Modoc NF History, 1945 -- Chapter II, Early History

*Please do not assume this content reflects current Forest Service attitudes and/or practices. Neither should it be regarded to represent current scientific knowledge, policies, or practices. For questions about the Modoc Forest Heritage program, contact M. Pamela Bumsted, Ph.D., Heritage Program Manager,, 530-233-5811.


Emigrant Traills and Indian Warfare

The first white men to enter the Modoc country were Hudson Bay trappers in search of beaver and other furs. Modoc forest officers in 1926 found the crumbling remains of a trapper's cabin on Glass Mt. and evidence of trapping activities. A check against the surrounding tree growth placed the time the trapping took place as being in the late 1820's or early 1830's. Old Indians of the region somewhat verified this from stories handed down to them by their fathers. Peter Skene Ogden, for years Hudson Bay factor at Vancouver, mentions having been on Pit River in 1829. Three years later Ewing Young led a trapping party up Pit River from the Sacramento, but left no record behind other than the fact that it was bad Indian country.

The first real written record of the local area was that made by General John Charles Fremont, covering his expedition into Southern Oregon in the spring of 1846. Accompanied by the famous scout, Kit Carson and a force of fifty men, including his Delaware Indian scouts, Fremont traveled north through western Modoc County, following approximately the present route of the Great Northern Railway. Fremont's favorite French-Canadian scout, Archimbeau, leaving the main body for a hunt, was lost in the flat timbered country north of Big Valley, and the party camped for three days at what was later known as Cornell while waiting for the missing hunter to rejoin the expedition. Fremont mapped and described Tule Lake and nearby topographic features but failed to discover Clear Lake just over the hills to the east of where he made camp.

A few days after Archimbeau caught up with the command, special couriers overtook Fremont with orders to return south to take part in the War being waged against Mexico. Fremont split his party and hurried southward with 14 men. Having seen no Indians for some time, Fremont relaxed his usual vigilance with the result that his camp near Lower Klamath Lake was attacked one night while the - party was asleep. But for the quick ear of Kit Carson who awoke at the first sound, the entire - party would have been annihilated since the armed indians were in the center of the camp. In the fight, which ensued, Basil Lajeunesse - another of Fremont's favorite scouts - and two of the Delaware Indians were killed, and one man badly wounded.

Fremont censured himself as being responsible for this surprise attack and called the attacking Indians Klamaths. There is every reason to believe, however, from facts later coming to light, that this war party was composed of Modocs. Fremont afterwards states that these Indians, whom he punished badly when his main force later rejoined him, used steel arrowheads furnished them by the Hudson Bay Company and poisoned six inches back from the point. He declared that with the bows in-use' by the Indians these arrows could be driven into a pine tree for six inches from several paces distant.

When Dr. Marcus 'Whitman in 1842 led the largest single emigrant party ever to cross the country to Oregon, almost incredible hardships were encountered and few wheeled vehicles reached their ultimate Oregon destination. In spite of the tough going, emigration continued during the ensuing years and by 1846 a considerable settlement had been established in the Willamette Valley. More emigrants were constantly coming and livestock feed was short on the rugged route being used.
Peter Skene Ogden, who had trapped the Humboldt River in 1825, told the Oregon settlers that there was a much easier route further to the south but also informed them that the entire distance was infested by particularly fierce Indian tribes. However, the Oregon Territory needed settlers and an easier trail from the East, so an expedition to seek such was decided upon.

Leaders among the Oregon pioneers was the Applegate family, so it was quite appropriate that Lindsay Applegate, a surveyor and experienced frontier leader, should be chosen to search out and blaze the new route. With a party of fourteen men besides himself, Applegate let the Willamette Valley on June 22, 1846 and returned thereto on October 3,1846, the members of the party being welcomed by their relatives in the Oregon settlements as ones returned from the dead. Applegate in these months laid out what was afterwards variously known as the Applegate Trail, the South Route and the Oregon Cutoff, reaching from Willamette Valley to Ft. Hall in Southern Idaho, an emigrant trail which later was probably more thoroughly soaked with emigrant blood than any other leading into California or Oregon.

