Modoc culture can be traced as far back as 5,500 BCE, and our homeland features pictographs estimated to be over 4,500 years old. The Pit River band of Achomawi called the Modoc Lutuami, which meant lake dwellers–a fitting description. Our people built canoes and fished on rivers. My name River makes a lot of sense now doesn’t it? The Modoc and their northern neighbors the Klamath spoke a branch of Plateau Penutian. Together, the Klamath and Modoc languages are referred to as Lutuamian languages. Sadly, the Lutuamian language died out in 2003. The last fluent Native speaker was Neva Eggsman, from Chiloquin, Oregon. She was 93 years old when she broke on through to the other side, becoming yet another vanishing Indian. She was the last of the Lutuamians.
The Modocs originated in northeastern California and the Klamath in southeastern Oregon, though our focus will be on the Modocs. Three white men have tried to guess their early contact population. Let’s call them the Three Wise White Men: In 1770, anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber put them at 500. In 1894, ethnographer James Mooney put the Modoc numbers at 400. And in the early 20th century, another anthropologist, Theodore Stern, put them at 600 warriors strong, though he probably overestimated. All this number jockeying was likely the anthropology equivalent of overcompensation for dick size in their research. I bet you a hundred bucks that Stern’s descendents now drive big-ass trucks and chew tobacco.
First contact with the Modoc can be considered the moment when Canadian fur trader and Indian-Murderer Peter Skene Ogden established trade with the Klamath people in 1827. In the 1840s, Oregon’s infamous Applegate brothers established a route called–you guessed it– the Applegate Trail. Original, I know. White settlers loved naming everything after themselves, like an animal marking the territory with their scent. The Applegate’s were the first white people to pass through what’s now known as the Lava Beds National Monument. Consider this a foreshadowing of things to come, as many events of the Modoc War take place along this route.
While the white backs traveled the Applegate trail regularly, the two groups largely lived in peace and ignored each other’s territory. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that peace between opposing groups doesn’t last long. Between 1848 to 1873, thousands of illegal immigrants entered Modoc territory. If only we knew what the word “illegal” meant at the time, we could’ve built a wall.
Instead, the Modoc decided to respond to this unlawful incursion on their homeland by raiding the invaders. Calling it Manifest Destiny is bullshit. To the Natives, it felt more like “Can I sleep on your couch and fuck your wife for free?” The Modoc leader who jump-started the hostilities was Old Chief Schonchin. Remember him–he was the first major player in the Modoc Wars, and the recognized commander of 600 Modoc warriors by 1847. However, Schonchin was not a hereditary chief. He’d earned his position through effort and competency; a classic American work ethic. Because of this, his authority would be tested throughout his regime, but life molded him into a tough man able to deal with any enemy.
Now, you might be thinking: If they were living in peace, why would the Modoc suddenly start raiding the invaders? Wait, you actually believed that? Oops, my fucking bad. Hell no, there wasn’t peace, thanks to a white explorer named John C. Fremont (Indian-Murderer). Fremont visited the Modoc Plateau in 1843 after being kicked out of Mexican Country. Before the annexation of Texas, the Oregon Treaty, and end of the Mexican-American War, what is now considered California belonged to Mexico. Fremont and his men raised the U.S. Flag as a middle finger to Mexican authorities and fled north to Oregon to escape the consequences.
Like any family on a long road trip, Fremont’s men wanted to do some sight-seeing on their way to Oregon, so they decided to visit the natives at the Sacramento River. This little murder-and-mayhem stop on their expedition would become known as the Sacramento River Native Massacre. Expedition member Thomas E. Breckenridge recalled:
“The settlers charged into the village taking the warriors by surprise and then commenced a scene of slaughter which is unequalled in the West. The Bucks, Squaws and Papooses were shot down like sheep and those men never stopped as long as they could find one alive.”
