01 March 2020

Into the Lava Beds [guest post by Edward Fox, 1 March 1873]

[From the New York Herald, 1873; story by Edward Fox]
or nearly half a century the history of this country has recorded many celebrated Indian fights, in which numbers of brave men have bitten the dust; but during the past ten years there has not been a battle with the red men of the forest which created a greater sensation throughout the United States than the recent fight with Captain Jack and his band of Modoc Indians. The battle of [Beecher’s Island], in which General Forsyth, with fifty men—made up of soldiers, scouts and citizens—fought and defeated eight hundred Sioux braves, killing over two hundred, was certainly one of the most important victories ever achieved by a mere company of men; but the battle of the lava beds has been brought into notoriety by circumstances of a very different order, resulting in a disastrous defeat. I shall not attempt to criticise the generalship that was exhibited on this particular occasion, as in a former letter I have endeavored to give a clear and impartial history of the events that transpired on the 17th of January, and, therefore, every reader of the Herald can form his own opinion on the question, bearing in mind, however, that my sketch of the lava beds does not approach an adequate description of the natural fortifications, against which the regular troops had to contend.
I make the above statement, as, since writing my account of the lava-bed fight, I have succeeded in obtaining ocular demonstration as to the impregnable nature of the Indian stronghold, and I hasten to correct any false impressions I may have unwittingly made in that respect. General Wheaton had no idea of the nature of the ground on which he fought—at least his engineers had given him a wrong impression in regard to its strength—and, in fact, the only point that appeared to trouble the regular troops was the fear that perhaps, owing to the extent of country they had to attack, some of the Indians might break through the line and escape. A survey of the lava beds from the bluff above would certainly give no idea of the rough and broken country below, as I remember when I stood on that point and looked down I made the remark, “Where are the lava beds? This country below looks like a flat plain that a mounted man could gallop across without difficulty or impediment.” It was not until the troops were in action that the command arrived at a correct estimate of the character of the field of operations.
Their experience, though rather dearly bought, at the sacrifice of about fifteen brave men, has given a comprehension of the geography of the lava beds that was hitherto unknown. It is to be hoped, however, that no further aggressive movements may be necessary, as from my personal inspection of the position now occupied by the Modoc Indians a victory will be dearly bought even should the attacking party be a thousand strong.
Ever since the arrival of the Peace Commission there has been a hope that war was at an end, but since I have made the personal acquaintance of Captain Jack and his forty-two braves I do not feel so certain about the negotiations terminating peacefully, as, from what I can learn, Mr. Meacham is the only member of the Peace Commission who appears inclined to grant these Indians a general pardon, and without such liberal action there are no hopes of peace, as the Modocs will fight to the last man rather than give up one of their number to suffer for the death of those citizens who, in their belief, were only killed in honorable warfare. Mr. Case and Mr. Applegate, it is understood, are both in favor of, as they say, upholding the dignity of the government they represent and claiming the so-called murderers, to be handed over to the civil powers of Oregon to be tried for their crimes. The action of the Oregon Grand Jury finding a true bill of murder in the first degree against Hooker Jim, Charley Miller, Curley-Headed Doctor and two others has certainly rather complicated the business in the hands of the Peace Commission as, supposing they should pardon all these Indians and decide to move them to Klamath or some other reservation within the boundaries of the State of Oregon, the Sheriff might put in an appearance and claim the above named men, and thus make a conflict between the military and civil authorities, as the former would certainly protect the Modocs from the hands of the law.
For the past three weeks I have travelled pretty well all around this section, with a view to obtaining a correct opinion as to the origin of these troubles, and after a careful estimate of the different stories that I have heard, I feel satisfied that these Indians have been badly treated and forced into a war which they appear perfectly able to sustain. At first I was very much puzzled by the conflicting accounts one heard from Californians and Oregonians, but the letter of the Governor of Oregon, stating that the Lost River land had been located under the Homestead act, and the reservations being all located in the same State, enabled me to comprehend the motives of the Oregonians in attempting to force these Indians from their homes on coveted land to a government reservation, where Indian agents would have more heads to include in their requisitions, and therefore more government funds at their disposal. These Indians, however, had an experience of the comforts of a reservation, and preferred their little settlement on the banks of Lost River, where fish and game were plenty, to starvation at the expense of the government.