Lindsay Applegate had no trouble with the Indians on his survey trip - nor did he intend to have any. His job was to provide the easiest possible route for the wagons of the emigrants, and he even designated camping places and daily travel distances. Each man of his party was well mounted and led a packhorse. Although well armed and equipped, they avoided Indians wherever possible. On occasion, Indians even helped the trailblazers by showing them springs and easier routes of travel. Henry Boygus, one of the youngest men of the party, was the only causality of the trip, being murdered by Indians while separated from the main force. An Oregon-bound emigrant party which accompanied Applegate screw from Humboldt Valley on the return trip, proved the feasibility of the route for wagon travel.

The Applegate Trail after leaving Ft. Hall traversed the Humboldt Valley, the terrifying flat, waterless expanse of the Black Rock Desert, Soldier Meadows, High Rock Canyon and skirted Massacre Lake, entering present Modoc County through Forty-Nine Canyon. From this point the route continued north through- Surprise Valley, crossing the Warner Range over Fandango Pass and entering Goose Lake Valley. From here the course led across the bed of Goose Lake if the lake was dry, or around the south end thereof if it was not. Crossing the rocky Devil's Garden, the way led past Blue Mt. and around Clear Lake to the east shore of Tule Lake, entering the Oregon country a short distance north of Bloody Point.

In later years, California-bound miners and emigrants left the Applegate Trail south of Goose Lake and followed Pit River south and southwest along the route laid out by Peter Lassen shortly after Applegate’s explorations. The old original trails are still visible in many places on the Modoc Forest where iron-shod wagon wheels ground their way over rocky ground or through narrow defiles, notably west of Goose Lake, just west of the old Pit River Ranger Station, and along the shores of Clear Lake.

How many people traveled the old emigrant trails of the Modoc region and how many lives were lost along the way will never be known. For years well-armed Oregon volunteers patrolled the South Route. Levi Scott, a member of Lindsay Applegate’s trail-blazing party, led a large train through safely in 1847. Lester Hulin, Lane County, Oregon pioneer, left a detailed account of the passage of another large train the same year. So clearcut was the written description in his current diary that one can clearly identify pre- sent day Modoc Forest locations. Hulin's party came through safely although it fought a battle with Paiutes in Fandango Valley in which a sixteen-year old girl was so badly wounded by Indian arrows that she had to be carried on a litter across the rocky Devil's Garden.

The Carver Party of about fifty wagons made the trip to Willamette Valley in 1853 without the loss of life, but told on their arrival there of the road through the Black Rock Desert being strewn with abandoned wagons, household furniture, farm implements and rotting carcasses of animals which had died by thirst in that arid region. The Same year the Oregon Volunteers escorted another party of 23 wagons, 87 people, 330 cattle, 29 loose horses and mules and 1,700 sheep through the worst part of the Indian country.

As the Western tide of emigration increased the tempo of Indian attacks increased also. Where the depredations of the Paiutes ceased that of the Modocs began. Individuals or small parties dropping behind the main emigrant cavalcade to which they belonged often fell an easy prey to the savages. In spite of constant warnings emigrants became careless and relaxed their vigilance, with tragic results. One of a large party of California-bound emigrants passing through Nevada near the present California State line found what he thought was gold bearing quartz. This being about the time of the great California gold rush when men's thoughts were permeated with dreams of the fabulous wealth of Western hills, groups of the emigrants straggled while searching for further evidence of the precious metal. Paiute Indians attacked the disorganized party in force and in a fight of several days duration; forty- men were killed, besides a number of women and children. Less than two-thirds of this big party got through, minus most of their livestock and personal possessions. Massacre Lake in this section owes its name to this running fight with the Indians and to the lives lost in other surprise Indian attacks in the same vicinity.

