Captain Jack’s 52 Modoc Warriors Defeat 400 Troops
There was no going back for Modoc Chief Kintpuash (“Captain Jack”) and his 52 warriors; they were determined to fight. For one thing, they were back on their ancestral homeland. For another, they were defending more than 100 women, children and elderly people. Every Modoc knew the U.S. Army had assembled a large, powerful force to defeat them, but the defenders were unwavering.
In addition to their bravery, the Modocs had two things going for them. They knew the land well, and had carefully chosen to make their stand in the lava beds south of Tule Lake in northeastern California, an impregnable fortress of lava trenches and caves later named “Captain Jack’s Stronghold.” Another strength for the defenders was their spiritual leader, Curley Headed Doctor, who strengthened the Modocs’ resolve by promising his magic would protect them.
The U.S. Army was there to force the Modocs back to the hated Klamath Reservation in Oregon from which they had fled. On Jan. 16, 1873, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Wheaton arrayed his forces for the attack the next morning. Captain Bernard would attack from the east with 100 men. Simultaneously, Major Green was to attack from the west with about 300 men supported by two 12-pounder howitzers, powerful cannon against which the Indians seemingly had no defense.
As the troops advanced into their attack positions, the Modocs gripped their rifles and waited, while Curley Headed Doctor chanted his incantations. Mysteriously, a thick fog began to move over the land and settle right over Captain Jack’s Stronghold. By morning the fog was impenetrable and the soldiers could barely see in front of them.
Nonetheless, at 8:00 the morning of Jan. 17, 1873, the attack proceeded as planned. The howitzers fired three shots to signal the attack. They were the only shots fired by the artillery, for fear that in the fog any additional shots might strike Bernard’s men advancing from the east. The battle raged all day and was fiercely contested, but the Modocs’ position was too strong for the troops to overcome.
The combination of their lava fortress and the incredibly thick fog made the Modocs unbeatable. They killed and wounded more than 40 troops that day, and not a single Modoc was hurt. The exasperated troops later reported that during the entire day-long battle they did not glimpse one single Indian! It seems remarkable, but 53 Modoc warriors defeated 400 troops armed with modern weapons, including artillery. For this defeat, Wheaton was relieved of his command.
The following four newspaper articles are all about that Jan. 17, 1873, fight, named by historians the “First Battle of the Stronghold.” The first two articles were written right before the battle, the third describes the fighting, and the fourth is a caustic editorial written in the battle’s aftermath.
This article was written on January 16, the day the troops moved into position for the attack, and was published by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on Jan. 17, 1873:
The Modoc War
Intractable Captain Jack to Be Stormed out of Ben Wright’s Cave
San Francisco, Jan. 16, 1873.
The Oregon troops have invested Captain Jack’s camp in Ben Wright’s Cave. The howitzers are in position, and the battle will probably be opened on Friday [tomorrow].
This letter to the editor was written on January 16, and published by the Morning Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on Jan. 20, 1873:
Latest from the Modoc Country
Jacksonville, Jan. 16, 1873.
To the Editor of the Oregonian:
Parties just in from the Modoc country inform me that a party of settlers moving out of Langell valley were attacked by a band of Indians supposed to have left the Yainax Reservation, and to be on their way to join Captain Jack. The attack was made near the big springs on Lost river. The Indians fired at the settlers but did no damage, and the fire was returned by the settlers, which caused the Indians to fall back. They also report Captain Jack in fine spirits, and is offering one hundred dollars each for the scalps of O. and I. Applegate, D. Cralley and others. They are still in the lava and rocks on the southwest side of Tule Lake, and will make a desperate fight before they will surrender. It is altogether probable a battle has been fought before this time.
This report of the battle was published by the Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California) on Jan. 20, 1873:
The Modoc War
A Desperate Battle Fought
Our Forces under General Wheaton Compelled to Retire
Our Loss, Forty Killed and Wounded—Indian Loss Unknown
(Special to the Bulletin.)