For three years they lived in peace and quiet, travelling backwards and forwards, without molesting or disturbing any of the settlers, and occasionally visiting Yreka to dispose of furs and feathers, which formed their chief means of subsistence. Some of them, however, were scattered through the country, located on different ranches, where they made themselves generally useful, splitting rails and stock riding. This peaceful state of affairs did not suit the Oregonian settlers, and when they complained to the Indian Superintendent and trumped up stories of repeated insults offered their families by the Modocs, the latter, only too glad to add to the family, for whose support the government pays liberally, sent down a company of thirty-five soldiers to move them on to a reservation, peacefully if they could, but forcibly if necessary.
The soldiers came before daylight, and, as the Indians say themselves, before they were out of their beds. Captain Jack distinctly denies the story that the Indians fired first, but says that Scar-faced Charley had been out shooting wild geese, and returning saw the soldiers in the camp, ran up to see what was the matter, and when three hundred yards from the soldiers fell down, and his gun was accidentally discharged, and the report started the firing on the part of the soldiers. In justice, however, to the military, I must state that Major Jackson, who was in command of the soldiers, distinctly affirms that Scar-faced Charley fired the first shot when close upon the troops.
On the other side of the river John Schonchin states that a man named George Fiock, of Yreka, fired the first shot, which was followed by several others on the part of the citizens, which resulted in the killing of a [child], wounding a [woman] and scaring all the party in the encampment. This attack was considered by all the Indians to be, to all intents and purposes, a declaration of war, and, putting on their war paint, they started for the lava beds. The party attacked by the citizens made a raid on the settlers and killed twelve men, but spared all women and children with the exception of a boy aged eleven. The latter they evidently considered able to carry arms, as the other day, when in the lava beds, I saw an Indian boy, certainly not over twelve years of age, carrying a rifle and ammunition.
The subsequent events and the fight of the 17th of January have already been fully described, and need no further comment. The next move in the campaign of importance was the arrival of the Peace Commission, and here we commence a history of political trickery which, although it may result in a quiet settlement of the Modoc troubles, will be owing mainly to the influence of Elijah Steele and the instructions of President Grant and the common sense of General Canby. Ever since Messrs. Meacham, Applegate and Case have been in session it was evident that private interests were consulted instead of the public welfare. Mr. Meacham, late Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon, although one of the most peacefully disposed of the three, takes every opportunity that his position affords him to cloak the misdeeds enacted in his reign by throwing the onus upon Captain Knapp, the Indian Agent at Klamath at that time. He has also evinced great eagerness in ferreting out the causes and troubles leading to this war, with, as some people say, the charitable view of establishing the blame upon his successor in office, Mr. Odeneal. Both Messrs. Case and Applegate are Oregonians, who feel it their duty to stand by their State, and are steadfast in their opinion that the murderers should be given up to justice. Mr. Meacham, however, does not despair, and hopes to convince Judge Rosborough of the expediency, if not the justice, of his views. Should he prove successful the Commission will be divided, and General Canby will have the casting vote. That officer has kept carefully aloof from all the squabbles and bickerings of the three first named gentlemen, and will doubtless come forward at the proper moment in a manner that will rather astonish their weak nerves.
The Commission have been very careful as to what information they furnished the correspondents of the different newspapers, and what they did give them was furnished as a special favor. One of the Commissioners [Jesse Applegate according to H. Wallace Atwell (11 March, San Francisco Chronicle, 19 March)] was kind enough to promise me all the current news on the condition that I should submit my correspondence for the approval of the Commission before mailing it to its destination. It is needless to say I was unable to avail myself of this very kind offer, and consequently they retaliated by refusing me permission to be present at the interview with … Matilda and Artena when they returned from their first visit to the lava beds. I then came to the conclusion that there must be some mystery that these gentlemen were attempting to hide from the public, and decided that they only way to arrive at the truth was to see Captain Jack and hear his own story.
Bob Whittle went in the next day with his [wife] Matilda and a Modoc Indian named Dave, and they gave a rather favorable report as to the intentions and disposition of the Modocs in relation to peace. After hearing Whittle’s story the Commissioners decided that as Captain Jack was anxious to see Mr. John Fairchild before having any big talk his wishes should be gratified, and therefore Whittle, Fairchild and … Matilda and Artena were given instructions to go to Jack’s camp on Monday, February 25, and Modoc Dave returned on Sunday to prepare Captain Jack for their coming. This appeared to be a favorable chance for visiting the lava beds, and I accordingly had a talk with John Fairchild early Sunday morning, and he said that I might accompany them in their trip.
