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The Modoc War

Overview In 1872, a war broke out between peaceful California Modoc Indians who were employed and befriended by white settlers, and the U.S. Government. The Government was acting in the interests of a small group of white settlers who wanted to steal the Indians lands. The Modoc refused to sell their lands, refused to be moved off them to a reservation, and therefore the white opponents found war the only way to gain ownership. Nearly 1,000 army men, at a cost of half a million dollars, were held off by no more than 55 Modoc warriors for over 6 months. The Indians held their ground in barren lava bed backcountry near Tule Lake in northeastern California. In the end, the Modoc were captured and in punishment, their leader, the peaceful Captain Jack who only resorted to war when no other alternative was available, was hanged. This event outraged honorable Americans and Army leaders who understood the war was a cover for theft of native lands. The shocking events helped raise American awareness of the need for Indian policy reform.

The Situation

The Battleground

The Public Responses

Team Challenge


The Situation


The Modoc Indians lived on the border of California and Oregon and were considered by white settlers to be 'model Indians'. By the late 1800s they wore white mans clothing, worked for white ranch owners as cowboys and farmhands, and peacefully coexisted with the foreigners moving into their lands … until they were asked to sign an unjust treaty that would take away their tribal lands.

The Modoc Indian War is considered one of the most tragic and unnecessary campaigns ever fought against Native Americans. The Modoc Chief, Captain Jack, tried to resolve the situation by peaceful means even as his fellow warriors grew increasingly defiant and ready for war. The Indian Agencies in charge of resettling Indian on reservation tracts of land were, in that period, insensitive to native culture and rights, and used the United States Army to enforce regulations that were more often made to benefit agency bureaucrats and private land owners than they were to help the Indians find a hospitable way of life.


The Modoc Indian War broke out in 1872 as a result of land-greed. General John Schofield described it as a "conflict more remarkable in some respects than any other before known in American history". In 1864, the Modoc homelands on the California-Orgeon border were threatened under an un-ratified treaty. They refused to be exiled to northern government-appointed lands in Oregon, on what had been the lands of the Klamath tribe. The people who coveted the Modoc California lands were land speculators and squatters hoping to move the Indians off the grasslands so they could move in and graze their cattle and set up homesteads.

Since 1789, the United States Government position on Indian lands was officially that the Indians owned their own land unless they sold it by their own consent, or lost it in a war. Since it was clear the Modocs would never give up their land willingly, the whites considered war the only recourse for stealing the coveted land. This attitude of white settlers was common across America during westward expansion. Even if the covetous settlers were not criminals in direct action, they were guilty of holding a false sense of racial superiority that allowed them to feel they had a higher right to the land than the native peoples did. For example, even after the tragedy took place, white settlers wanted to erect a monument to the whites lost in the war that they considered a righteous effort "to plant a school on the ancient site of the savage wigwam." Here we see a literal example of the white attitude of cultural, intellectual, and moral superiority.


The Battleground


The actual battleground was the Modoc Lava Beds, known to the native peoples as Land of Burnt-out Fires. In this black rock, desolate badland, the Indians retreated and the whites - who considered the land worthless wilderness - hesitated to follow. Captain Jack was a man of peace, but was driven to fight by his angry warriors. Ironically these men, who forced him to fight, later turned on him and helped hunt him down under pay by the US Army. The Modocs held-off their enemy for six months with only 53 warriors against close to a thousand US Army men with infantry, Calvary, and artillery including mountain howitzer machine guns brought in by pack mules, wagons and boats. Due to the tragic expectations of the situation, Captain Jack reluctantly was forced to attack a group of whites that included General E.R.S. Canby during a massacre on the United States' Peace Commission who had been sent to try to resolve the situation. Canby had actually been an ally of the Modoc and was the only US General ever killed in battle with the Native Americans.

The Modocs successfully held off their white enemy for many battles, and while six Indians were lost in battle, 165 whites were dead or wounded by the end of the tragic confrontation. The turning point was a battle the Indians called Battle at Hardin Butte, and the whites called the Thomas-Wright massacre, and during this confirmation the Indians lost heir military superiority in the war. California settlers in the region feared the events going on, as did fellow Indians from other tribes who were asked to assist the Modoc in this one effort to stand up and demand native land rights.