Yreka, January 20th.—H. C. Tickner arrived here this morning, bringing dispatches from General [correction: Lieutenant Colonel—ed.] Wheaton to General Canby. He left the headquarters, near Van Brimmer’s [ranch] on Tule Lake, leaving there at 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon. From him we learn that a hard battle was fought with the Modocs on Friday last. The troops were under command of General Wheaton, and consisted of 250 regulars, two companies of Oregon volunteers, twenty-five California riflemen volunteers under Captain J. A. Fairchild, and a few Klamath Indians, numbering in all about 400. On Thursday, Captain Bernard, with 100 regulars and a few Klamath Indians, marched around the north end of the lake to the east of Captain Jack’s position. At 8 o’clock Friday morning, he was to advance from the east, while General Wheaton, with the remainder of the forces, was to attack Captain Jack from the west, under cover of fire from the howitzers. Thursday night a dense fog arose, completely enveloping everything, so that it was impossible to see forty yards in any direction. The two forces were about twelve miles apart, though to communicate with each other it was necessary to go a much greater distance.
Captain Bernard commenced the attack and was resisted by Jack’s men, to the number of about 200 [actually, there were only 53 warriors—ed.], concealed on the rocks along a line two miles long. General Wheaton, hearing Captain Bernard’s guns, had no alternative but to advance to his assistance without the aid of the howitzers, as Captain Bernard’s position was so indefinite as to endanger his command from shells. They fought the unseen enemy from 8 in the morning until dark, through a terrific fire, during which time scarcely an Indian was seen. The loss to the troops is forty killed and wounded. The Indians’ loss is unknown. Among the killed are Frank Trimble and J. R. Brown, of the Oregon volunteers. The wounded in Fairchild’s company are: Jerry Crooks, slightly; G. W. Roberts, mortally; N. Bostwick, slightly; Robert Small, slightly. Among the regulars wounded are: Captain Perry and Lieutenant Kyle, the former seriously, the latter slightly; and about twenty-five of the regulars wounded, some slightly, others seriously. The troops were compelled to retire to their camps, the movement resulting in nothing more than a forced reconnaissance of Captain Jack’s position. Captain Bernard’s forces stood the brunt of the fight, and suffered terribly. The cavalry all went into the fight un-mounted.
The troops now will only try to keep the Modocs from raiding upon the settlements until reinforced. It is certain that Captain Jack has been reinforced by the Pit Rivers [band], and it is feared other bands will now join him. General Wheaton praises the gallantry of all, but particularly the Oregon volunteers under General Ross, and the California riflemen under Fairchild. Mr. Tickner was a guide for the troops into the lava beds, and thinks that 1,000 men will be required to destroy the Modocs. It is thought here that troops from Fort Gaston might easily cross the Salmon Mountains as there is not over a foot and a half of snow at present where usually there is ten feet. Pack trains have been running all winter. There is no difficulty whatever in reaching General Wheaton’s headquarters from here. A dense fog has prevailed all over this section for the past five days, and there is no prospect of its raising.
This editorial was published by the Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York) on Jan. 21, 1873:
Captain Jack, with his 200 savages, flogged 400 United States troops, “because,” says the telegram, “they fought in a fog.” And “fog” is what ails our whole Indian policy. It was born in fog, it grew up in fog, it has befogged everybody, and all we ask is that the fog of the Modoc battlefield may be the death of it.
Unfortunately for Captain Jack and the Modocs, their remarkable triumph at the First Battle of the Stronghold was short lived. Following its defeat the Grant Administration tried peace negotiations with the Modocs that dragged on into April, but those attempts ended when two of the peace commissioners (including General Edward Canby) were killed, and two others wounded. Infuriated, the Grant Administration went back to using military force, defeating the Modocs at the Second Battle of the Stronghold on April 15-17, 1873, with a much larger U.S. Army force than the first stronghold battle—and no fog.
The Modocs fled their stronghold and scattered, but eventually were all rounded up. The Modocs were sent into exile to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, far from their homeland—all except for Captain Jack and three of his men, who were executed on Oct. 3, 1873, for killing the two peace commissioners. The 1872-73 “Modoc War” was over.
Click here for more articles about Native American History.