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The Modoc Indians belong generally to the races known as “Digger Indians” – from living largely upon esculent roots which the squaws dig, dry and cache for winter subsistence, – but they are much superior to the average Digger Indian, and are more nearly allied in character -and by intermarriage -to the “Rogue Rivers,” a warlike tribe, now about extinct, inhabiting at one time the western slope of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Schonchin was chief of the tribe when the treaty was made with the Klamaths, Modocs and Yainaskin Snakes, by which these tribes, for the consideration offered by the Indian Bureau, agreed to live upon the Klamath Reservation, then just established.
The Indian title to the Lost River and Tule Lake country was thus extinguished, and the land thrown open to settlement.
The Klamath Reserve proving to have a much colder climate than the Modocs were accustomed to, and the Klamath Indians, their ancient foes, taunting them with living on “their”‘ land, catching “their” fish, and killing “their” game, the Modocs became discontented. The governing chief, “Old Schonchin,” with a large part of the tribe, got as far away from the Klamaths as he could, and lived up to the terms of the treaty; but the restless and desperate spirits of the tribe, under the leadership of the Indian afterward widely known as “Captain Jack,” and John Schonchin, a brother of the hereditary chief, left the reservation and returned to the Tule Lake basin, declaring that they would live in their old home and nowhere else.
It is with this band of desperadoes that history has to deal when treating of the Modoc War, though subsequently to the breaking out of hostilities they were joined by the Hot Spring and Rock Modocs, making a fighting force of about one hundred and twenty warriors. Many of these Indians were what would be called “half-civilized.” A number of them had been born and reared near the outlying California settlements, and had worked for white men on their ranches and cattleranges.
They dressed like the frontie” white men, talked some English, and were familiar with the ways of white people, including all their vices.
They were well armed with breech-loading and other rifles, which, by constant practice at game and waterfowl, they had learned to handle with skill and precision. The settlers in the country thrown open to settlement by the treaty soon began to complain of Captain jack’s band of desperadoes, charging them with killing cattle and abusing the settlers’ families when their men were absent.
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The Indian Agent of the Klamath Reserve made repeated efforts to induce them to return to the reservation; but every effort was met with contemptuous refusal and the declaration that they would fight rather than leave their present location.
The home of these Modoc Indians was in a district of country just east of the Cascade Mountains and lying on both sides of the boundary line between Oregon and California: a rocky, broken, sage-brush region containing a number of alkaline lakes, some fertile valleys, and a few mountain streams, but covered for the most part by volcanic scoria.
Their principal habitat was the valley of Lost River and the basin of Tule Lake, into which the valley opens. The rivers and lakes abounded in fish and were the resort of vast numbers of water-fowl; game was plentiful in the adjacent mountains, the bunch-grass was luxuriant, the climate mild, snow seldom fell and never remained long in the valleys. Taken altogether it was a paradise for nomadic Indians.
At the southern extremity of Tule Lake basin was a district of country known as the “Lava-Beds,” which at the outbreak of hostilities was, to the white man, a terra incognita, being for miles each way a confused jumble of lava, which had in some prehistoric period rolled down the slopes of volcanic peaks on its eastern border, and, lashed into furious foam and toppling waves by the obstructions in the lake valley, had – apparently while at the height of the disturbance – solidified into a hard, blackish rock, honeycombed by bursting air bubbles, caught in the lava flow, leaving a surface over which no white man ventured of his own accord, and whose intricate passages and cavernous retreats were known only to this tribe of Indians and the mountain-lion as he stalked them in search of prey. The ocean breakers as they dash on a rocky coast, suddenly
petrified in all the wildness of their fury, would give some idea of the character of a portion of this lava surface and induce a realizing sense of the difficulty of carrying on military operations in such a country.
