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Letter from California

Inside a Native Stronghold

A rugged volcanic landscape was once the site of a dramatic standoff between the Modoc tribe and the U.S. Army

November/December 2018

Modoc War Stronghold

In 1872, some 150 members of the Modoc tribe took refuge in arid and unforgiving terrain just south of the Oregon-California border. Today, Lava Beds National Monument encloses 73 square miles of this harsh landscape on the southern edge of Tule Lake. Eruptions as recent as 800 years ago have left raw expanses of lava, tuff, and obsidian pocked by caves and laced with the largest known concentration of lava tubes in North America. Here, amid a maze of volcanic walls, boulders, fissures, and holes, 50 to 60 Modoc warriors held off a much larger force of U.S. Army soldiers for half a year.


The Modoc War is far less well known than other major Indian wars of the late nineteenth century, such as the Great Sioux War of 1876, which is famous for the Battle of the Little Bighorn. “The Modoc War remains an untold piece of American history,” says National Park Service archaeologist David Curtis. “It was very short, but the archaeological footprint that was left behind is enormous. It rivals Civil War battlefields.” For two years, Curtis has led a team of archaeologists studying this vast site. They are building on a comprehensive survey conducted by archaeologists Eric Gleason and Jackie Cheung for the National Park Service in the wake of a 2008 fire that burned off much of the vegetation that had grown in the 136 years since the Modoc War. That fire brought the site closer to its nineteenth-century appearance and exposed numerous features and artifacts dating to the war. Gleason and Cheung’s work was aided by the fact that newspapers and magazines of the time sent numerous correspondents to California to cover the war. Comparing these accounts and contemporary photographs with archaeological findings has added new layers of understanding to this often-overlooked episode in the history of the American West.


People have inhabited the Tule Lake Basin for at least 11,500 years. By the nineteenth century, bands of Modoc lived in seasonal villages along the banks of the Lost River, the lake’s source, which empties into its northwest corner. Nicknamed the Everglades of the West, the lake once covered 100,000 acres and provided local tribes with abundant fish, game, and edible plants. The Modoc moved between permanent dugout homes in the winter and temporary structures built near seasonal food sources in the summer. Tule reeds supplied them with sustenance as well as sleeping mats, moccasins, baby cradles, and baskets woven from its fibrous stalks.


Settlers started to arrive in large numbers in 1846, when pioneers blazed a side branch of the Oregon Trail through the area. Tensions escalated into raids and ambushes by both sides, and in 1864 the federal government pressured the Modoc to give up their traditional lands and settle on a nearby reservation. But when the government didn’t provide enough rations, tribal members began to return to their homelands, some of which were now occupied by settlers.