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Visiting the Stronghold — 150 years later

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It's believed Army troops reinforced fortifications after taking over the Stronghold. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
The Dance Ring is where Curly Headed Doctor and others were believed to have performed rituals. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
Archaeologist ranger David Curtis explains Modoc War history near the Medicine Flag. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — It was chillingly cold, well below freezing, but the sun was shining, and winds were nonexistent.

For nearly two hours, we walked around sections of Captain Jack’s Stronghold, stepping carefully over icy patches, treading warily over the jumble of erratically shaped lava rocks.

It was 150 years ago when this lonely, ragged landscape of volcanic-induced geologic turmoil was the shelter where an estimated 160 Modoc Indian men, women and children scratched out an existence following the Nov. 29, 1872, Battle of Lost River, when the Modoc War officially started. After holding off a detachment of Army soldiers from Fort Klamath sent to return the Modocs to a reservation near present-day Chiloquin, the Modocs escaped by canoes across then-expansive Lower Klamath Lake to the shores of the Stronghold.

From then until April 15, 1873, when they mysteriously escaped, the Stronghold was the Modocs’ place of refuge.

“These people were living here with literally only what they brought,” explained David Curtis, Lava Beds National Monument’s archaeologist, during a Stronghold tour. “Very, very tough living.”

During the nearly four months the Modocs occupied the Stronghold, their 50 to 60 warriors actually fighting with Army troops occurred on only three days, although several skirmishes happened nearby. While they had to remain on guard, Curtis said, “The Modocs were simply trying to wait out what was going on.”

Imagining what the Modocs and, later, Army soldiers who spent a month in the Stronghold after the Modocs escaped, experienced during a bitter winter is part of the goal of periodic Stronghold tours offered by Curtis, whose 90-minute sessions will resume at 1 p.m. every other Saturday beginning Jan. 14.

Most people visit the Stronghold, either individually or on ranger-led interpretative walks, in sunny, warm weather. A winter visit, especially on less pleasant days, gives a better sense of the Modocs’ and troops’ harsh existence during the war.

Unlike most Stronghold tours, Curtis provides an archaeological perspective, relying on data he and teams of archaeologists have gathered. He noted, for example, that studies have been, ironically, aided by a series of wildfires that exposed previously hidden features, including the 2019 Caldwell and 2021 Jack fires. Findings of beads, bones and other items also have confirmed the Modocs spent at least some time at the Stronghold before their 1872 emergency occupancy. Other archaeological evidence has confirmed natural features were used as defensive positions by Modocs and that Army troops reinforced and built new defensive outposts in case the Modocs attempted to return.

“The Modocs were really well protected by the landscape,” Curtis explained, noting the Stronghold’s Long Loop Trail — about 1 1/2 miles long — includes the outer edge of camps used by Modocs and, later, by occupying Army troops.

An estimated 500 Army troops stayed in and near the Stronghold from mid-April to mid-May. “These guys had so much time on their hands … These guys were bored, so they built these structures,” Curtis said, referring to taller rock walls and a large, high-walled warming or cooking hearth he believes might have been a meeting place for Army officers.

He noted the Short Trail — about a half-mile long — passes through trenches that provided a natural defense line for Modocs against invading Army troops during the first Stronghold battle Jan. 17, 1873. Because they were exposed, struggling in rough terrain, were cold and had little visibility in dense fog, the Army suffered 37 casualties. None of the Modocs, who were familiar with the terrain, were killed.

Among significant Stronghold features is a rounded rock knoll near the entrance of Council Cave known as “the rostrum,” the place where Modocs gathered to make announcements, devise plans and air grievances.

Although most historical accounts say the rostrum is where Hooper Jim who — after the Battle of Lost River had led a group of Hot Creek Band Modocs that killed 12 male settlers and feared he and others would be killed if they surrendered or were captured — threw a woman’s blanket over the head of Captain Jack, who favored surrendering, and called him a “fish-hearted woman.” Captain Jack then agreed to murder Army Gen. E.R.S. Canby during “peace talks” April 12.

Curtis also discussed the importance of Curly Headed Doctor, a Modoc shaman who held “ghost dances” at a small dance ring. It was believed the dances would induce the spirits of ancestors to rise from the dead and kill people invading Modoc land.

He also braided a rope made from tules dyed red and placed around selected areas. It was believed soldiers could not pass the ropes, making their bullets harmless. Curtis said it’s believed the rope encircled what he called Modoc breastworks, described as the single largest rock fortification built by Modocs.

Curtis provided other information generally not included on tours, including how he learned information from an 1884 textbook “Field Fortifications,” written for Army cadets at West Point, was applied during the struggles.

Winter in the Stronghold offers insights not experienced in other seasons, a sense of what the Army troops — in a to-them-unknown, forbidding and foreboding landscape — and the Modocs — hidden in the isolated, lonely, lava-strewn lands — must have experienced.

Stronghold History Aided by Artist

William Simpson, an illustrator for the Illustrated London News, is credited by Lava Beds National Monument archaeologist David Curtis and historians for the accuracy of drawings created during the Modoc War.

In 1873, during a trip around the world, Simpson was in San Francisco April 11 when he learned Army Gen. Edward Canby and Methodist minister Eleazar Thomas were murdered by Modoc Indians during wartime peace talks. Simpson immediately traveled to Lava Beds to make sketches. Some show sites in Captain Jack’s Stronghold, including Captain Jack’s Cave, which appeared on the front page of the June 28, 1873, Harper’s Weekly.

Before visiting Modoc War sites, Simpson was a war correspondent and illustrator who covered the Crimean War of 1854. He later traveled to India for the Sepoy Revolt, did sketches of the Prince of Wales in 1866 and covered the Abyssinia Campaign and the Franco-Prussian War. It was while returning from the 1872 wedding of the Chinese emperor that he went to Lava Beds.

During his later years, he covered the Afghan War in Afghanistan, did illustrations for several weddings and coronations and published books with his drawings and illustrations.

Simpson died Aug. 17, 1899, at age 75.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.