickness of one's hand." [1]

Gillem ordered the Hospital Rock camp broken up since the infantry was already at the Stronghold and the cavalry would be going to Scorpion Point after the patrols were completed. Bernard took part of the cavalry force on a patrol to the east and north, while Perry led the remainder and the Warm Springs on a long patrol down the east side of the lava beds, across the south on the Tickner road, then back to Scorpion Point by way of Van Brimmer's and Ball's ranches, and Gillem's camp. By the first evening Perry's force reached Sorass (Dry) Lake, southeast of the lava beds where, according to Fitzgerald, they captured two Modocs. The Warm Springs promptly killed and scalped their victims. That night they held a "scalp dance" and "howled and danced all night long with hands joined in a circle." Sweat streamed from their naked bodies as they danced frenetically "while one brave held a pole in the center from which both scalps dangled." These Warm Springs did not continue with Perry but returned to headquarters the next day to prepare for a patrol directly into the lava beds. [2]

When Perry returned, April 21, he announced that he had found no trace of the Modocs having left the lava flows. This was hardly news to those who remained at Tule Lake. On the very day the cavalry patrols rode out, the Modocs fired an occasional round into the Stronghold. This sniping stimulated the infantry and artillery (Batteries E and M, Company G, 12th Infantry, and Companies B, C, and I, 21st Infantry) to hasten their construction of a number of outward-facing, stone forts around the perimeter of the Stronghold. They also placed the artillery and the mortars so that they aimed at the lava flow to the south. The colonel's doubts on the whereabouts of the Modocs seemed strange to the soldiers, for they could see some Modocs standing in plain sight albeit at long range. The regulars also saw the Indians build a large fire in which they "seemed to be burning their dead." [3]

Throughout the 18th, details at Hospital Rock packed the equipment and supplies. The 21st Infantry moved its material to the Stronghold that day. The next morning, April 19, a long caravan carried the cavalry's supplies to Scorpion Point. Only a small escort accompanied the train, "stretched out over the trail for at least a mile." Lieutenant Boyle, the supply officer for Scorpion Point, worried that the Modocs would attack; however, the train reached the new camp safely.

The Warm Springs returned from their patrol into the lava beds on April 20, bringing the information that the Modocs were holed up in the (Schonchin) flow only four miles south of the Stronghold. To reaffirm their presence, the Modocs put in an appearance this same day and succeeded in reaching the lake. A disgusted Boyle wrote, "In plain sight of General Gillem's camp, they procured water and some . . . [bathed]." He added, "only a feeble attempt was made to get them or attack them." Gillem reacted to this bold play by posting the Warm Springs at this point, near the head of the (Canby) bay. [4]

On April 21 the Modocs made their boldest after-battle foray against the army when they attacked another heavily escorted mule train between Scorpion Point and the Stronghold. It was a brief skirmish, but nevertheless they succeeded in killing Pvt. Morris Darcy, Battery M, and wounding Pvt. John Welsh, Company G, 12th Infantry. [5] The Modocs did not make an appearance during the next few days; but Gillem knew they were still in the lava flow, somewhere near a large bald cinder cone that he could see clearly from his headquarters. Some of his men had already nicknamed this Sugar Loaf, but most of the soldiers called it Sand Butte (today's Hardin Butte).

General Schofield was as disappointed as anyone in the failure to end the war. He perked up a little when he learned from Gillem that the Modocs were still in the lava beds. Hoping that the expedition might still be able to surround the enemy, he dispatched more troops. Capt. Henry C. Hasbrouck, a competent and determined fighter, left the Presidio on April 17 with his Battery B, 4th Artillery. The next day, Battery G, also of the 4th, under Capt. John Mendenhall, left Point San Jose, California, for the lava beds. [6] Schofield advised Gillem that it would be better to shell or starve the Modocs into surrender than to engage in chasing them all over the countryside. [7]

Gillem immediately put Schofield's recommendations into effect by sending the Warm Springs into the lava again to locate a trail on which he could move the howitzers and mortars closer to the Modocs. McKay and his scouts returned with the information that the artillery could be moved successfully. Gillem was not satisfied with McKay's report and decided to send out Capt. Evan Thomas, 4th Artillery, with a substantial patrol to the sand butte, four miles distant. [8]

