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California’s Last Indian War

Book Review of ‘Hell With The Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War,’ by Arthur Quinn, Faber and Faber, 200pp, 1997.

California’s last and perhaps most well known Indian war was fought in Modoc County on the Oregon border in the 1870s. Modoc County is named after after the Modoc Indian tribe who thrived in the high desert prior to the arrival of you know who. The tiny Modoc County town of Canby is named after the US Army General who was killed during the prolonged effort by settlers to grab Modoc land. As far as we know, no one has proposed renaming the town, so far.

As in other areas of the newly settled United States, some of the Indians didn’t go quietly. They resisted displacement, they distrusted settlers, the most exploitive of whom were robbed and killed by the Modocs. Only a few Indians spoke intelligible English, so the Indians’ version of events never made it into the area’s newspapers which, in any case, functioned mainly as the public relations arm of westward expansion. Imagine your local criminal element roaming unchecked over a vast, sparsely settled territory: the Indians had real grievances. But they didn’t make it into the settler-owned and edited papers at the time.

One famous incident the Modocs always cited to explain their extreme distrust of the settlers was what became known as “The Ben Wright incident.” A tribe of Indian leaders accepted an invitation to what they were told was a peace conference where they were then poisoned and killed by a relentless Indian killer in the area named Ben Wright.

Although the Indians of the Northwest were ultimately on the losing end of a decades-long war, the Indians’ counterattacks were always portrayed by settlers as unjustified attacks by wild bands of marauding Indians who had to be forcibly removed or exterminated. But the Indians’ side of the story, usually involving even-more horrendous prior attacks on the Indians and their families, almost never came out or got reported, even though there were a few noble white settlers who occasionally verified the Indians’ version of events.

Arthur Quinn has produced what could be called a “balanced” account of the Modoc War of the early 1870s, 130 years after the last shot was fired.

The Modocs, by 1870, were reduced to a small band of perhaps 50-60 warriors and about as many women and children. The government had forced this tribal remnant onto a reservation just over the border in Oregon with a rival tribe of Klamath Indians. The Modocs refused to stay on the reservation where they said they were constantly harassed by the rival Indians and hostile whites. So they departed for a new life in the dramatically inhospitable volcanic lava beds — “Hell With the Fire Out” in the words of one soldier on the scene — of their beloved Modoc County. The lava beds are now a national monument and part of the Modoc National Forest.

In the build up to what became the Modoc War, the Modocs made a series of reasonable proposals for accommodation with white settlers, adoption of which which could have easily and effectively ended the bloodshed. But the government, with the area’s newspapers beating the war drums, demanded outright elimination of the Modocs and their “consolidation” of survivors. (A version of which can be found now in Round Valley.)

Quinn’s research and documentation shows that atrocities alleged by settlers to have been committed against whites by the Modocs were largely discounted by members of a Peace Commission and even by the Army.

Captain Jack, the Modoc Chief, opposed war as a way to resist resettlement, but as events unfolded and government treachery and duplicity increased, the members of his small tribe increasingly had no choice but war and persuaded Captain Jack to armed resistance.

Historian Quinn presents the war as “Modocs vs. Americans” not Indians vs whites, because the Modocs were a legally recognized nation with nation status derived from earlier treaties. A number of Klamath Indians eagerly joined the settler effort to wipe out their southern cousins. Captain Jack and the Modocs were seriously outnumbered and outgunned.

Further complicating matters, there were a number of settlers who were friendly to the Modocs, hiring them for farm work, helping them with supplies and materials, and taking their side, when possible, in negotiations with the government and the Army. (The Mendocino Environment Center of yesteryear, I suppose you might call these stalwart liberals.)

Although a Peace Commission was formed to try to settle the Modocs’ dispute with the Army and the settlers, it was put under the control of the US Army, at the time headed by General William T. Sherman (fresh from successfully destroying a huge swath of the Confederacy) whose own personal policy towards Indians was, as he said, “utter extermination.” The Peace Commission ended up suffering a humiliating end when the Indians found out that peace wasn’t exactly its objective.

Quinn describes the events leading up to the war as well as the war itself which was fought on the gruesomely difficult terrain of the lava beds. The descriptions of events are based on Quinn’s exhaustive research, which uncovered a surprisingly extensive historical record, much of which survived in the writings of those directly involved, many in letters home.

One literate soldier described the lava bed war scene in a letter to his relatives as “a wilderness of billowy upheavals, of furious whirlpools, of miniature mountains rent asunder, of gnarled and knotted, wrinkled and twisted masses of blackness… all stricken dead and cold in the instant of its maddest rioting — fettered, paralyzed and left to glower at heaven in impotent rage for evermore.”

Imagine trying to drag your draft horses and Civil War era canons into this territory. Imagine the bad weather. Imagine night time. Imagine finding a place to sleep…

The Modoc War was conducted on the American side by mostly incompetent officers, resulting not only in unfair and unsuccessful handling of Indian and peacekeeper proposals but in many unnecessary deaths and desertions of both soldiers and their Klamath Indian auxiliary.

The Modocs had the advantage of fighting on their own home turf — the intricate and inhospitable lava beds whose twisted shapes and caves were not only familiar territory to them, but which formed an almost impenetrable fortress which the post-Civil War Army couldn’t figure out how to penetrate. At one point early in the skirmishes a soldier crawling to avoid distant gunfire and get into a better position was shot in the stomach as he crawled over a small crevice by an Indian hiding in a subterranean lava cave.

The story unfolds dramatically as Quinn reconstructs much dialogue using the first-hand writings of those who were there. Although one critic of “Hell with the Fire Out,” complained that some of the dialogue “sounds like byplay between the Lone Ranger and Tonto,” Quinn explains the reason for the Tonto-like lingo in the book’s introduction. “I decided to accept as accurate any recorded conversation that is neither inherently implausible nor contradicted by better sources,” he says. “Anyone who regards this handling of the record as irresponsible for a historian should simply read and judge [the book] as historical fiction, with my blessing.”

Quinn wraps up his extensive annotated bibliography where he comments on the accuracy, value and usefulness of each of his sources — a feature all historians should employ — with, “Newspaper articles from the New York Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Yreka Journal and Yreka Union have been consulted — but have contributed surprisingly little. Also consulted were surviving issues of Thomas’s ‘The California Christian Advocate’ (most of the 1872 issues did not survive) and the anonymous articles on the Modoc War published in Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization.”

The Modoc War is over; the settlers obviously won.

Although relatively few descendants of California’s original natives survive, the conflicts continue to reverberate and the basic issues remain largely unresolved. “Hell with the Fire Out” brings drama, understanding and fairness to what is still a contentious subject.

One Comment

  1. Tim McClure October 17, 2023

    Thanks Mr. Scaramella for the excellent review of a fantastic account of a tragic chapter in California history. I’ve read the book myself and was quite entertained. Arthur was my wife’s uncle but had passed away before my joining the family. We have many of his other books in our library here at home all very accessible accounts of early California history.

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