History & Culture

Modoc NF History, 1945 -- Chapter I, General Description

Place Names

Place names are a great indicator of the early history of any American locality and the Modoc territory is no exception. The base map of the Modoc National Forest bristles with names reaching back into Indian use, Indian warfare, and pioneer days. Only a comparatively few can be given.

The best explanation of the derivation of the word "Modoc" itself is that it is a corruption of two words from the Klamath Indian tongue, "Moa" meaning "southerner" and "Dock" representing near, the term being applied by the Klamath Indians to their hereditary foes living to the south. The warlike "Moadocks," indeed, were uncomfortably close to the more peace-loving Klamaths. Some authorities, however, credit General John Charles Fremont as coining the name in 1846 from having about that time read a novel, the central character of which was named "Maidac". The first definition is the one most generally accepted.

General Fremont was a prolific coiner of place names. Sometimes they did not stick and few did in the Modoc country. The present Tule Lake, appropriately named because of its former rank tule growth, Fremont called Rhett Lake, in honor of his congressman friend of that name. He also christened the present Timber Mt. in the western part of the Forest Excelsior Butte, when he camped at its base in the spring of 1846.

Bloody Point, a promontory on the eastern shore of the now dry Tule Lake, was - named by Oregon pioneers. Here in September 1852 an emigrant train of some 65 persons were massacred by the Modoc Indians. One man only, badly wounded, made his escape to the Oregon settlements in Willamette Valley. Oregon volunteers, reaching the scene later, found bodies of men, women and children scattered for more than a mile along the lake shore. Almost every body had been terribly mutilated and the wagons plundered and burned. The following year in the same spot a repetition of this massacre was averted by Oregon volunteers who arrived barely in time to relieve another beleagured train about to be overwhelmed -.

Fandango Valley, in the North Warners section, also owes its name to a - massacre-. A large emigrant party had made its way over the steep slopes of the Warner Range and camped for the night at a spring in the valley. Viewing the waters of Goose Lake through the trees the emigrants possible believed they had reached their journey's end and decided to have a dance to celebrate their achievement. Perhaps the sentries had relaxed their vigilance - possibly there were none posted; anyway, while the festivities were at their height and the party was indulging in a Spanish fandango dance, Paiute Indians, who had - followed the train over from the Nevada country, attacked the camp. There were no survivors and the story of the massacre was later -piecemealed from Indian participants. As late as the early 1930, Forest Service workers picked up white human skulls and personal trinkets on the scene of the tragedy. Almost on the same spot two years later, two out of a band of three men bringing a band of horses from Missouri to California were killed in a pitched battle with the same tribe of Indians. Tables were turned on the Indians when in 1866 soldiers from Fort Bidwell and volunteer settlers cornered a large band of them in the upper end of the valley and killed a considerable number. Two soldiers were also killed in the fight and several soldiers and settlers wounded. Among the latter, incidentally, was Chris Rachford, father of C. E. Rachford, for years Assistant Chief Forester of the United States.

Captain Jack, leader in the Modoc Indian War of 1872-73, gave his name to several topographic features in the western part of the Modoc Forest. The most prominent butte in the Lava Beds section is called Schonchin, after the old Indian war chief of that name. In 1864 this Indian leader signed a treaty of peace with the whites. Looking around for something to give emphasis to his pledge, he pointed to the distant butte and dramatically declared, "That mountain shall fall, before Schonchin will again raise his hand against his white brother." The old chief kept his word, although his brother was hanged for participation in the later Modoc war and a nephew fought in the ranks of Captain Jack's warriors - both of whom bore the name Schonchin.

Surprise Valley comes by its name honestly. Westward-bound emigrants, surviving the terrors of the Black Rock Desert and traversing the arid sagebrush expanses of western Nevada, encountered a real "surprise" when their wagons rolled through Forty-Nine Pass down into the well-watered reaches of this fertile valley. The western backdrop for this beautiful valley, the Warner Mts., was named by military authorities in honor of Brevet Captain William H. Warner, who was killed by Indians September 26, 1859 when he was ambushed with his nine-man surveying party. Warner was a West Point graduate, and a favorite of General William T. Sherman.

Soldier Creek in Surprise Valley derives its name from the fact that soldiers sent to cope with the Indians started to build a fort there in 1864. They abandoned the project, came back in greater strength next year and built Fort Bidwell. The Fort Bidwell soldiers also gave Sugar Hill its name. A wagon hauling the garrison's sugar ration broke down on the long grade in that vicinity and scattered the precious sugar all over the hillside.

