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The Modoc leader Kintpuash, known as "Captain Jack." (National Archives)
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Capt. James Jackson

Ordered To Return Tribe To Reservation, Cavalry Officer Found Himself Embroiled In The Modoc Wars



Army Capt. James Jackson stepped into his role as commander at an unfortunate time in American history. By 1872, most Civil War veterans had retired, and the U.S. Army was composed mainly of raw recruits, whom the press characterized as "Private Peter Blob" and the "Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight."

Jackson was neither of those things. Rather, this career cavalry officer from New Jersey must have abhorred the slings journalists threw at the military. Jackson was given charge of a company of new recruits and orders to attack an Indian band at a time when he and his superiors knew that such conflicts were not universally popular. During what came to be called the Modoc Wars, reporters for the first time interviewed Indian leaders and reported their side of the story during the conflict.

Trouble had been brewing between the California-based Modoc tribe and white settlers since the beginning of the Gold Rush in 1848. The Modocs' poker-faced leader Kintpuash (or Kientpoos), known as "Captain Jack," at first tried to negotiate peace. But when his tribe was removed in 1869 to an Oregon reservation shared with their traditional enemy, the Klamath tribe, Captain Jack lost patience. In 1870, he and a few followers began a move back to their ancestral lands near Tule Lake in California.

After several efforts to persuade the Modocs to return to the reservation failed, the U.S. Army was called in. On Nov. 28, 1872, one Maj. Green sent troops from Fort Klamath, Ore., to move the Modocs "by force if necessary" back to Oregon. Jackson's soldiers found themselves facing the Modocs on the edge of "the Stronghold." One American general described this vast prehistoric lava bed crumpled into uneven ridges and trenches as "hell with the fires out."

Jackson arrived at Captain Jack's village at Lost River, on the southern neck of Tule Lake, and tried to force the Indians to lay down their weapons. The ensuing face-off resulted in shots being fired on both sides. Although the Modoc force was outnumbered 20 to 1, in their rocky fortress the Indians managed to stave off their attackers for five long months. This dismal conflict was costly for both sides: the U.S. Army lost Gen. Edward Canby, and the Modocs eventually surrendered, their leaders hanged.

Time dealt more kindly with Capt. James Jackson. In 1896, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for Indian War action at Camas Meadows, Iowa, where on Aug. 20, 1877, he dismounted in the face of heavy fire from pursuing Indians to help bring the body of his stricken trumpeter to safety.

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