Joaquin Miller, a famous California writer, wrote of the Shasta Indians (who had lost lands and river / food access to greedy miners since the Gold Rush and whose people were starving as a result of white mining) consideration of participation. When the Modoc Indians were captured, lots were drawn to see who would be punished, and the peaceful leader Captain Jack unfortunately drew the lot that soon saw him hang. History served up further bitterness when the most brutal murderers of whites in the Modoc band were pardoned because they had later gone to work as scouts for the white Army.



The Public Responses

To add to the bitterness of the story, soon after the Modoc Indian War concluded, two white men involved in the tragedy made road show events that traveled the country, one retelling the story as a theatrical lecture tour and the other as a Wild West show. Stars in the traveling shows were actually the Indians who had tried to kill these white road show hosts … and one must realize the conflict could not have been a very deep division if the Indians soon worked as actors in the presentations. One of the white men even had the audacity to use the Wild West show as a venue for selling a dubious health elixir to the audience.

"The splendid defense of the Modoc of their homeland against such overwhelming odds immediately appealed to the underdog-favoring American public. The people began to question the origins of an apparently needless war, and out of this criticism of the Modoc War grew the organized Indian reform movement " notes historian and author Richard Dillon in Burnt-out Fires, California's Modoc Indian War. This interest in readdressing American policy towards the First People of America began to grow in print and in action. During the Modoc Indian War the covers of popular magazines featured the battles… and continued with Helen Hunt Jackson's Indian crusade efforts, first in Congress and when that failed to see change, then as the author of Ramona and A Century Of Dishonor.

Even men in the Army opposed the strategy and spoke out. Private Maurice FitzGerald wrote of his opponents, the Modoc, "They were fighting for what they deemed an inalienable right to retain possession of a locality that had belonged to them and their ancestors from time immemorial and from which it was sought to forcibly eject them, for no good reason." The Army itself came to understand that greedy white settlers were using the military to conduct Indian confrontations to benefit a few white landowners, and they came to resent this use of their war power. General John Schofield complained in 1875 that "There is no glory to be won in savage warfare, and when to this feeling is added the conviction that the Indians have been driven to war by injustice and outrage, the indignation felt by honorable soldiers can easily be imagined."

Peace commissioner A. B. Meacham sought to resolve the conflict and then after its conclusion bring its injustice to light. He commented "the cost of this war has not yet been footed up … [but] the results stand in ghastly monuments, calling in thundertones on a triumphant nation to stop its made career and think …" In all, the campaign cost the military over half a million dollars, and was probably the mostly costly of all of the Indian wars in relation to the small number of Indians being fought that never numbered over 55.

As a comment on the inevitable outcome of racial superiority and westward expansion, Colonel James B. Fry replied on the Army point of view on the 'barbarian' issue, "Driven continually behind our rapidly advancing frontier, plundered and abused by the more powerful land aggressive race, without one particle of redress for any wrong done him by the white man, and knowing no law but retaliation and vengeance, it is not strange that the barbarian should indulge in bloody deeds."

Like the tragedy of the Hetch Hetchy environmental battle that would be fought by John Muir several decades later, the Modoc Indian War was a tragedy that motivated a change in American values and policies ... and, in the long run, brought about changes that closely in keeping with the wishes of the peaceful protectors who, unable to win their own battle in their own life time, fought with such courage as to inspire future generations. These issues, these battles, and their conflicting logic are still relevant today as we face social and environmental challenges in our region and around the world.


Team Challenge

Students need to read the entire Modoc Indian War section on Camp Internet, and can use Internet searches to find other source materials. Once they have read the different viewpoints in the conflict, please ask them to prepare answers to the following questions :

1. What was the attitude of white settlers and speculators who wanted to take ownerships of the Modoc land ?

2. When the Modoc wouldn't sell it, or move off to a reservation, what did the white settlers decide they had to do to get the land ?

3. How did the Modoc get along with most of the white settlers previous to the war ?

4. Who and how many, at what cost, were called in by the U.S. Government to fight the war ? How long did it last ?

5. What did members of the Army have to say about the value of the war ?

6. How did the war effect U.S. Government American Indian policy?

7. If your neighborhood was besieged by a gang of foreign mercenaries out to steal your homes and belongings, and they were willing to kill your family and friends to get it, how would you respond inorder to protect what was yours ?

8. What do you think U.S. Policy should have been in regards to the Modoc Indians ?

When we meet online for the Team Challenge, please have students online with their answers in hand - either written on paper that they can type from, or in a word processing format that they can cut and paste from. The Camp Counselor will host the Challenge, leading students towards developing a new U.S. Policy on Indian Lands.