Saddleback Mountain could hardly bear another name because of its shape as viewed from the west side. It bore this name "Saddleback" before the days of the white man, the Indians with their love of colorful tales recounting the story of two Indian chiefs racing their ponies from Mt. Shasta to the Warner summit. The winner, says the Indian legend, hung his saddle on the mountain top to announce himself to the world as the winner. The same mountain has another name, however, since it is designated as Sagle Peak on official maps. Looked at from the east side it is a sharp peak and on clear days eagles are invariably seen circling the summit.

The Spanish name of Alturas which literally means "a valley on top of a mountain" was given to the town in 1874 when Modoc County was created by being carved out of Siskiyou County. Prior to that time it went by the more prosaic name of Dorris Bridge, since the Dorris family in 1870 built the first bridge over Pit River at that point, at the same time establishing a trading center and settlement as well as the large, present-day Dorris cattle ranch.

Gold Digger Pass, the only break for miles in a high lava rim in the Western part of the Modoc Forest owes its name, not to the gold diggers from Oregon passing that way during gold rush days but to a beautiful golden brown wild stallion, hunted for years by the vaqueros of the eighties. The much sought for animal, termed Gold Digger by the vaqueros, always eluded his pursuers by escaping through this gap in the towering rimrock.

The name of the little town of Likely was strangely chosen. When a post office was established there shortly after the original settlement of South Fork Valley, the name of South Fork was disapproved by Washington authorities as were several other names submitted to the post office officials. The settlers gathered in the local store one night to choose a suitable name. Just as the meeting was breaking up without a decision having been reached, one of the pioneer stockmen, Wm. H. Nelson, who had hitherto remained silent, remarked, "Wa'al, it looks as if we're likely to get a name and likely not to." The word "likely" had an appealing sound and was unanimously adopted.

The bones of Tuledad Matney, an old Indian scout who ended his days in the Modoc section many years ago, rest in an unmarked grave on Mill Creek in Jess Valley. His unusual given name is preserved in Tuledad Canyon located near the south boundary of the Forest. The town of Canby was named for General E. R. S. Canby who was shot to death by the Indian leader, Captain Jack, at a peace conference in the Modoc Lava Beds on April 11, 1873. The late Major Chase B. Hardin served with distinction as a private soldier through the Modoc Indian campaign of 1872-73, and a butte in the Lava Beds National Monument bears his name.

Pit River was named for the Pit tribe of Indians who dug pits along its banks to trap deer and other game animals. Lost River in the northwest part of Modoc County was so called by the Indians. Between Tule Lake and Clear Lake this ran underground for miles, reappearing as the main feeder of the Tule Lake. Indians believed that Tule Lake leaked through a lava crevice in the south end and that the waters sent into the lake by Lost River flowed underground, to come to the surface again as Fall River, some 60 miles distant, air line. Tule Lake had no visible outlet, and so logical seemed the Indian tradition that Government engineers sunk a deep shaft in search of the fabled underground stream. It was never found.

A German named Goos, who was the first brewer in Modoc County, was also the first settler on a small creek flowing from the east side of the Warners. On the maps compiled by early-day forest officers, the creek was properly named "Goos". Washington draftsmen, knowing that the old time rangers were usually poor spellers, inserted the "e" and the name "Goose" stuck. The casual visitor who never heard of old man Goos often wonders what connection Goose Creek ever had with the bird of that name.

Thos. Bare settled with his family on a creek near the south end of the Warners in 1865. While out riding after strayed livestock with a group of neighbors one day a band of Paiute Indians attacked his log cabin home. The young wife barricaded the place and gave the Indians a good fight. She was down to the last of her ammunition and about to use it to kill her two small children and herself rather than fall alive into the hands of the Paiutes when her husband and his party returned and drove the Indians off. Mrs. Bare lived in Modoc County until her death at 93 years of age, her declining years cheered by the fact that official topographers had finally corrected "Bear" Creek on the maps to its proper name of "Bare" Creek, since for years the erroneous name had persisted.

Another unusual corrupted name is Hackamore, applied to an important Southern Pacific station located on a timbered flat in the western part of the Forest. An early-day vaquero lost his jaquima, or rope bridle, in that vicinity and his companions named the flat "Jaquima". The Forest preserved the name on its maps as originally spelled for many years but Southern Pacific engineers thought the name should be written just as it was pronounced in the local vernacular, so "Hackamore" it became.

Writers of Western history, interested in this study, find a fertile field in Modoc County for the unusual in place names, replete as they are with echoes of Indian occupation and pioneer conquest.

Next Section

Back to Table of Contents