Lava Beds
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Every nation reinterprets its histories periodically. Usually these reinterpretations take place about once in a generation after new documents are discovered or new frames of reference raise questions about old theories. American historians follow this practice, telling the old stories and at the same time making new value judgments based on their own social or economic attitudes.

As an example of this an American scholar might look at the accounts of the Modoc War, the only Indian conflict of consequence to take place within the present boundaries of the state of California. The books written in the last two decades differ considerably from older studies, many of which were written by the participants in the war, generally to emphasize the role of the pioneer settler. The newer accounts have shown that the Modocs we're not the treacherous renegades that they were once described as being. The new books have shown that the Indians weren't all "noble savages," either, as some romantics tried to portray them. The pioneer stockmen and farmers have turned out to be considerably less than God's noblemen who carried out a divine mission at tremendous personal risk to settle south central Oregon and northeastern California. Those books have shown that the Indians and pioneers were both the products of their particular 19th century cultures, and neither redmen nor whites made any effort to understand the culture of the others.

From the standpoint of the student of Indian-white man relations, the Modoc War is an almost perfect case study in cultural conflict, leading to actual violence and death, and resulting in the total collapse of the Indian way of life in the Lava Beds. In addition, the area involved is so small that it is quite simple to gain some knowledge of the war in a single afternoon, and to gain a considerable understanding of what occurred in the course of two or three days of research, coupled with hiking through the battle areas if a visitor to the Lava Beds National Monument cares to make the effort.

If such an interested historian should drive through south central Oregon from Crater Lake National Park, he would pass the location of old Fort Klamath where Captain Jack and his fellow tribesmen, convicted of murdering General E. R. S. Canby, were executed. They were hanged here for a crime according to United States law, but for a fully justified wartime tactic by Indian standards. A few miles farther south of the Fort Klamath site, the highway runs past Upper Klamath Lake, which was set aside for the Klamath-Modoc Indians as a reservation, by virtue of the treaty of October, 1864. Yet farther south is Klamath Falls, Oregon, known as Linkville at the time of the Modoc War. Continuing toward the California border, the highway runs past Stukel Mountain, the escape route of the surviving women and children who fled Hooker Jim's raid on the ranches bordering Tule Lake, where he killed men for what he considered to be their treacherous behavior toward the Modocs. At the base of the mountain, on Lost River, is the location of the Stukel Ford, and a dozen miles farther southeast is the Natural Bridge, an emigrant ford across the river, near where Captain Jack and Hooker Jim lived on the night of the unexpected attack by United States cavalry in late November, 1872. Some twenty-five miles farther, reached by a side road, the visitor comes to Captain Jack's Stronghold, an area of natural rock trenches and rock shelters in the lava flows, where a tiny band of Indians held hundreds of troops at bay for almost five months, as Thompson so ably tells. At this point it becomes necessary to leave one's car and to walk through the trails provided by the Park Service. The entire hike is only a little more than a half a mile long however, and it is easy to walk, and it is well described by appropriate markers. Two miles west of the Stronghold is the spot where General Canby and the Rev. Eleasar Thomas were murdered by the Modocs on April 11, 1873, and a couple of miles yet farther west is the site of Gillem's Camp. From here, a side trip to the Van Brimmer of Fairchild ranches is rewarding. Most visitors will turn south through the Monument, however, past the site of the Thomas-Wright massacre, toward Dry (Sorass) Lake and Big Sand Butte. It is much more difficult to go to Willow Creek valley, where Jack surrendered, but it can be done. This trip will probably take an additional day.

After the terrain of the war is firmly in mind, the student can then turn his attention to the actual reasons for the hostilities.

More than anything else, the reason for trouble lay in the fact that the Indians had no concept of how much value the white pioneers put upon their material possessions and their land. Any object brought across as much as two thousand miles of harsh prairie and desert trail from the older, well established sections of the United States was something that the settler valued inordinately, or he would have abandoned it along the way. In the same manner, he valued his own farm or ranch. In feudal medieval Europe, land possession counted for everything, and this lust for land ownership carried over from Europe as part of the 19th-century white American's European heritage. He saw that the hunting ranges of the Indian were not being armed, which amounted in his eyes to being without proprietors; therefore, the ranges were open to anyone strong enough to possess and defend individual claims from aggressors. Whenever he thought at all about aboriginal rights, the pioneer considered his moral obligations were discharged when he made agricultural land available to the Indians, and offered to teach them to farm, even though farming was not part of the Indian way of life. Hence, the Indian's objections to his fencing and farming their hunting lands, which he considered surplus, was to him a dog-in-the-manger attitude toward those who could use the land better than the Indians could for the benefit of many more people of all races. In addition, though the settler subscribed in general to the ten commandments, he placed them in a different order from the one found in the scriptures. The first American commandment was "Thou Shalt Not Steal." "Thou Shalt Not Kill" was much farther down the list, and "Thou Shalt Not Covet" was almost ignored.

