Modoc War

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MODOC WAR (1872–1873). One of the costliest of the nineteenth-century Indian Wars, the Modoc War officially began on 29 November 1872 because of a misunderstanding between the Modoc Indians and the United States. Settlers, who began moving through Modoc territory as early as 1843, set off conflicts that led eventually to war. In 1864 the Modocs signed a treaty with the United States whereby the Modocs would receive goods and protection once they moved to the Klamath Reservation in Oregon. When agency officials ignored Modoc grievances, approximately two hundred Modocs fled the reservation under the leadership of Kintpuash (Captain Jack). They resettled along Lost River, their ancestral home.

Between 1865 and 1869 Kintpuash and his followers moved three times to their assigned reservation, but they were treated poorly there and did not always remain within its boundaries. Pressure to force the Modocs to comply with the treaty's provisions increased after the document was ratified in 1869. By 1871, 159 Modocs still refused to move back to the Oregon reservation. In November 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant gave orders to force the Modocs back. On 29 November the war began with the Battle of Lost River. The United States cavalry, commanded by Captain James Jackson, opened fire on Kintpuash's camp, forcing the Modocs to split up and flee to the Lava Beds in Northern California. En route, Hooker Jim and his men killed eleven male settlers. Kintpuash learned of these killings when Hooker Jim reached the Lava Beds. Over the next two months three major battles occurred as U.S. troops sought to infiltrate the Lava Beds: Battle of Land's Ranch, First Battle for the Stronghold, First Battle of Scorpion Point.

On 29 January 1873 President Grant appointed a peace commission, headed by General Edward R. S. Canby, to meet with the Modocs to cease hostilities and persuade them to return to the reservation. Between February and March negotiations continued with the assistance of two primary interpreters, Winema (Toby Riddle) and her husband Frank Riddle. In April, Winema visited the Lava Beds and returned to warn Canby of the Modocs' intentions to kill the peace commissioners if they did not comply with Modoc demands of a reservation along Lost River and exoneration for the murderers of the settlers. Canby ignored Winema's warnings and proceeded with the meeting on 11 April 1873. At this meeting Kintpuash and his men tried to negotiate, but Canby refused to listen, demanding their unconditional surrender. The Modocs carried out their plans, killing Canby (the highest ranking officer killed in the Indian Wars of the nineteenth century), Reverend Eleasar Thomas, and L. S. Dyar, and wounding Alfred Meacham.

Four battles that followed (Second Battle for the Stronghold, Second Battle of Scorpion Point, Battle of Dry Lake, and Battle of Willow Creek Ridge) brought the army closer to the Modocs' stronghold, forcing them to disperse. Kintpuash surrendered on 1 June 1873. He and five other Modocs (John Schonchin, Boston Charley, Black Jim, Slolux, and Barncho) stood trial and were sentenced to hang. Slolux and Barncho's sentences were commuted to life imprisonment at the military prison on Alcatraz; the other four Modocs were hanged on 3 October. The government exiled the remaining 153 Modocs to Indian Territory.

During eight months of warfare 159 Modoc men, women, and children fought 1,000 U.S. soldiers. In all 83 U.S. soldiers, 3 Modocs, and 14 other Native Americans died in the war.


Landrum, Francis S., comp. Guardhouse, Gallows, and Graves: The Trial and Execution of Indian Prisoners of the Modoc Indian War by the U.S. Army, 1873. Klamath Falls, Ore.: Klamath County Museum, 1988.

Murray, Keith A. The Modocs and Their War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.

Riddle, Jeff C. The Indian History of the Modoc War. Eugene, Ore.: Urion Press, 1974.


See alsoIndian Policy, U.S., 1830–1900 .