Wandering Lizard
Northeastern California

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Siskiyou County
Lava Beds National Monument
Modoc Indian War 1872 - 1873

The background for the events of 1872 - 1873 in present day Modoc County include powerful forces that originated far away from the Lava Beds where things finally came to a head. The American Civil War was over and the entire country was looking to expand into the new West. Gold was to be had in California and Manifest Destiny was on the political horizon. Ulysses S. Grant was president, William T. Sherman was Commander of the Army, and Philip Sheridan commanded all U.S. military units in the western United States. George Custer was regaled in the press as a famous "Indian Fighter." In Washington, President Grant was advocating a softer approach to "the Indian problem" which would involve more concern for their rights and well-being, but sentiments were different in the field. Generals Sherman and Sheridan advocated a harsher approach and were critical of Grant for having become overly involved with politics. Sherman had made it clear that any Indian off of a reservation was an enemy and Sheridan was associated with the feeling that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.

All through the west, Anglo-European settlers were claiming lands on which Native Americans had freely roamed since humans first arrived in this corner of the world. Most settlers agreed with General Sheridan and had a low regard for Indians, but a few respected Native Americans and some even intermarried with them. Here, in the Tule Lake Basin, one of these was a Kentuckian named Frank Riddle. Sometime around 1850, he married a rather prominent Modoc woman named Winema. Winema's parents were, at first, opposed to the liaison, but acquiesced after all of the traditional formalities were observed. This couple was destined to live a life between two cultures and it was virtually inevitable that they would be caught up in the events that led to war between their two peoples. Winema and Frank learned much about their two cultures and obtained a working knowledge of each other's language. They became a bridge for others to use in communicating between peoples.

Although cultural conflict would result in a large number of deaths on both sides of the divide, the most lethal danger for the Indian was disease. The Applegate Trail opened in 1846 and it is estimated that smallpox took the lives of more than 150 Modoc Indians the very next year. Gold was discovered in California in 1848 and gold seekers increased the flow of immigrants passing through Tule Lake Basin. In 1849, a wagon train was ambushed and eighty people were killed at a spot that was thereafter known as Bloody Point. Other attacks followed on other settlers and, in 1852, a volunteer regiment, composed largely of miners from Yreka, attacked and killed about forty Modoc Indians in Winema's home village on the Lost River. In this incident, her cousin, Kintpuash, watched as his father and other relatives were killed by the miners.

During the following decade, Winema and her husband were involved in a continuing effort to get the United States Government to adopt policies that would assist the Modoc. In 1863, they were instrumental in negotiating a treaty that would have permitted the Modoc to live on a reservation in the Lost River area. Unfortunately, this treaty had not been sanctioned by the Federal Government and was opposed by many within the Anglo-European community. William P. Dole, President Grant's Commissioner for Indian Affairs in the first half of that decade, understood the problem, but was unable to meaningfully improve the situation. The government insisted that all Indians must live on a reservation, the location of which was to be determined by the government. This policy specifically required that the Modoc and the Klamath Indian tribes had to live on the same reservation located in what had been the traditional Klamath tribal area in southern Oregon. Unfortunately, the two tribes had a long history of conflict and were unable to live peacefully together.

In 1869, Alfred Meacham, a Methodist minister, was appointed Commissioner for Indian Affairs for Oregon. Meacham and Winema worked closely together to try to moderate differences between the Klamath and Modoc tribes. During this period, Winema's cousin, Kintpuash emerged as an important leader among the Lost River Modoc. Meacham joined Winema and Kintpuash in favoring a separate reservation for the Modoc in the vicinity of their traditional homeland, but no action was ever taken to implement that solution. In 1872, several groups of Modoc left the Klamath reservation without authorization. One of these was led by Kintpuash. Another was led by Hooker Jim. They had agreed to meet in the Lava Beds where Kintpuash felt that they could defend themselves and successfully resist displacement. His group proceeded first to their traditional homeland along the Lost River and subsequently to the Lava Beds without major incident, but Hooker Jim's group attacked some settlers and killed several before arriving at the meeting spot. The Governor of Oregon called for the extermination of the Modoc and the army, reinforced by a number of civilian volunteers, quickly surrounded Kintpuash and his people. Estimates vary as to how many Modoc were in the Lava Beds, but it was thought that there were approximately 160 men, women, and children in all. The number of warriors also varies, but it is usually estimated to have been about 50. The place that Kintpuash chose to defend was a naturally strong position and became known as Captain Jack's Stronghold. (Anglo-Europeans knew Kintpuash as Captain Jack.)

The ensuing standoff lasted five months even though the Army eventually assembled over 400 men in the besieging force. They were never able to succeed in any of their attacks in breaking through the Modoc defense even with their superior firepower and personnel. A series of negotiations took place in which Winema played a very important role, but none of which found a solution to the problems facing the two sides. During one of these parlays, Kinpuash personally shot and killed Brigadier General Richard Sprigg Canby in the forlorn hope that his death would force the attackers to give up and go home. During that incident, Winema is credited with having saved the life of Meacham. It is also important to note that she had earlier warned Canby that Kintpuash planned to kill him and urged the general not to hold the meeting. Meacham supported her, but Canby ignored her warning. Eventually, the army managed to deny the Modoc access to water and so, one night, Kintpuash and his followers picked up their belongings and left without anyone in the besieging force knowing that the exodus was underway. Once flushed out of their position in the Lava Beds, however, it was only a matter of time before all of the Modoc, including Kintpuash, were rounded up. Several of his followers turned on him and helped the army find him. Kintpuash was tried and hanged along with three of his associates on October 3, 1873. The Government exiled the rest of his followers to a reservation in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Frank and Winema Riddle continued to fight for the rights of the Modoc, but without success. They lived out their lives on the Klamath Reservation. Winema died in 1920.

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