In case you were wondering, let me translate that last bit: Bucks = Native men. Squaws = Native women. Papooses = children, as they are carried in a papoose as babies. So, yeah, they literally shot women carrying children on their backs.
Fremont’s group was never charged or punished for the killings. Breckenridge and other members suggested that the massacre led local Indians to fear the white man. Fremont’s band continued up the Sacramento River, killing Indians on sight wherever they saw one. Breckenridge noted: “while on march the crack of a rifle and the dying yell of an Indian was not an unusual occurrence.” Another member, Thomas S. Martin, stated in his memoirs, “We followed up the Sac. river killing plenty of game, and an occasional Indian. Of the latter we made it a rule to spare none of the bucks.” It’s strange, because I’ve never played a Cabela’s video game where you hunted Native Americans. I have the Red Dead Redemption series for that.
The Fremont crew passed through the Modoc Plateau and eventually made camp at Klamath Lake. At this point, their camp was attacked by Indians they presumed to be Klamath. Three of Fremont’s party were killed that night–no great loss to humanity at large. But Fremont being Fremont, he quickly squared accounts with the Klamath by killing two braves.
Unsatisfied with the scalps he got, he decided to attack a nearby tribal fishing village called Dokdokwas. Even if Fremont’s attackers were Klamath, the villagers had nothing to do with it. Regardless, Fremont destroyed the village and shot men, women, and children alike. Are you seeing the pattern with this guy? It’s called systematic extermination. We even came up with a fancy name for it: genocide. Though as you can imagine, no white man wasted their breath to call it out then.
Fremont and Carson also chose the wrong tribe to pick a fight with. As a Modoc, knowing Modoc history, I can say with reasonable confidence Fremont’s attackers were probably Modoc. Despite being culturally related and neighbors, the Klamath and Modoc tribes were enemies. Think of them as the Bloods and the Crips. Chances are the Modoc followed Fremont north into Klamath territory and struck when they noticed no posted scout.
When Fremont received word from a rider that war with Mexico was imminent, he got a raging murder boner. If there was anything that made Fremont harder than murdering Indians it was murdering Mexicans, so he hightailed it south to get in on the action. On the way, his party killed more Sacramento Valley Indians during the Sutter Buttes Massacre. If you’re counting, like I am, Fremont committed three massacres in about a year. Shit, this guy collected them like Bill Belichick collects Super Bowl rings, and yet he claimed to be a patriot. Coincidence? I think not. Seriously, fuck John Fremont. Also, fuck Belichick.
On the Modoc side, Old Chief Schonchin later admitted he did everything he could to exterminate his enemies, taking an active role in early hostilities. And why not, when confronted with a host of murderous motherfuckers? One of the Modoc’s first attacks on white settlers was in response to a settler group attacking them, thinking they were Pit River Indians who’d attacked them. It was like a giant game of ‘Murder Telephone,’ with all parties acting on half-baked information. And naturally, all Indians looked the same to whites, and all whites looked the same to Indians. Who would’ve guessed the situation would be rife with conflict?
In 1852, the Modoc destroyed an emigrant train at Bloody Point on the east shore of Tule Lake. Of the 65-person party, only three survived. It’s rumored that two young white girls were taken as captives and killed several years later by jealous Modoc women. I don’t know if I buy into that story. It could’ve been used to demonize Native women. Though, when you read enough history, you learn to never doubt the worst in people.
The only white man to survive Forrest Gump’d his ass off to Yreka, California. When the Yreka settlers heard the news, they organized a militia under three men: Sheriff Charles McDermit, Jim Crosby, and Ben Wright. The militia traveled to the shores of the massacre, where they buried their dead. McDermit’s party had a single skirmish with a Modoc band before returning home. Most normal people don’t like the cost of war even if it’s warranted.