Before Dave left Mr. Meacham called in Whittle, Fairchild, Dave and … Matilda and Artena to give them their instructions. He commenced by handing a document to Mr. Fairchild, who was authorized to do the talking, and which proved to be a letter from the Commissioners addressed to Captain Jack, John Schonchin, Scar-faced Charley and other prominent men of the tribe, telling them who the Commissioners were that the President had appointed to treat with them. It also told them that Judge Rosborough was a member of the Commission, and that their friend Elijah Steele had been sent for, and, in order to allow them time to get to Fairchild’s, it was necessary to delay a few days before holding the big talk. Mr. Fairchild was also instructed to find out on what terms the Modocs proposed to meet, and whether they would agree to allow the Peace Commissioners to be accompanied by as many soldiers as there were Modocs.
Mr. Meacham then turned to Whittle and told him to tell his [wife] to point out to Dave and tell him the persons that were going in on Monday morning. Whittle told [her] to tell him that their party and perhaps a couple white men were going; but as he spoke Mr. Meacham caught the last words, and immediately turned to Whittle and told him that he was in the government employ, and he was to take Fairchild and no other man with him, especially no newspaper reporters. I did not say anything on the moment, but afterwards I went to Mr. Meacham and asked him to allow me to accompany Whittle, and he most emphatically refused. Being thus thrown entirely on my own resources I went out and had a talk with John Fairchild, and as he said personally he had no objection to my going I concluded that I would make the attempt.
During the afternoon there was a good deal of private conversation between the members of the Commission, and, as I saw they appeared a little doubtful as to my intentions, I concluded it would be best to ride over to Van Bremer’s and pass the night at that camp. Before going I had a little talk with Artena, and she pointed out to me the gap in the range, where the road they were to follow left the main road between Fairchild’s and Van Bremer’s. I then started off, telling everybody I was going up to dine and pass the night with the officers of the Fourth artillery, who were then camped at Van Bremer’s. As I had made the same trip on several occasions before nothing was suspected, and I rode off without hinderance of any kind.
On my way I prospected the country a little and discovered where the road turned off and led to the bridge over Willow Creek. At Van Bremer’s I kept my intentions quiet, as I was afraid I might place the officers in an unpleasant position if I told them what I intended to do contrary to the orders of the Commissioners. Before going to bed I went down to the sutler’s, bought a couple of pounds of tobacco and had my flask filled, in case I should require a little stimulant to help me out.
I awoke early and was up and dressed by six o’clock, and found that it had been snowing during the night and the ground was covered with the white fleecy particles, lying about three inches deep. After swallowing a hasty breakfast I saddled my horse and started along the road to Fairchild’s, in order to meet the other party, who I knew were to leave the ranch at seven A.M. Instead of going directly down to the bridge I made an attempt to ford the creek higher up, which resulted in a difference of opinion between myself and horse, and as I had neither whip nor spurs the quadruped succeeded in defeating my intentions. I dismounted, and having secured the services of a club, returned to my former position and renewed the discussion. The horse was, however, deaf to all arguments and insinuations of the club, and I consequently gave up the point and moved down towards the bridge. When I got there the unbroken snow gave no signs of any horses having passed over that morning, so I rode back towards Fairchild’s to meet them. After a few minutes’ ride I saw them coming over a spur, Fairchild and Artena leading, with Whittle and Matilda about twenty yards behind. As soon as Fairchild and Artena came up I turned my horse round and rode alongside of them. Fairchild presently said:—
Fairchild—Where are you going?
Herald Correspondent—To the lava beds, with you.
Fairchild—Well, personally, I have not any objection, and, in fact, I would be glad to have you with us; but, as I am only accompanying Whittle, you had better see him.
I said, “All right,” and rode back to join Whittle and his [wife]. When I joined them the following conversation ensued:—
Whittle—Where are you off to this morning?
Herald Correspondent—I hardly know—just taking a little ride.
Whittle—I am sorry the Commissioners would not let you go with us.
Herald Correspondent—Yes; it was rather mean of them. But I have an idea of going without their permission, as I do not see what authority they have to govern my travelling to any part of the country I deem proper.
Whittle—That is so; but then you cannot go with me.
Herald Correspondent—But if I choose to ride along after you there is nobody who can prevent my going to the lava beds.
Whittle—If you go there you will have to find the way yourself, as, if you follow me, I shall turn back.
Herald Correspondent—You need not do that; nobody can blame you if I follow you.
Whittle—Yes, they will. If you had asked me before I was engaged by the government I would have taken you, but, as it is, if you go I go back.