Though the Indians did not grasp the value system of the western American, their insight was far better than 20th Century city dwellers who base their judgments on current racial problems, and are much too prone to condemn the settler as a racist bigot without giving him any credit for having a value system as different from our contemporary one as it was from the Indians of his own day.

In the same way that the Indian misunderstood the pioneer, the white man failed completely to credit the Indian with a workable system of social and political controls. For example, Americans considered tribalism so backward that even agents and settlers of goodwill made every effort to destroy the tribal unit, though it was the very essence of Indian society throughout much of the west. As another example, what land ownership was to the white man, status and social position was to the Indian. Captain Jack could no more have seriously considered surrendering his role as leader of his band, when his leadership was jeopardized by his objection to murdering Canby, than Van Brimmer or Dorris could have considered abandoning their ranches voluntarily because of inconvenience or injustice to the Indians.

The Indian was deeply distrustful of white man's law codes, and with good reason. When Jack executed the Klamath shaman whose inefficiency had resulted in the death of a Modoc girl, this was correct according to Modoc law, but murder by American legal standards. Hence, he refused to permit the agents to arrest him for his action. The Modocs had previously witnessed numerous instances when whites had killed Indians, and no warrants had been issued for their arrest. The Ben Wright killing of an entire village of Modocs in 1852 is an example. Jack's associate, John Schonchin, had been an observer of this deed, and had barely escaped with his own life. He noted, bitterly, that Wright was not only hailed as a hero by the white miners and farmers, but was appointed Indian agent immediately afterward!

The whites also scorned the Indian religion, even though many of them practiced Christian principles very casually, indeed. Curley Headed Doctor, the shaman, was as important a man among Jack's band as the greatest preacher in the largest church in America was among the whites. The Methodist Indian agents, appointed to watch over the welfare of the tribesmen, considered the Modoc religious practices as mere "heathenism," and they felt it to be their duty to destroy shamanism completely.

Of course the Modocs and the settlers of Northern California were not the only Indians and whites to approach each other on a collision course in the unfolding of their histories. These two groups in this particular place do serve, however, as a prime example of what happened when the collision occurred. When Jack chose to live and die as an Indian instead of a hanger-on to the fringes of American culture his doom was sealed, and he knew it. When Green ordered Jackson to force the Indians back on the Klamath reservation, ignoring the hostility between Klamaths and Modocs, he was as guilty of causing the death and injury of hundreds of human beings as any European king or dictator who deliberately set out to destroy the identity of a proud, neighboring people. When war came, Green professed surprise, and indeed he must have had some unpleasant explanations to make for what followed. The record tells the tale of a motley army of badly trained soldiers, led by inept officers on a battlefield of the Indian's choosing about which the army intelligence had absolutely no information. Given such conditions, tragedy was inevitable for settlers on the north shore of Tule Lake, and for Jack's and Hooker Jim's bands of Modocs. It was also tragedy for the soldier who died in the Lava Beds. While the list of dead numbered less than the casualties of one day in a modern war, yet the man who was killed by a Modoc bullet was just as dead as though he had died at Waterloo. To some degree it was a tragedy for the American taxpayer. The Lava Beds is almost entirely worthless for agriculture. Though the costs involved in driving the Modocs out would not have covered operations in modern warfare for more than about ten minutes, it was still the most expensive Indian war in American history considering the shortness of the war and the number of Indians involved.

In his present study, Thompson has the advantage of access to new bibliographical source material unused in earlier monographs. He makes the best possible use of his sources. His maps are especially accurate, detailed, and well drawn. He pays attention to the positions of the various regular and voluntary army units in each skirmish and battle in a manner calculated to bring pleasure to military historians. He has told of skirmishes that some earlier books on the Modoc War had neglected to mention at all. He has been able to show that instead of one raid on a certain army supply route, the Modocs attacked several times, such as those fights centered around the Scorpion Point area.

As an author myself, of one of these earlier accounts, I salute the excellent scholarship of Erwin N. Thompson.


lava rock
Natural crack in the lava flow at the Stronghold. Modocs used this as a trench during the attacks. Gilliem's Camp was at the base of the far bluff.


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