William Simpson, deciding it was time to move on to other adventures, left Gillem's Camp on April 26. He would accompany Major Biddle who was taking as escort to Yreka to meet the new department commander, Jeff Davis. With Simpson was his fellow—Englishman, Edward Fox, who also decided he had seen enough of the Modoc campaign. Before these gentlemen left, they saw Captain Thomas march off at seven a.m. in the opposite direction to confirm McKay's report on the trail. [9]

Thomas' patrol gave every appearance of being able to accomplish its goal. He himself was the son of Lorenzo Thomas, who for several years had been the Adjutant General of the U. S. Army and who had retired just four years earlier. Young Thomas had joined the army as a second lieutenant in the 4th Artillery in 1861 and had been breveted for his actions at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Neither Green nor Gillem were concerned that he had very little experience in fighting Indians. With him were the sons of two other generals: 1st Lt. Thomas F. Wright, whose father, George Wright, a brigadier general of Volunteers, had commanded the Military Division of the Pacific and had drowned at sea off the coast of California in 1865; and 1st Lt. Albion Howe, son of Civil War General A. P. Howe, who was now a major in the 4th Artillery. Lieutenant Wright had attended West Point for one year in the late 1840's, but had not served on active duty until the Civil War. By 1865, he was a colonel and brevet brigadier general in the Volunteers. Howe was also a Civil War veteran, having fought at Cold Harbor and Petersburg. [10]

Two other officers, 2nd Lt. George M. Harris and 1st Lt. Arthur Cranston, along with Dr. Bernard A. Semig, made up the commissioned officers of the patrol. Thomas also took along H. C. Tickner, as a guide, and a civilian packer, Louis Webber. The 59 enlisted men in the patrol consisted of Company E, 12th Infantry, and Batteries A and K, all three having been at Gillem's Camp since its establishment and having participated in the attack on the Stronghold.

Company E took the lead, immediately deploying as skirmishers. Thomas, accompanied by Wright and Tickner, walked behind. Then, marching in a column of twos, came Harris' Battery K, followed by Howe with Battery A. Behind them Lieutenant Cranston and Doctor Semig kept company; while at the tail was a tiny rear guard composed of one sergeant and three privates. About the same time, Donald McKay and 12 Warm Spring Scouts left their camp at the bay, working their way south with the intention of joining the patrol at the hill.

The patrol made its way through a more or less level area which consisted of an ancient eroded lava flow, too irregular to call a valley but much easier to cover than the newer flows on either side — one almost directly south of Gillem's Camp, the other south of the Stronghold, today known respectively as the Devil's Homestead and Schonchin Flow. Before much distance was covered, the lack of experience and the general carelessness that was to mark the patrol became apparent. The infantrymen, instead of deploying to the flanks as skirmishers, huddled together as they slowly moved up the gradual slope toward the butte.

Semig noticed that the infantry was not up on top of the ridges on either flank as he knew it should be and mentioned his concern to Cranston. Cranston passed the word up the column, and "the Lieutenants detailed parties for each flank, but . . . these passed at the foot of the ridges nearest the column and kept drawing away from the ridges." First Sergeant Romer, Battery A, watched this with growing disgust and, in exasperation, "went out on the right flank and did certainly, all by himself" climb up on the successive ridges to guard against Indians who might try to slip up on the flanks of the column.

Semig and Cranston also noted with some concern that both batteries were closing up on the infantry so that the whole command was "marching more in the shape of a skirmishers than a skirmish line and main column." Their concern was justified for, unknown to the patrol, Scarfaced Charley and a number of Modocs were shadowing the soldiers. First Sergeant Romer, by himself, was hardly a large enough flank guard. [11]

At noon the soldiers reached the sloping uneven basin at the foot of the west side of the hill. The grass-covered butte itself rose about 200 feet above the men. To the south of their stopping place a low ridge ran west a few hundred yards from the base of the hill then curved around to the north another few hundred yards. To the east and northeast of the butte and of the patrol the ugly tumbled rocks of Schonchin Flow rose above the basin some twenty feet. The grassy, bush-strewn, mile-wide area itself was dotted with humps of lava, depressions, caves, and ungainly rocks. Within a few feet of any given point a man could step from a position giving him a view of the whole to a pit where he could see less than thirty feet. Here, Captain Thomas ordered a halt for food and rest.