Ben Wright and a small group from the militia stayed on to avenge the deaths. They weren’t normal people. Wright was a man who ate scalps for breakfast and saw flying arrows in his nightmares. He wouldn’t leave until he’d killed him some Injuns. During a peace parley, Wright ambushed the Modoc on the Lost River in what came to be known as the Ben Wright Massacre (Pro tip: normal people don’t get massacres named after them). He killed 40 Modocs that day. John Schonchin, the Old Chief’s brother, was one of the few Indians who lived to tell what happened.
All-in-all, historians have estimated that at least 300 emigrants and settlers were killed by the Modoc from 1846 to 1873. But to put that in perspective, just as many (if not more) Modoc were killed by settlers and slave traders.
As European American settlers continued to encroach on Modoc territory, Klamath and Yahooskin warriors attacked in an effort to drive them off. These back-and-forth hostilities continued until 1864, when Old Chief Schonchin and John Schonchin negotiated a treaty. Over 1000 members of the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin signed. The treaty ceded millions of acres of lands to the United States, and established the Klamath Reservation within the boundaries of present-day Oregon. In return, the United States was to make a cheap lump-sum payment of $35,000 and annual payments totaling $80,000 over 15 years. The tribes requested Lindsay Applegate as their US Indian agent. He estimated there were 2,000 Indians bound under the treaty of three tribes.
Under the treaty terms, the Modoc gave up their beloved lands in the Lost River, Tule Lake, and Lower Klamath Lake regions of California, and moved to a reservation in the Upper Klamath River Valley. The Indians received food, blankets, and clothing for as many years as would be required to establish themselves. Allen David signed for the Klamath and Old Schonchin and Kintpuash (also known as Captain Jack–remember him, too) for the Modoc. Old Schonchin was quoted as emphasizing his pledge while pointing to the distant butte, “That mountain shall fall before Schonchin will again raise his hand against his white brother.” The old chief kept his word until the day he died. However, his brother John and Kintpuash regretted signing the treaty and would later act on that regret. They weren’t fans of Old Schonchin’s corny mountain speech.
The reservation land didn’t provide enough food for both the Klamath and the Modoc peoples. Illness and tension flared between them, and soon the Modoc requested a separate reservation closer to their ancestral home. They felt they hadn’t been adequately represented during the treaty and were mistreated by the Klamath on the reservation. The Indian Agent was also corrupt and exploited the Modoc for money. Unfortunately, neither the federal nor the California governments approved it. In 1870, fed up with being miserable, sick, and starved, Kintpuash led a band of Modoc on a return to their homelands, where they built a village near the Lost River.
While there, Captain Jack and his Modoc band led an offensive against the white settlers who had occupied their area. Their small group numbered about 43 Indians–enough to stir up some trouble. They demanded rent for the occupation of their land, which most settlers paid. Making the whites pay rent was an ingenious idea, and if other American Indians had the means to do this on a large scale earlier on, who knows what could’ve happened?
Indian agents from the government attempted to negotiate relocation without success, until the Modocs finally agreed to a council. When soldiers showed up out of nowhere, the Modoc warriors dipped the hell out of dodge. Modocs don’t fuck with the police.
In the process, these jerks left their women and children behind with the settlers. Alfred Meacham, then Superintendent for Indian Affairs, placed those left behind in wagons and began heading back towards the reservation. He allowed Captain Jack’s sister, Queen Mary, to meet with him. She was tasked with persuading Jack to return to the reservation, and somehow she managed to succeed. Once back on the reservation, Captain Jack and his band did their best to call Modoc Point their new home.
Though the Modocs tried to maintain peace, those pesky Klamath kept stoking the feud. When the Modoc started building their homes, the Klamath stole their lumber, and the U.S. Indian agent wouldn’t protect them. Having a low tolerance for bullshit, Captain Jack’s band of 200 again left the reservation and went back to Lost River. During the months they’d been gone, more settlers had taken up former Modoc land in this region. This sparked more conflict, and the cycle continued.
