USGS Logo Geological Survey Circular 838
Guides to Some Volcanic Terrances in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Northern California

(The Geologic Events that created a Natural Fortress)

Aaron C. Waters
308 Moore Street, Santa Cruz, California 95060
Map by David Kimbrough and Aaron C. Waters


"...reached by a side road, the visitor comes to Captain Jack's stronghold, an area of natural rock trenches and rock shelters in the lava flows, where a tiny band of Indians held hundreds of troops at bay for almost 5 months... The record tells the tale of a motley army of badly trained soldiers, led by inept officers on a battlefield of the Indian's choosing about which the army intelligence had absolutely no information. Given such conditions, tragedy was inevitable for settlers on the north shore of Tote Lake, and for Jack's and Hooker Jim's bands of Modocs."

(Keith A. Murray, in preface to Erwin R. Thompson, 1971, Modoc War: Argus Books, Sacramento, Calif., 188 p. plus appendices).

Last of the California Indian uprisings, the Modoc War (November 29, 1872 to June 4, 1873) has been chronicled by many newspaper writers, historians, social scientists, and others. The written record, however, is blurred and contradictory as to the causes, motives, heroism, and savagery of principal participants on both sides. Parts of the record have been greatly fictionalized and romanticized, and some even falsified as Jeff C. Riddle scornfully notes:

"I have read Capt. William T. Drannan's book, 'Thirty Years on the Plains,' where he wrote about the Modoc warriors. According to what he says, he captured and killed more Modoc warriors than Capt. Jack really had when he commenced fighting. Jack had only fifty-two warriors in all. I knew every one of them.

("Jeff C. Riddle, 1914 (reprinted 1974), The Indian History of the Modoc War, Urion Press, Eugene, Oregon, 295 p.)

Our report and accompanying map makes no attempt "to set the record straight" with regard to what has been reported about the historic and sociological roots of the Modoc War. Instead we investigate the question repeatedly asked by almost every writer: How was it possible that 53 Modoc men, aided (or encumbered ?) by twice as many women and children, withstood a siege through the dead of winter, routed 300 U.S. troops engaged in the first major assault, withdrew undetected after repulsing a second assault of 650 troops supported by mortars and howitzers, and then only a few days later staged a successful ambush and inflicted 25 fatalities upon a patrol composed of 59 enlisted men and 6 officers?

One part of the answer to this question is that the Indians chose a superb, but by no means unique, natural fortress in which to make their stand. This fortress, however, is only one part of the total equation. The vital point is that the Modocs knew thoroughly and in detail the nature of the terrain south of the shore line of Tule Lake; the army was totally ignorant of this landscape's military advantages. Writers about the Modoc War clearly have not understood the real nature of the terrain in which the Indians holed up any more than did the U.S. troops and their officers. One historian writes vaguely about the Modocs "disappearing into the Schonchin flow" as if this barren patch of recent aa lava had some mythical power to swallow up the Indians and hide them from pursuing Army patrols. In fact this almost treeless expanse of small and loose blocks of lava would be the worst possible place for the Indians to try to hide; and the Modocs avoided the Schonchin flow completely. Some writers have assumed that the Stronghold is "within the Schonchin flow," but the distal end of the Schonchin flow is 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) south of the Stronghold, and the source of the flow is at the east base of Schonchin Butte, another 6.4 kilometers (4 miles) further south. The Schonchin flow played no part in the Modoc war, except it seems possible that a few members of Captain Jack's band may have staged the Thomas-Wright ambush out of fear of being trapped by this army patrol against the inhospitable west edge of the Schonchin flow.

We will first describe the terrain in and near the Stronghold, as seen through the eyes of a geologist. Then we return to the Modoc War and discuss, in terms of terrain, the consequences of the first and second assaults by the Army upon the Stronghold, followed by an analysis of how the Modocs were able to withdraw from the Stronghold undetected, and a few days later stage the disastrous Thomas-Wright ambush.

Stronghold map. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window. Web Edition Note: Due to scanning inaccuracies in the Web conversion, the map alignment is not accurate. Hardcopy reference is suggested for a more accurate diagram.)

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Last Updated: 28-Mar-2006