On November 29, 1872, a group of Modoc people—along with their leader Kintpuash—clashed with U.S. troops near the Lost River in southern Oregon. Lives were lost on both sides of the battle, and in the aftermath, the Modocs retreated into the nearby lava beds—marking the start of war that would drag on for five bloody months. Decades of animosity built toward that moment, and the repercussions would be felt in the years that followed. But the Modoc War is an important chapter in Klamath Basin history, and it’s worth exploring today to understand its impact on those who perished and everyone who felt the fallout. So to help you better grasp the Modoc War, we’re looking at the historic clash and offering suggestions for diving deeper into the conflict today—whether at a quiet museum, the Lava Beds National Monument, or via a driving tour that takes you into the heart of regional history.
History of the Modoc War
The seeds of the Modoc War were planted in 1864, when leaders of the Klamath, Modoc, and northern Paiute tribes signed treaties with the United States—ceding their traditional homelands and moving onto a reservation in the Klamath Basin. That reservation was located on the ancestral home of the Klamath people, and members of the Modoc tribe objected to the forced relocation.
Roughly half of the Modoc tribe refused to move onto the reservation, setting off years of bitter battles with the U.S. government. For its part, the government fanned the flames of war when it sent troops to round up those remaining Modocs and force them onto the reservation.
It was on one of these missions that they clashed with a group of Modocs in November 1872, officially sparking what would become called the Modoc War near the Oregon-California border.
Kintpuash, better known today as Captain Jack, led his band to the lava beds on the northeastern flank of Medicine Lake Volcano, where they'd hunker down and spend months battling a befuddled group of U.S. Army troops. Even though the U.S. Army claimed six times as many men as the Modoc people, they found themselves unable to solve the maze-like nature of the lava beds.
The stalemate lasted until April 1873, when U.S. forces eventually overwhelmed the Modoc people. Within six months, more than 150 Modocs would be imprisoned at Fort Klamath, and four Modoc leaders were tried and hanged for the killing of two Army officers. The Modoc prisoners were sent to a reservation in modern-day Oklahoma, and it wasn't until 1909 that they were allowed to return to Oregon; by that point, just 17 of the roughly 150 prisoners were still alive.
Visit the Merrill Historical And Modoc War Museum
Today, there are several ways to learn about the Modoc War and better understand its impact. A good place to start is City Hall in the community of Merrill, which hosts the small, but poignant Merrill Historical And Modoc War Museum. The displays include educational panels, artifacts, photographs of prominent soldiers and Modoc people, and more.
Explore Modoc War History at the Lava Beds National Monument
At the southern edge of the Klamath Basin sits the massive Medicine Lake shield volcano—and the heart of the modern-day Lava Beds National Monument. In all, the monument hosts more than 800 lava tube caves, several of which are accessible to hikers of all skill levels—but the fun doesn’t stop there.
One of the park’s marquee aboveground attractions is the 1.5-mile Captain Jacks Stronghold Trail, which heads into the heart of where the Modoc people waited out the U.S. Army in the winter of 1872 and the spring of 1873. Two loops head through the trenches, and an interpretive brochure (available for $1 at the trailhead and visitor center) explains the strategic importance of various caves and viewpoints to the Modoc people.
Hikers will encounter only short stretches of elevation gain but should prepare for rocky terrain by wearing sturdy hiking boots and leaving their dogs in the vehicle (with windows cracked to let in some fresh air, of course).
Enjoy a Narrated Driving Tour Through Key Modoc War Sites
Take a deep dive into the past with The Modoc War: A Homeland Lost, an audio driving tour narrated by Modoc descendent Cheewa James.
The interactive tour, available via the free VoiceMaps audio tour app, winds its way from downtown Klamath Falls to Lava Beds National Monument. Over the course of two thrilling hours, James discusses events that led to the Modoc War, details what life was like during the tumultuous time, and shares stories from those who were there.
Welcome to the Klamath Basin, the gateway to some of the most significant moments of WWII that occurred in the US homeland: Southern Oregon and nearby Northern California bore witness to some of the most pivotal, poignant, and significant events during this tumultuous period. We invite visitors to experience, learn, and remember the injustices perpetrated against Japanese-Americans, American children, and soldiers. Delve deep into these stories at National Park sites, memorials, and museums that help preserve and interpret some of American history's toughest and most important moments.