The only record of many emigrant massacres was often a circle of burned wagons and bleached human and animal skeletons found on the scene later. Two unknown emigrant parties of considerable strength, according to the remains discovered later, met a tragic end near Alturas some time in the fifties, one near the junction of Pit River, and the other on Rattlesnake Creek. Another party was surrounded and wiped out near the present Canby Bridge on Pit River.

Mention has already been made of the massacre of 1852, which gave the name to Bloody Point. In later years old Modoc Indians told Ft. Bidwell soldiers that many emigrant trains had been ambushed by their warriors at Bloody Point, where wagons were forced to closely pass a rank growth of tules on one side and a natural rock cover on the other.

Even in quite recent years, long barrels of Kentucky rifles favored by emigrants have been picked up all through Western Nevada and the Modoc country. Almost invariably, these are bent and twisted out of shape, mute evidence that some beleaguered pioneer, having fired his last shot, twisted the barrel of his rifle out of shape in the stout spokes of the wagon wheels to render it useless to his - attackers.

Although Ft. Hall on the main northern route to Oregon had been in operation since 1834, it was not until the early sixties that the military appeared in any force further to the west. Camp Warner in southeastern Oregon was established in the late fifties, as was Soldier Meadows on the Applegate Trail. Ft. Bidwell, in northern Surprise Valley, the most important post of all, was built in 1865-66, Ft. Crook in the Fall River Valley coming into existence about the same time. Military forces were installed about this period also in Ft. Klamath and Camp Harney in Southern Oregon. Meanwhile, both California and Oregon volunteers had, with the regular military forces, been taking toll of the hostile Indians. One notable case was that of 1853 when the war power of the fierce Modocs as a tribe was broken by Ben Wright, who with his Yreka volunteers adopted the Indians' own code of treacherous fighting.

Ben Wright had spent most of his life among the Indians and in spite of his being married to an Indian squaw by tribal custom, secretly hated them. He had adopted Indian ways of living and evidently had considerable influence among the leading men of the Modoc tribe. Incensed at the atrocities committed at Bloody Point, Wright raised a company of forty hard-bitten frontiersmen at Yreka and boldly marched into the Modoc country where he made camp. While the Indians waited patiently to discover the meaning of this armed - force in their midst, Wright prevailed on the Modoc leaders to call in all the tribe for a big feast and pow-wow at which the subject of peace terms with the incoming settlers would be discussed. Cattle had been slaughtered to provide for the feast and even the most astute of the Modoc chiefs seemed to have no suspicion of the white leader's intended treachery as whites and Indians fraternized between their adjacent camps on Lost River.

Early one morning Wright concealed his followers around the Modoc camp. He, himself, both hands holding pistols hidden beneath the blanket poncho he was wearing against the morning cold, strode into the middle of the Indian encampment. His shot at close range which killed one of the Modoc chiefs, was the signal for a fusilade from his followers who charged the camp. The surprise was complete. The white volunteers shot down Indians right and left, regardless of age or sex. Indians were pursued into the surrounding sagebrush and hunted down-. Many Indians plunged into Lost River and were shot before reaching safety. Although openly condemned for his treacherous act, Wright was secretly praised by the white settlers. While depredations of the Modocs continued on a smaller scale, more emigrants got safely through their hunting grounds after this incident.

In July, 1861 Sam Evans and Joe Bailey, well to do stockmen, with a party of 18 vaqueros, wagons and equipment, set out from Willamette Valley for the Virginia City mines driving a herd of nearly one thousand steers, worth *75 per head at the mines. The party was well armed and planned a leisurely summer trip to the mines with their cattle. Their way led through central Modoc County and just above the present town of Canby they were attacked by Indians. In the fight, which followed, both of the owners and one of their employees were killed by Indian arrows. The cattle were scattered far and wide and the outnumbered white party put to flight. Such incidents were of frequent occurrence and as in this case were usually followed by punitive expeditions of blue-coated cavalrymen from one of the frontier forts.