Herald Correspondent—Is there no way I can fix it?
Whittle—None that I know of.
Herald Correspondent—Well, if that is the case, I suppose I must defer my visit.
Whittle—I am very sorry, but it cannot be helped.
Whittle then rode on after Fairchild and the [women], and I turned round and rode back in not a very pleasant frame of mind. As the horse walked slowly on I began to think how I could get into that lava bed without getting Whittle into trouble, and just as I was giving up all hopes my eye happened to light upon the fresh tracks made by Fairchild’s party on the snow. It suddenly flashed across my mind that those tracks would lead me to the lava bed, and the Commissioners could then throw no blame on Whittle. For once I thought there was some sense in the poem “Beautiful Snow,” although on more than one occasion, while tramping through the slush in New York, I firmly believed that the man who penned those lines must have been out of his mind. At that moment I took it all back, and inwardly apologized for my want of perception in not rendering homage to his talent. I turned round in my saddle, and, seeing that the party had passed over the next hill and were out of sight, I wheeled and followed slowly after them.
For some minutes I let the horse walk slowly along until we came close to the top of the first hill, when I dismounted and peeped cautiously over. Whittle and party were out of sight, so I mounted and trotted leisurely along the trail. About twenty minutes’ ride brought me down to the edge of Little Klamath Lake, a large sheet of water, that appeared entirely frozen over. Turning a point of rocks near the border of the lake, I saw my unconscious guides about two miles ahead. I waited behind the rocks until they turned the next point jutting out into the lake and then resumed my journey, trotting leisurely along.
It was not a very pleasant morning, as the snow was still falling and the air was keen and sharp. The road led along the edge of the lake, and, although the frost of the two or three preceding days had hardened it to some extent, there were many soft and miry places. From what I heard I knew that this must be the old California trail to the Atlantic States, and that I could not be far from a portion of the road that had been the scene of many an emigrant massacre, in which some five and twenty years ago the fathers of these very Modocs whom I desired so much to see had taken a prominent part in butchering hundreds of victims.
This train of thought had rather an unpleasant effect on my peace of mind, and the close proximity of two large ravens that kept slowly hovering over my head did not tend to enliven my spirits. These birds kept right above my head, not five yards distant, and kept slowly fanning the air with their wings, and for two miles they never flew twenty yards away. Several times they came so close to my head that I raised my hand to strike them; but they were not easily frightened, and still kept their position, flying faster when my horse trotted and slower when he walked. Presently, however, I remembered what history tells of the Danes, who, in their wars with the Anglo-Saxons, carried a raven into battle, and believed that when the bird flapped its wings victory was certain, but, when they lay drooping by its side, the omen was unpropitious, and it was prudent to defer the fight for that day. This was indeed a happy reminiscence, as there was not the slightest doubt about this omen, as these birds had been flapping their wings for the last half an hour, and looked as if they intended keeping up that amusement ad infinitum.
The road kept along the edge of the lake for about eight miles and then went straight up a long hill. I had been riding up this hill about five or ten minutes when I suddenly perceived that the snow was unbroken and there were no fresh tracks of horses ahead. I immediately turned my horse’s head and rode slowly back, looking out for the tracks, and when I got down to the edge of the lake I found a fresh trail leading sharp up to the right of the main road. I dismounted, and, finding the tracks of four horses, followed it up a wild ravine, gradually mounting all the time until we reached the top of the spur. As Whittle, Fairchild and party were not in sight, I trotted along pretty fast, but in many places the ground was so rocky that I was obliged to walk my horse.
About six miles from Klamath Lake I came suddenly upon the top of a bluff, with a very sharp descent. As the face of the bluff was very steep I dismounted and led my horse, and, mounting again at its base, rode fast to the top of the next spur. As I passed over its crest I saw Whittle and party on the flat below, and they saw me at the same time. They immediately pulled up, and, as Whittle waved his hand to me, I thought it best to ride on fast and soon came up with them. Whittle waited until I rode up, and then said, “So you were determined to come?” I replied that, as the tracks on the snow were a good guide to the lava bed, I thought it best to take advantage of the chance and not wait until the sun had effaced all tracks of their ride. Whittle [coughed] and said, “Well, as the [Modocs] have seen you before this, you had better keep up and go along with us.” He added, “If I had seen you before you came over that last hill I should have turned back and you would have had to find the road the best way you could.” I did not attempt to argue the question, but accepted the position and rode up alongside of Fairchild and Artena.

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