Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, settlement of the West increased rapidly, and the mass movement of settlers soon led to conflict with the Native Americans. The previous U.S. government policy of moving tribes west of the national boundary no longer applied, so beginning in the 1860s the government began moving Native Americans onto reservations. Nowhere was this influx of settlers greater than in California, where the wave of migrants brought by the Gold Rush heightened the call to end the migratory lifestyles of the Native Americans and restrict them to reservations. The impact of the huge rush of non-Indian people into California in just a few years was catastrophic to the Native American tribes. About sixty per cent of the Native American people died of disease, many others were killed, and the rest dispossessed.
The Modoc were one of the last of the tribes impacted. For hundreds of years, the traditional homeland of the Modoc people was the area around Tule Lake in remote northeast California. In 1864, in response to demands from American settlers and miners, the Klamath Reservation was established in southern Oregon and the Modoc were ordered to move there. In the spring of 1870, a group of approximately 175 Modoc, including fifty to sixty warriors under Kientpoos (called Captain Jack by the local miners), left the reservation and returned to their homeland. In 1872, Army commanders were ordered to return the Modoc to the reservation, "peaceable if you possibly can, forcefully if you must."
In the early morning hours of January 17, 1873, a force of 400 cavalry and infantry attacked the fifty Modoc defending their stronghold, an area of rugged lava beds, ledges and cliffs south of Tule Lake. The Modoc were only equipped with ancient muzzle-loading weapons, but they knew the terrain and used it skillfully. During the daylong fight, about forty U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded while the rest were forced to retreat.
Following the killing of the unarmed U. S. Army commander, General Canby, who was meeting with Captain Jack and other warriors in peace talks, the U.S. Army decided to assault the Modoc stronghold again. On the morning of April 15, a force of 600 soldiers moved against the Modoc positions. After a two-day battle, the Modoc were forced to abandon the lava beds and flee to the southeast. During the retreat, the Modoc began to break up into small groups. One of these bands was captured and agreed to track down Captain Jack and bring him in. Jack and the remaining Modoc were found and forced to surrender on June 1. On October 1, 1873, Jack and six other Modocs were hanged for murder. The surviving Modoc were sent to reservations in Oklahoma. In 1909, those who were still alive were allowed to return to the Klamath reservation in California.
The Modoc War represented the determination of the U.S. government to enforce its authority and policies, regardless of the cost. After a seven-month struggle, the loss of seventy-five soldiers and the expenditure of a half million dollars, Captain Jack's group was defeated. This determination would continue to be expressed by the United States against other tribes throughout the West, ending with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. California tribes were among the most severely decimated Native American populations, declining to about 15,000 by 1900, or about 5 per cent of the original population. By 1980 the Native American population in California had recovered to number about 200,000, although many were migrants from other states, the result of various U. S. government actions that resulted in the departure of many from their reservations.
Today some 200 Modoc live in Oklahoma, while about 700 live on the Klamath reservation. For the Modoc, the war resulted in the loss of their ancestral homeland and their traditional way of life. As a way to maintain their identity as a people, annual gatherings have recently been held at the lava beds. These gatherings give Modoc descendants a chance to reconnect with the memory of their ancestors.
- Students describe the American Indian nations in their local region long ago and in the recent past.
- Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s.
- Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution. (8.12.2)