The events of the next few hours will never be pieced together in their entirety; there were too few survivors and too much hysteria for that. Yet from the fragmented, secondhand reports, a general account may be reconstructed.

No alarm was felt as the men relaxed. Some took off their boots to ease their tired feet. Others lolled about, "clustered together in a friendly group." One report said that Company E was still deployed as skirmishers during the halt. If so, the infantrymen were undoubtedly as unprepared for trouble as they had been during the march. [12]

While the men ate, Captain Thomas, Lieutenant Harris, and two enlisted men prepared to climb the hill in order to signal to Gillem's Camp that they had arrived at their destination safely. They did not make the climb. In one moment, the crash of rifles from the northeast, east, south, and west, from 400 to 1,000 yards distant, cut through the silence of the lava beds.

Lieutenant Wright was the first to react. He immediately ordered a "set of fours" from left of his skirmish line to advance on the Schonchin Flow ridge to the northeast only fifty yards away. These four men covered only twenty yards when a snarling fire came from their very goal. The men ran back to Wright's position. [13] At this point, Thomas ordered Wright to "advance" with all of Company B toward the ridge on the west, away from the hill. [14] The surviving men of Company E claimed that Wright led them to this bluff, "losing a comrade here and there" while doing so. In the end, Wright was deserted by all his men save seven or eight, for the Modocs fired from this ridge with even greater fury. The deserters ran toward the northwest, back the way they had come. [15]

When Thomas gave his order to Wright, Lieutenant Cranston volunteered to take five men to dislodge the Indians from rocks to the north of the hill. Thomas gave his permission. All six were slaughtered. [16]

Now the command dissolved. Half the soldiers, in hysterical shock, deserted their comrades and, each for himself, raced madly back the way he had come. Colonel Gillem wrote, "At this time . . . all organization ceased."

But not all resistance. Thomas, Harris, Howe, Semig, and a handful of men also withdrew toward the west, following after Lieutenant Wright and the few who had stayed with him. Tickner, the guide, had seen enough; he ran after the fleeing soldiers toward Gillem's Camp. Semig bravely haulted on open ground, dressed the wounds of two soldiers, then hurried on to catch up with Thomas, overtaking him "'in a hollow' with some small rocks and sage bushes, not over fifty yards from the ridge which Wright's command had been ordered to take." Thomas, believing that Wright had taken the ridge, shouted for him "and as a reply received several shots." [17]

Defending themselves as best they could in the depression, Thomas and all his command, now reduced to the officers and twenty men, fought until all were killed or severely wounded. Wright and his small group suffered the same fate. Corporal Noble from Battery A reported that "Wright was first shot through the groin, dangerously wounded." He buried his watch so that the enemy could not have it, then "a second bullet passed through his heart and he shortly afterwards breathed his last." A lieutenant, not at the scene, wrote soon after, "Wright was severely wounded on the way to the heights, and his company, with one or two exceptions, deserted him and fled like a pack of sheep; then the slaughter began." Wright's replacement later declared that the infantry had not run away faster or farther than the artillery. [18]

Tickner, beating his own path to safety, ran into McKay and the Warm Springs scouts. McKay, already aware of the disaster, was trying to move closer to the scene of the attack to aid the regulars. He did not make it. Gillem later said that every time the Warm Springs tried to advance, the soldiers would fire on them thinking they were Modocs. This is perhaps somewhat overstated. Few soldiers were firing anymore; they were either running or dead. Gillem would have sounded more plausible had he written that the Warm Springs understood perfectly what was happening; there was little that the 12 scouts could do for anyone, except to stay alive in order to fight another day. [19]

The troops at Gillem's Camp and the Stronghold could hear the sounds of firing from the sand butte. Lieutenant Adams up at the signal station was even able to discern that some kind of action was taking place. No one took alarm however. Major Green was sure the patrol was large enough to take care of itself. Even when the first breathless soldier staggered into camp at one-thirty p.m. and gasped his story, Gillem's people marked him down as one who had obviously and simply lost his nerve. [20]

It was mid-afternoon before the extent of the disaster became clear and rescue parties could be formed. While Lieutenant Boyle decided that Gillem, again caught in a crisis, "lost all control of himself and would not act nor let others," the colonel's surprise and indecision were nothing compared to the record of the relief columns. [21] Major Green led the column (Trimble's detachment from Troop H and Cresson with a detachment from Troop K) from Gillem's Camp and, on the trail, met a second group of three or four companies from the Stronghold. These rescuers would hardly take pride in the fact that the first rescued man was not brought into Gillem's Camp until 32 hours after the attack.