Along a mile or more of the lake front, the molten lava had poured over the abrupt and irregular bluffs, forming, as it cooled, a rock-wall whose almost vertical face was impossible of direct ascent. On the crest of this wall the lava, in cooling, had broken away from the horizontal flow, forming a deep crevice which in an irregular line followed the indentations of the lake shore and, curiously enough, made almost as perfect a defensive work as a military engineer could have laid out.
There was no part of this abrupt rocky glacis that was not covered by a line of fire from the natural rifle trench, while at the angles masses of rock had fallen forward, forming lunettes, covering the receiving lines and affording loop-holes or windows through which all approaches could be observed, and serving as admirable picket or lookout stations for a defending force.
Where the line of crevice had been broken through, or failed to give sufficient defense, the Indians had supplemented it with a double wall of broken lava, carried to and around the caves used for sleeping purposes, affording a continuous channel of unexposed communication from one flank to the other, completin g and making impregnable, against a small force, this Modoc stronghold.
In the fall of 1872 the settlers in southern Oregon procured an order from the Interior Department for the removal of Jack’s band to the Klamath Reservation, “peaceably if possible, forcibly if necessary.” The Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Mr. Odeneal, visited their village and tried to induce them to comply with the orders he had received, but failed in his attempt; and while negotiations were still pending, but with no uncertainty as to the result, turned the matter over to the military authorities, sending his agent, Mr. Ivan Applegate, to Fort Klamath to request the commanding officer there, at that time Col. John Green, Major First Cavalry, to send a force to the Modoc camp to compel their compliance with the orders from the Department of the Interior, and insisting upon it that only a “show of force” (about twelve or fifteen men was mentioned) was necessary to accomplish the object.
Colonel Green directed Major Jackson to take all available men of his troop (B, First Cavalry) and proceed by forced march to the Modoc camp, and induce them to comply with the orders given by Superintendent Odeneal, or, failing in this, to arrest the leaders.
Major Jackson with thirty men, and accompanied by Lieut. F. A. Boutelle and the post surgeon, Dr. H. McEldery, who had volunteered to go with the command, was soon on the march.
Mr. Ivan Applegate, in the capacity of interpreter, and a few citizens joined the column while en route. These citizens were detached at the ford on Lost River to take post at Crawley’s Ranch to protect the family there and prevent an attack on the rear of the troops, the ranch being situated between the two Modoc villages or camps, which were about a half-mile apart on opposite sides of Lost River, a deep, sluggish stream with abrupt banks, that could be crossed only by boat.
Marching continuously day and night, the troops arrived at the Modoc village about daylight and formed line among the tepees, taking the Indians completely by surprise. Had they been undoubtedly hostile there would have been no Modoc War. The chiefs and leaders were called for, particularly Captain Jack, but he did not put in an appearance, and, so far as is known, took no part in the subsequent fight. Some of the sub-chiefs gathered around and the orders of the Indian Superintendent were explained by the commander of the troops to such Indians as could understand English, and to all of them by Mr. Applegate, who visited both villages to carry out his instructions.
The time given to parleying was used by the Indians to recover from their surprise, and to get ready for the resistance which they had previously determined upon. While some talked to gain time, the boldest spirits disappeared in their tepees and soon came out painted, stripped to the buff, and carrying from one to three rifles.
The interpreter, after using every effort to persuade the tribe of the folly of resisting United States authority, gave it up, and, convinced that no compliance with the orders of the Indian Superintendent could be obtained, so informed Major Jackson.
It was then determined to carry out the second part of the instructions before alluded to and “arrest the leaders.” A squad of the best known warriors having taken position near some tepees about thirty yards in front of the line of dismounted cavalrymen, – seventeen men in skirmish order, – Lieutenant Boutelle was directed to advance some men from the left and secure these Indians. At the order to move forward all of the Indians aimed their rifles at the line and one of them fired, apparently at Lieutenant Boutelle.
The troops instantly returned the fire, pouring volley after volley in and through the tepees, behind which the Indians had taken cover, and from which they were rapidly firing at the soldiers.