In 1866 General George Crook led one of these expeditions from the fort bearing his name and after chasing them through western Modoc County for days cornered an Indian band at the south end of Clear Lake. The Indians fought ferociously, several soldiers were killed and a number of others wounded, and the white force obliged to retreat.

The following year General Crook again personally led an - expedition through the Modoc country. Leaving Camp Warner with a force of 65 soldiers, a number of teamsters and packers and a group of Warm Spring Indian scouts, he worked south through the Indian country. Several times - indians gave battle as they played hide and seek with the soldiers along the north fork of Pit River, through the Pit River Valley to the Adin mountain Divide, then back east and south to the locality above South Fork Valley, now known as Crooks Canyon. Here the Indians were run to earth as they took refuge in a series of heavily fortified underground caverns. The Indian band, reduced in numbers by weeks of running fighting, numbered 120 warriors, mixed Shoshone and Paiutes, besides a few - Pits.

The Battle of Infernal Caverns which took place, fourteen miles south of the town of Alturas, has gone down in history as one of the most famous in Western Indian warfare. Crook's little force was in a tough spot. Far from any hope of - relief, the entire command knew that their strongly entrenched, well-armed force was making a desperate, last ditch stand. Teamsters joined with soldiers in attacks on the Indian forts and General Crook fought with a rifle like a private soldier, personally killing three Indians, including a fanatical medicine man leader.

Lieut. John Madigan, one teamster, and six enlisted men were killed and one-fourth of the command wounded, most of them being shot at almost arm length distance in close-up combat. The Indians were badly punished, the whipped remnants of the party sneaking out of the caves at night almost under the very feet of the soldiers, and scattering over the country in all directions.

This was the last Indian fighting of consequence in almost the en- tire area of present Modoc County. Many Indians were killed during this campaign and sometimes their camps were treated to a fusillade of shots without much distinction as to the age or sex of the occupants. The intrepid Crook, however, somewhat spoiled the fruits of his cleanup campaign by a treaty concluded with the Pit leaders. This treaty guaranteed the tribe unrestricted hunting and fishing rights for all time and was the source of minor Indian conflicts for more than fifty years thereafter.

By the late 1860's, bad Indians of the Modoc region were usually those who spasmodically wandered off their reservations and made themselves nuisances in the white settlements, where they frightened women and children and pilfered anything they could lay hands on. Of such a type were the Modoc warriors who, with a few renegades from various other tribes, precipitated the campaign of 1872-73. Dressed in white men’s clothing, armed with modern fire-arms of the time, and some of them speaking fair English, Captain Jack's band of ragged warriors, numbering 71 fighting men at their greatest strength, held at bay for six months white military forces as much as twenty times greater than their own.

The decimation of the Modoc tribe by Ben Wright and their heavy losses of warriors in frequent clashes with the settlers and military forces brought about the decision of their war chief, the elder Schonchin, to seek a treaty of peace with the whites. He told the white officers that he had thought if he kept on killing the white emigrants they would eventually stay out of his tribal hunting grounds, but instead a greater number than ever kept coming. Most of his young men were killed, he stated, and he was ready to throw down his gun. The Modocs never broke the peace treaty signed by Schonchin as a tribe, although it was entirely unsatisfactory to some of the hotheads among them, since it took from them their old hunting grounds around Tule Lake. The fact that the Modocs were assigned to share a reservation with their hereditary foes, the Klamaths, also rankled, as did the indignity of their having to cut fence rails for the settlers, an occupation followed by the Klamath tribe.

A gradually increasing number of the dissatisfied Modocs gathered under the leadership of Kentipoos, or Captain Jack, whose father had been killed by Ben Wright almost twenty years before, and who was an implacable hater of the encroaching white race. The group known as Captain Jack's Band left the reservation at will. They wandered about the country from Tule Lake to Yreka, stealing live- stock and committing acts of pilferage. In spite of their later record as fighting men, these Indians were merely a ragged thieving band, often actually kicked away from the backdoors of settlers. They became such a pest that on November 8, 1872 military orders were sent to Captain James Jackson of the 1st U. S. Cavalry at Ft. Klamath to return the Modoc band to the Klamath Indian Reservation, the orders reading “peaceably if you can, forcibly if you must”.

