Today we remember the Native American chief of the Modoc tribe, Kintpuash – known by his foes as “Captain Jack” – hanged by the United States army on this day in 1873 in retribution for killing an American general. But that’s the white man’s side of the story. In truth, Kintpuash – like so many of his fellow Native American chiefs – was the dual victim of a greedy American government hell-bent on expansionism as well as his own desperate people. In the face of increasing hopelessness, Kintpuash’s fellow warriors were to force their leader into a decision so misguided that when an aggrieved American army finally captured him they sought bitter revenge by staging an execution so lacking in dignity that souvenir mongers were allowed to collect pieces of the hanging rope and locks of Kintpuash’s hair. In the final indignation, the great Indian chief was decapitated – some reports suggest that his head was then sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; others claim it made the rounds of carnival side shows. But despite his tragic end, Kintpuash is best remembered for leading his people to a cunning and legendary victory in the Modoc War of 1872-73. So let us recall the events that led to “The Battle of the Stronghold” and, ultimately, Kintpuash’s death.
Robbed of their ancestral land on the Northern California/Oregon border and subsequently denied their own reservation, the Modoc people were finally pushed too far when they were expected to live alongside a hostile tribe. Retreating from the US Cavalry, Kintpuash led his people to a high rock plateau of lava beds with sharp-edged outcrops and deep cracks: the Modocs knew it as “Land of Burnt-Out Fires”, the cavalrymen called it “hell with the fires gone out”, but it would soon come to be known as “Captain Jack’s Stronghold”. A labyrinth of connected trenches provided a near impregnable defensive position – nevertheless, the army’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Frank Wheaton, expected a swift victory. At dawn on January 17th 1873, Wheaton’s troops advanced on the lava beds. But out of nowhere, a dense fog appeared; unable to see more than six inches in front of them, the soldiers called out to one another and exposed their position to the Modocs. The Indians knew their terrain so intimately that the fog caused them no trouble; they veiled themselves behind the rocky outcrops and waited until they were able to open fire at close range. At the end of the day, 53 Modocs had inflicted a heavy defeat upon 400 U.S. troops. A humbled Wheaton, who had commanded an army of 20,000 at the Battle of the Wilderness during the Civil War, reflected, “I have never before encountered an enemy, civilized or savage, occupying a position of such great natural strength as the Modoc stronghold, nor have I ever seen troops engage a better-armed or more skillful foe.”
Intermittent fighting and failed negotiations continued for the next three months, as the US government rejected each and every Modoc proposal for their own reservation. Kintpuash lost patience and support amongst his warriors, who demanded that they kill the peace commission leadership at the next negotiating meeting. At the parley on Good Friday, 11th April 1873, Kintpuash asked General Edward Canby to withdraw. The general refused. Then, goaded by his fellow warriors, Kintpuash pulled out a pistol and killed Canby and another peace commissioner.
Reprisal was swift. 1000 troops were deployed to “exterminate” the Modocs who, despite their position being betrayed by some of their own, held out for nearly two more months before they were eventually forced out of their stronghold. After Kintpuash surrendered, the War Department granted him a trial but didn’t bother providing him with a lawyer. So sealed was his fate that workers built a gallows outside in full view of the courtroom as the trial began. Hooker Jim, a Modoc warrior, provided the damning evidence. Kintpuash and five other Modoc leaders were found guilty of war crimes – a charge unique in all of the Indian Wars – and sentenced to death. When asked if he had anything to say, Kintpuash responded: “You white people did not conquer me. My own men did.”
Following the war, the surviving Modocs were sent to a reservation in Oklahoma until 1909 when the few remaining tribes people were permitted to return to Oregon. It is estimated that the Modoc War cost the United States $4,000,000. The cost of the land the Modocs wanted for their own reservation was $20,000.
I imagine you and Julian sitting around talking about all these people while you listen to the MC5 or Faust.
Its a very cool thing you two do. Thanks so much for bringing your blog back.
This was new to me Dorian, thanks for shining a light on this sad story. Your posts always make me think and frequently – like here – cause me to do further research.
Your work is invaluable and I again thank you for it. You two are international treasures and the world is a better place, a much better place, with you in it.
Damon and Redfish, thank you! 🙂
I thank you for all that you have wrote here. Captain Jack is actually supposed to be an uncle of mine, on my mothers side. Her Mother is from the Tribal Reservation in Oregon. I am proud that he fought back and had victories over the White men.
I have been to the lava beds and Tule lake in search of some understanding, as my great grandmother was a child of the Modoc clan during this time. Her and family were sent to the Klamath reservation, and as a child she lost all her family. Her story is as sad as anything you will ever read about this tragedy. First hand accounts by the Army personnel can be found at http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/modoc/index.htm
Thanks for posting and keeping this alive.
Thank you for posting this information. My great-grandmother Birdie Moore Conn Allen was half Modoc, her mother Rosie (potentially Ross) was full Modoc. Rosie was born in or about 1860 and ended up moving to the Los Angeles area where she took on the name Moore. Rosie and her husband Andrew reportedly had 9 children, 6 who were still living as of 1900. I have been researching this line for years. It is so wonderful to see that others treasure their Modoc heritage as well.
Brian, my husbands greatgrandmother was Rosie. His grandmother was Lucy and his mother is Patricia. Here is my Email please share what you can and we will do the same. So very interesting!
As a descendent of capitain jack and his cousin winema toby riddle im proud to say i too will fight for whats right. When all odds are against me the government can try to keep me down but they will never defeat me. The resistance still remains. Indigenous pride!!
I suppose that makes us blood then cousin. Captain Jack is my uncle, and I am damn proud of that fact. So hello then, my name is Joe
Perhaps you’d be interested in hearing a song I wrote about him (outlining the story) after I read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”.
Feel free to link to it, if you wish,
Captain Jack is a true HERO i am a Klamath Modoc native and there is so much more to this story than you no, its even more sad
My great grandmother was the niece of captain jack.. This is truly a horrible story of how our ancestors were treated