Meacham recognized the bad blood between the Modoc and Klamath. He recommended to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. that Jack’s Modoc band be given a separate reservation at Yainax, the southern half of the rez. Meacham told Jack to keep his band at Clear Lake while he waited for the Commissioner’s decision. This bureaucratic holding pattern was all it took to further escalate tensions. Meacham never got word back from D.C., and the Modoc’s fate were sealed.
After the settler’s complaints turned to threats, Meacham sent for Edward Canby, the Commanding General of the Department of the Columbia. Canby was a decent man by all accounts–level-headed and a firm believer in order and the Constitution. He fought for the Union during the Civil War and the south viewed him as an oppressor.
Canby’s assignment was to move Captain Jack’s band back to the Klamath Reservation peacefully. While they awaited Canby’s arrival, other peace attempts were made. All ventures failed, and several skirmishes occurred in their midst. Despite many settlers being sympathetic to the Modoc because of past peace, those who wanted them gone had louder voices.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs requested Major John Green, officer at Fort Klamath, to furnish enough to troops to force Kintpuash’s band to the reservation. He sent Captain James Jackson with 40 troops to Lost River. These troops and a citizen’s militia from Linkville (now Klamath Falls) arrived in Captain Jack’s camp above Emigrant Crossing. It’s important to note that Kintpuash was a man who always tried peace before violence. He wished to avoid conflict and keep his people from getting killed unnecessarily, so he agreed to return to the rez. However, Captain Jackson demanded Kintpuash and his warriors disarm.
Kintpuash and his men had never fought the army before. They were alarmed by the command, but finally agreed to put down their weapons. However, before the situation could come to a peaceful resolution, a warrior named Scar-faced Charley and an Army lieutenant got into a verbal disagreement. The two dipshits pulled out their revolvers and shot at each other. They both missed, but the damage was done. Kintpuash led the Modoc in a mad scramble to regain their weapons. When shit gets hot, boy do the Modoc know how to overreact. Maybe that’s why I had to take anger management classes as a teenager.
The two groups fought in a bloody skirmish that would later be called the Battle of Lost River. The Modocs, with two dead and three wounded, fled towards the Oregon Border. Captain Jackson’s army lost one man and seven were wounded before they retreated to await reinforcements.
On their way to take refuge in the twisting caves south of Tule Lake (what’s now known as Lava Beds National Monument), a small band of Modoc, under the leadership of Hooker Jim, did some nasty things. Yes that’s actually his name. Hooker Jim was a hot-headed young man who had confidence and murderous intent in spades. He was like a brown, sociopathic Indiana Jones, and wanted nothing more than to punish the invaders.
One ominous afternoon, Hooker ordered his band to kill 18 settlers. This was a critical turning point in the war. Had the Modoc headed towards their holdout in the Lava Beds without killing any settlers, the events that followed could’ve gone differently. Once the government learned of Hooker’s attack, the Army was quickly reinforced and their desire to suppress the Modocs was stronger than ever. Thanks to Hooker Jim, Captain Jack’s plan of peace never stood a chance.
But let’s stop there for now. The pieces of this Wild West chess game have been set and put in motion. In my next article, The Modoc Wars – Volume 2, I’ll walk you through the deadly winter of 1873, and the final confrontation between Kintpuash’s Modoc band and General Edward Canby’s army. The checkmate that occurred still haunts the Klamath Nation to this day.
The Intense War Between the Modoc Tribe and the U.S. – Smithsonian Channel
River Barnes, professionally known as River Rivers, is an emerging writer from Southern Oregon. He is a Modoc and Klamath American Indian. His most recent stories are currently featured in Literally Stories, Who Writes Short Shorts, TallTaleTv, Snow Leopard Publishing, the Drabble Dark Anthology, Paper Trains Literary Journal.
You can follow River Rivers on Twitter @Catch22Fiction and on instagram @riverrivers921. Also you can follow gifted editor and author Rachel Macklin on Twitter @rmacklinrecruit and her website is: rachelmacklin.com.