Captain Jackson, augmenting his force of forty soldiers with a body of settler volunteers, found the Indian party camped at Natural Bridge on Lost River, well armed and defiant. The Modoc band first surrendered, then decided to fight and although losing several of their own warriors, roundly defeated the white force, killing or wounding one-fourth of Jackson's entire command. Immediately after the battle, Captain Jack with the women and children and part of his warriors repaired to the lava bed region just south of Tule Lake and took refuge in an almost impregnable rock fortress honey-combed with caves and natural trenches, since known as Captain Jack's Stronghold.

Hooker Jim, one of Jack's lieutenants, with the balance of the band, made a more leisurely trip to the rocky stronghold through Tule Lake Valley, burning haystacks, killing cattle and murdering eighteen men and older boys as they were found engaged in their farm tasks. It is worthy of mention that neither then nor thereafter during the campaign did the Modoc band kill any women or children, although they riddled with bullets the Brotherton ranch house, successfully defended for three days by Charley Brotherton, a 12-year old son of the family and his mother, after the father and older brothers had been killed in the fields nearby.

The Modoc War was on. The name “Modoc” became a household word all over the nation. In many sections there was a sneaking sympathy for Captain Jack and the beleaguered Modocs, which perhaps accounted for the slowness of military operations against them. Secure in their impregnable natural lava fortress in "which writers of the time likened the Indians to “ants in a sponge”, the Modoc band kept themselves well supplied with arms ammunition and provisions by raids on military pack and wagon trains. During their five months occupancy of the Stronghold, only one Indian was killed.

At the Land's Ranch, miles away from the Indians' central position, concealed Indians one evening in December, 1872 emptied the saddles of an Army detachment, killing three soldiers and wounding several others. A concerted action by the white troops on January 17, 1873 resulted in 45 soldier and volunteer causalities, half of this number being killed. In this particular fight about all the white troops saw of the Indians were the orange flashes from their guns, cutting through the fog, which covered the landscape. Most of the white troopers were shot through the body from below by Indians concealed at their very feet. Artillery battered the Stronghold for days on end, with only minor causalities to the besieged. Members of the Modoc band sometimes crept close to camps of the white forces and hurled defiance and insults in English at their erstwhile neighbors serving the local volunteers.

Two local stockmen, Pressley Dorris and John Fairchilds, who had previously employed some of the Modoc warriors on their ranches, boldly entered the Stronghold and spent the night with Captain Jack in his cave, the Indian leader preventing his followers from doing them harm. Jack was defiant in his attitude and the peace overtures of the two stockmen brought no results other than an agreement by the Modoc leader to a meeting with the white officials between the lines under a flag of truce. For this meeting a four man Peace Commission was appointed by Washington and they met with Jack and his lieutenants on April 11, 1873. Ready troops posted nearby could not prevent the cold-blooded murder by Captain Jack of General E. R. S. Canby, commander of the military forces, nor that of Rev. Ebenezer Thomas of Oakland by Jack's henchmen. A. B. Meacham, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, left for dead by the Modoc group, afterwards recovered. J. G. Dyer, U. S. Indian Agent and fourth member of the Peace Commission, escaped to the white lines unhurt.

Shortly following this Modoc treachery the Indians were driven from their caves and crevices in the more open lava beds by the expedient of pushing a cordon of troops between their stronghold and the water supply in Tule Lake. On April 26, 1873, an expedition of some eighty men and friendly Indian scouts, led by Captain Evan Thomas, failed to find the Indians, but the Indians found them instead, ambushing the white force while they were eating their noonday lunch almost in sight of the military camp on Tule Lake.

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