To be sure, a number of things went wrong. By the time the columns got under way, not only was dusk settling in but the weather suddenly turned "blustery." It took the tensed soldiers six hours to make their way over the unfamiliar trail. By the time they reached the vicinity of the sand hill, it was already too dark to locate any survivors who might still lie out in the sage and craters; besides, there was the unspoken fear that the Modocs might still be waiting to lace this group with bullets. Green was not at all sure but what he had missed Thomas on the trail. Halting on the now-deserted ridge that Wright had died trying to reach, the soldiers fumbled in the darkness to throw up rock forts. The wounded and a few others who had not run that afternoon could hear the rocks falling into place. Not knowing if the sounds were coming from friend or foe, they hesitated to give themselves away.

Then, toward midnight, a half dozen men, most of whom were wounded, decided that the sounds came from their own, and stumbled into the line of safety. The rescuers believed these survivors could lead them to the others still lying out in the darkness. The orders were given, and for a while rescuer and rescued floundered about but with not a trace of success. The command spent the rest of the dark hours building still more forts. [22]

At dawn Lieutenant Boutelle and his sergeant cautiously moved off the ridge searching over the lower ground in front, then so suddenly they were shocked, "we came upon the most heartbreaking sight it has been my fate to behold." Lying in the little hollow were the bodies of Thomas and Howe, the wounded Harris and Semig, "together with a number of enlisted men, all dead or wounded." [23]

Green's men continued to search the basin throughout the day. Occasionally they spied a Modoc or two who let himself be seen against the skyline. To the north of Thomas's men, the rescuers finally discovered the bodies of Wright and the few men who had stuck with him. Nowhere could they find the bodies of Cranston and his group. These were to be listed as missing.

One officer wrote of that day as the most saddening and fatiguing in his army career. The victims when found presented "different forms of anguish and distortion, some in the position of desperate defense, others prostrate . . . in dire helplessness." Another described "the dead and wounded, officers and men, in one confused heap. Almost all had been shot several times — Major Thomas four times, Captain Wright three," and the Modocs had stripped many of the bodies bare. The army fraternity throughout the country read with shock and horror an unsigned article in the Army and Navy Journal that "the bodies of Captain Thomas, Lieutenant Howe, Acting Surgeon Semig, Sergeant Romer, and six others, were found hidden in some sage brush stripped naked." Semig was wounded twice but there was hope he would recover. The article continued, "Lieutenant Wright's body lay a little to the left (of Thomas), and on the right was Lieutenant Harris, severely wounded, and the bodies of five of his men, stripped of all their clothing." [24]

The rescue column took all the daylight hours of the 27th searching for bodies, recovering the wounded, and burying many of the dead where they lay. At this distance one cannot be certain if that much time was necessary. The rescuers were quite determined, however, not to begin the return journey until they were cloaked with the security of night. Gillem and Green either had forgotten to include a medical officer or had labored under the mistaken belief that the Stronghold would supply one. Eventually this omission was discovered, but it took Surgeon McElderry until noon to reach the scene. Gillem would get the blame eventually; but, as he had on November 28, 1872, Green had again disclosed that flaw that caused him to work out his problems and their solutions incompletely. When McElderry did arrive he worked on the wounded with only a dressing case and his skills. Boutelle witnessed the doctor's difficult task: "Added to the horrors of the day was an absence of water. . .The pleadings of some suffering from peritonitis . . . were dreadful and continuous. When it ceased we knew what had occurred. They were dead." [25]

The trip back during the night of April 27-28 was a horror by itself. Boutelle provided the most graphic account of the terrible journey. Although he detailed his men off into three reliefs: "one to carry on the stretcher, one to carry the guns of those bearing the wounded, and one resting," he hardly knew how to describe what followed. The exhausted, terrified reliefs sought the refuge of night to save only themselves, ignoring the pleas of the others to take a turn at carrying the nine six-man stretchers. "Added to the horrors," wrote Boutelle, "a bitter storm of sleet and rain came down in torrents, freezing as it fell." After the storm hit, the night was "as black as a wolf's mouth," and the details slipped off to join "the mob working its weary way toward a beacon kept burning . . . on the bluff near Gillem's camp."

