Reminiscences by Major J. G. Trimble
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The Kind of Country They Marched Over
Should an officer stationed in Oregon receive an order about the 25th of December to march his company three hundred miles to take part in an Indian war, both he and his men would, most likely, consider the same a very cool proceeding. And they did. Now, this is about the distance from Camp Harney to the Modoc country. Our instructions were “light marching order,” instead of comfortable wagons where one could stow a tent and numberless blankets. However, what comforts or necessaries could be taken along were piled upon those unfortunate mules and off we went.
The snow lay pretty deep at home, but we launched out into the great prairie, which resembled one huge, fleecy cloud, and in imagination the effect was the same as riding on the unsubstantial sky which possessed almost as much sustaining power. We plodded on through the virgin whiteness, never before disturbed by foot or hoof, and at the day’s end dismounted to sleep in its folds. The old campaigner does not, however, take such a desolate view of the situation.
Instantly, on halting, the great sage-brush plant is lighted; no shivering over a few green boughs or saturated logs dug from the wet, but a veritable can of kerosene. This great source of comfort in the winter wilderness grows to the height of six feet or more, bearing branches some inches in thickness and a stock fully half a foot in diameter, all oily and odorous. One bush is sufficient to thaw the benumbed feet and limber the aching joints. Then a pile can be gathered for the cooks and the fire by night. And in the same dreary neighborhood grows the red willow fringing the springs; this adds an intensity to the heat more than enough for all purposes.
Thus we moved on day by day, varying the monotony by an occasional dousing in slightly frozen streams, climbing the rugged bluffs, skirting the shallow lakes, winding over the great alkali plains that are even in summer white as snow. At the end of one hundred and fifty miles we ascended the mountain ridge that incloses old Camp Warner.
Now we quitted the sage-brush and the wind-swept valley for the somber solitude of the forest. Here the snow lies deeper, and our tired and panting animals must be lightened and shown the way. Here our spare grain sacks of “chicken gunny” are brought into service for foot-covering; and unlucky is he who fails to secure a supply of these air-letting stockings, the coarseness of the texture preventing the melting of the snow on the foot.
Now is our camp cheered by the fires from the pine, fir and juniper, and we linger long at night beside the fragrant heat. The hungry horses champ the scanty supper from the canvas nose-bag, threshing their icy tails and glancing with knowing looks at the accustomed blaze. The isolated sentinel moves cautiously among them or seeks shelter beside the convenient tree. The storm rages far overhead, and the air is filled with glistening diamond-like particles. The great forest monarchs bend and crack in the blast, ever and anon with a shiver discharging their overladen tops. At last fatigue claims rest. So, scooping the snow from the frozen ground on which we scatter a few hemlock boughs, all stretch themselves beside the smoldering logs in chilly slumber. This is the oft-repeated picture of our bivouac.
In the dark, cold morning after rather superficial ablutions, the frozen lash-ropes are thawed, the packs adjusted and we move out, but do not mount; horses will wade through snow two feet deep by alternating the lead, but beyond that man must break the way. So on we go, up and down the mountain, plunging sometimes armpit deep, dragging our unwilling beasts and often stopping to rescue a comrade or his horse from total submersion. The blazes on the trees are quite indistinct, the storm battening the snow far up on the weather side. The fairy-like track of the snowshoer can be sometimes sighted through the timber. He is our mail-carrier in these parts. Lightly equipped with letter-bag and staff, he skims quietly past the pine openings, up and over the ridge, and disappears. He is seldom met by the weary traveler blundering along the heavy trail, who casts envious glances at the beautiful mark which impresses him as the sign of some subtle, hidden motor. Still on we trudged and finally descended the long mountain side into Goose Lake Valley. Now we embarked upon the ice, and a full day’s journey was made over the bosom of this beautiful lake.
Again our route took us through the sage-covered knolls and into a valley where the snow lay even deeper than before. A cabin was spied on the hillside like a black blur on the snowscape. Here the cattle-men were hibernating through the cold snap, their nearest neighbor being fifty miles away. Thence on through the sleet and storm, until at the end of two long weeks we halted beside the Agency of the Klamath. After a short rest at this point, we again mounted and plunged into the forest-covered spurs of the Sierras. And so we went on for fifty more miles till Lost River was found. The main command joined and the campaign began.
The Kind of Country They Fought In
The great lava-bed where the desperate Modoc Indians took refuge is situated in northeastern California, on the extreme verge of the State. In extent it is about five miles by three and a half and covers an area of fifteen hundred acres, where the lava plain is well defined, although the lava country extends for many miles farther, even to Pitt River and Goose Lake. The McLeod range of mountains bound the upper or southern side, a beautiful timbered range, on the highest peaks of which the snow remains throughout the year. Directly at the base of these mountains stand the rows of Lava Buttes or extinct craters, red, grimy, and uncanny to behold.
The plain from these descends by gentle inclination to the lake, a body of water some twenty miles in length by a mile or two in width, varying in extent and depth as the conformation of the land gives scope. The general side of approach is bounded by a line of almost precipitous bluffs covered with grass, except where rough overhanging ledges of rock crop out, barring all passage or confining the trail to one particular route. The eastern side presents an apparently open way through slightly undulating knolls; but the country is so broken and strewn with boulders and blocks of stone that no very easy access is to be had even on that side.
Standing on the highest eminence, the eye can scarcely traverse or take in the whole area of this blighted region. An elevated ridge, or series of upheavals, extends completely through the center from lake to mountain, and in the center of this ridge are located the caves or strongholds selected as the best defense by the Indians. Into these the animals which provided subsistence during the siege were driven and slaughtered.
Notwithstanding the sterility of this section as a whole, abundant and luxurious grass is to be found struggling through the cracks and crannies of the rock; sage-brush and greasewood abound which would supply the needs of many men for many months. The one thing lacking, when the lake is guarded by an army, is water; and this it was that practically caused the abandonment or change of quarters by the Modocs as the warm weather approached.
The troops marched for the first time into the lavabed from a distance of about ten miles and descended the bluffs by a trail a mile or more in length through a dense fog. Very few of the soldiers knew what such a spot resembled or what it was. No wonder then that they should be defeated where every step was obstructed by blocks of slippery lava the size of houses, and pits or pot-holes the depth of mining-shafts; where the foe could fire from the right, the left, above and below. Even subterranean passages, leading from cave to cave, facilitated attack and rendered retreat a certainty. The only counterpart to such a battle-ground in the annals of our Indian fighting was the Everglades of Florida, and there the forces were equally stubborn and alert.
The dead victims of the effort to dislodge them were bestowed in five different graveyards; and so uncertain was life throughout the campaign that many reflected only upon what part of the sulphurous domain their bones would be cast. Four and five separate and distinct days of battle were expended against the rocky fortresses; but the general ignorance of the country, the lack of woodcraft and knowledge of Indians, as well as bad management of troops due to inexperience brought only disaster, discouragement and humiliation. Finally superstition, the want of cohesion, and treachery among themselves scattered the savages and made them an easy prey to the constantly increasing command surrounding them. The soldiers worked hard and withstood much exposure, tramping through the snow and lava with bandaged feet quite often, as the glassy lava and scoria beds cut through shoe and leather as through paper; sleeping at night on the bare rock, and frequently this latter comfort was denied, when anticipated alarm or the night of travel required many of their number to be afoot. A long dreary winter! And for what? To drive a couple of hundred miserable aborigines from a desolate natural shelter in the wilderness, that a few thriving cattle-men might ranch their wild steers in a scope of isolated country, the dimensions of some several reasonable-sized counties.