Click here for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. — Ed.

Connecting caves and parallel histories

Anyway, sitting around that blazing campfire one summer in 1956 we Boy Scouts listened intently as the Park Ranger wound down his story of Captain Jack’s Stronghold.

Captain Jack, Curley-Headed-Doctor and the other reservation-jumping Modocs had entrenched themselves in their lava-beds Stronghold near the south shore of Tule Lake. Negotiations ensued toward coaxing the Modocs to surrender and return to the distant reservation from which they had fled. Captain Jack demanded that any peace treaty guarantee Modoc sovereignty over their ancestral homeland, which more-or-less centered on their Stronghold. The government steadfastly refused any compromise. Meanwhile, Curley-Headed-Doctor, the Modoc shaman, had convinced the Stronghold defenders that the soldiers would vaporize if the Modoc warriors killed the leader of the Army troops, a high-ranking General named Canby. Captain Jack himself then murdered the surprised Canby under a truce flag.

“Shot him in the FACE!” the Ranger shouted, which caused all of us Boy Scouts gathered around the crackling hot campfire to nearly leap off our logs in terror! Marshmallows and hot dogs flew in all directions. When we had settled back down the Ranger continued in a subdued, patriotic voice: Never before or after in the history of the Indian Wars did such a high ranking American military officer lose his life to an enemy combatant. The treacherous Captain Jack thereby made his mark in the White Man’s history books, and in the act of murdering Canby had sealed his own fate and that of his people.

Well, suffice it to say that Canby’s murder was the end of negotiations between the U.S. Army and Captain Jack, and thus began officially the Lava Beds (Modoc) War. This was the fall of 1872.

By January of 1873, and owing to the fact that the besieging U.S. Army had thus far failed to win a single victory for United States President Ulysses S. Grant in a fair fight with the Modocs, the decision was made by Canby’s replacement, the incompetent Colonel Gillem, to postpone hand-to-hand combat for a while and instead seek to deprive the defenders of the Stronghold from their ready access to fresh water from the lake. That accomplished, they would attack their thirsty, half-dead adversaries and smoke them out of their Stronghold caves or suffocate them all where they hid.

The first half of Gillem’s plan actually succeeded. However, Captain Jack cleverly sneaked all his warriors and their families out of the Stronghold without engaging the Army in any decisive battle. The Park Ranger emphasized that General Gillem was judged incompetent by his superiors because he failed to wipe out the Modocs in their Stronghold, as ordered. He was held responsible for letting them escape and for prolonging the War.

Meanwhile news of General Canby’s murder had reached President Grant in Washington. Grant turned for advice to his old military comrade General Philip Sheridan. It was no-nonsense Sheridan that had carried out the scorched-earth policy that brought Johnny Rebel to his knees and forced a final solution to the Civil War. Sheridan under the Grant Administration was now General-in-Chief of subduing the Plains Indians. It was while doing so that he invented the aphorism “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Grant agreed, and acted accordingly.

A Colonel Jefferson Davis was straightaway ordered to replace the incompetent Gillem in the field. Davis initially planned to track down and kill as many of the escaped Modocs in the lava beds wilderness as possible. He estimated he would be chasing down about 40 seasoned Modoc warriors, and their families. His plan was a cultural genocide: Any principal warriors that survived the final battle would be hanged to death; all lesser warriors would be sent to Alcatraz Island military prison in San Francisco Bay (the Guantanamo of its day); women and children would be dispersed to disparate Indian reservations throughout the West to be assimilated into other Native American tribes. Within decades no vestiges of a Modoc people or its culture would remain on Earth.

However, by the time Davis finally reached the Lava Beds to relieve Gillem he found the troops pursuing Captain Jack’s Modocs in near-total disarray. They were battle-weary and demoralized to the extent that Davis had to delay his timetable to kick butt and re-instill some discipline in the ranks, and this altered his plans. But credit Davis for carrying out Grant’s orders as best he could. He soon engaged the Modocs successfully in a skirmish in the remote volcanic wilderness, at a place since called “Captain Jack’s Ice Caves.” After Davis arrived on the scene it was the Modoc’s turn to become demoralized.

It took less than a month for half the warriors to defect to the Army as prisoners-of-war. Jack and Curly-Headed-Doctor and a few other warriors tried to hold out as long as they could against the inevitable, but finally decided to surrender to save the lives of their women and children. Captain Jack’s surrender was dramatically captured in a news magazine illustration published shortly following the event:

“Surrender of the Modocs.” A magazine engraving from 1873. Artist unknown

“Surrender of the Modocs.” A magazine engraving from 1873. Artist unknown

We view here the engraver’s interpretation of the last surrendering Modoc braves emerging from the lava beds wilderness with their families and entering between the portals of defeat into the darkness of a future unknown. The vast scope of their homeland and past history as a sovereign people shines only as a backdrop to current events. As interpreted by the press, the Modoc War unromantically ends with a whimper instead of a roar.

Our Boy Scout troop was based in a suburb of Los Angeles, so on leaving the Lava Beds National Monument the next day we thanked the Park Ranger for the tour and campfire tale then headed south, via the Pacific Coast Highway. We drove through San Francisco and stopped at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge to view the Bay. There is a parking lot there for that purpose. Our scoutmaster brought binoculars and we took turns looking at Alcatraz Island, where some of the defeated Modoc warriors ended up, serving life sentences for losing a fair fight.

The Army hanged Captain Jack. Curley-Headed-Doctor died of natural causes on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. Some descendants of the defenders of Captain Jack’s Stronghold survive to the present, but they are not recognized by the U.S. Government as members of a registered Native-American Tribe. So, Colonel Davis appears to have effectively accomplished the cultural genocide of the Modoc people as President Grant intended.

My visit to Captain Jack’s Cave in 1956 proved prescient to my experience on arrival on Jeju Island as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1973. As I have noted, the volcanic landscape “seemed familiar” on my arrival. In particular, the cinder cone “oreum” fields of Jeju reminded me of the cinder-cone “butte” arrays of northeastern California. The lava tubes and caves populating the lava beds that form the foundations of the cones were likewise similar. Their roles in human settlement history as life-supporting ecosystems and as pre-historic and historic battlegrounds and “heroic strongholds” were also similar.

Old Schonchin’s Butte and Darangshi Oreum are unique places, but much can be learned from comparing and contrasting their terrains and histories. By experiencing both the Lava Beds National Monument and the flanks of Mt. Halla it is not all that difficult for an attentive observer to connect the caves and parallel histories of both places and reach some profound conclusions.

The author and Mr. Yang at the mouth of lava tube cave in the vicinity of Darangshi Oreum. Photo courtesy David Nemeth

The author and Mr. Yang at the mouth of lava tube cave in the vicinity of Darangshi Oreum. Photo courtesy David Nemeth


Next Week: ‘Name that oreum!’ Part 5 Afterthoughts

Tagged with →