In the end, Boutelle realized that it was useless to attempt to persuade the men to return to carrying the wounded and "that my muscle was worth more than my authority." He shouldered a stretcher handle and with men he could trust, carried the wracked and dying Harris back to camp. [26]

The "mob" finally reached Gillem's Camp an hour after sunrise, April 28. It had taken twelve hours to cover four miles. Yet Boutelle was understanding of his men: "The nervous strain was too great for ordinary endurance." [27] An unforeseen result of the suffering of the wounded was the construction of a crude but comfortable chair to be mounted on a mule for the transport of future wounded. [28]

"We have sickening news again from the Lava Beds," wrote Lieutenant Jocelyn at Camp Warner, as news of the disastrous patrol and its casualties began pouring in. [29] Thomas, Howe, and Wright were dead. Harris was mortally wounded. Cranston was missing and presumed dead. Semig had lost a foot and was suffering from partial paralysis caused by a shoulder wound. Twenty enlisted men, including those with Cranston, and packer Louis Webber had been killed. Sixteen other enlisted men were wounded, many of them severely. [30] Two-thirds of the patrol had fallen victim to the Modocs' accurate rifle fire. The rest had run. It was a stunning defeat. The nation and, more severely, the army reacted sharply.

Frank Wheaton at Camp Warner could scarcely believe the news. He had been removed for far less cause. More in shock than in bitterness he wrote, "we cannot understand it and are filled with grief and horror at the terrible loss." [31] A stinging rebuke of Gillem appeared in the usually noncommittal Army and Navy Journal:

The charity which covers with the mantle of oblivion the mistakes of the dead, stays our criticism on the conduct of this latest expedition against the Modocs, which has resulted so disastrously. But we need a fuller explanation than is contained in the report of General Gillem . . . as to the reasons which prompted him to send Captain Thomas on so delicate a mission as that of hunting for Indians among the lava rocks, and leaving him entirely to his own resources and unsupported.

The editors hoped, quite clearly, "for different results under the management of General Davis," who was "a cool, capable, and determined officer." Davis himself did not blame Gillem as much as he did the soldiers for being cowards and Captain Thomas for "not pushing his skirmish line farther to the front and on his flanks before halting." [32] But then, as now, the commander was ultimately responsible. Gillem had had his opportunity and had been found wanting. Most critical of all was the lack of faith in him that many of his subordinates now felt. Davis would put up with him for a while; nevertheless Gillem must have realized that his days in the lava beds would be few.

Even now, in defeat, his characteristic concern for his men came to the top. He officially commended enlisted men who had died an act that cool and capable officers seldom seemed to find time for during the Indian wars. In his final report on the Modoc War, he wrote "Two men seem to require special mention, their conduct was the subject of commendation by those who fled . . . as well as those [who] remained . . . These gallant men were 1st Sergeant Robert Romer, Co. 'A' 4th Artillery, and 1st Sergeant Malachi Clinton, Co. 'E' 12th Infantry." Both sergeants were brave men who not only did their duty but tried to get others to do their duty as well; "The former was killed with his Commander, Captain Thomas, the latter was mortally wounded with Lieut. Wright." [33]

As they had ever since November, the Modocs escaped virtually unscathed. Although Schofield received a report that claimed five Modoc bodies had been found by the rescuers, the Modocs later told Surgeon McElderry that only one man lost his life in the attack. [34] Captain Jack may have lost a great deal of sympathy for his killing of General Canby, but he and his men now gained the respect of fighting men that is reserved for the underdog overcoming odds. Still, the victory dance would not have been quite so lively had the Indians known the temper of Jefferson C. Davis, who even then was approaching the lava beds to take command.

Howitzers in the Stronghold.


Modoc War
©1971, Argus Books
thompson/chap7.htm — 11-Nov-2002