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As It Was: Conflicting Treaties Contribute to Modoc War Causes

Misunderstandings resulting from two conflicting treaties, one made in California and the other in Oregon, contributed to the tensions between white settlers and Indians that led to the Modoc War of 1872-73.

California Indian Agent Elijah Steele of Yreka negotiated the first treaty in February 1864, guaranteeing the Modocs part of their traditional homeland on the Lost River southeast of present-day Klamath Falls.  Congress never acted on Steele’s treaty, urging instead that Oregonians produce one.

The region’s tribes signed the Oregon Treaty eight months later, giving up 23 million acres for the Klamath Reservation of some 800,000 acres.  The Modocs lost their traditional Lost River homeland.

Eventually, a band of Modocs led by Keintpoos, known by the whites as Captain Jack, left the reservation and settled at the mouth of Lost River.  U.S. Army troops ignited the Modoc War by forcefully dislodging the Modocs.

At war’s end, an American general was dead, killed during peace talks.  The army charged Captain Jack with murder, hanged him and three accomplices, and shipped the remainder of his band to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.

Steele had warned his proposed California treaty was necessary to avoid war.


Source: Compton, Jim. Spirit in the Rock: The Fierce Battle for Modoc Homelands. First ed., Pullman, Wash., WSU Press, 2017, pp. 32-36.

Kernan Turner is the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s volunteer editor and coordinator of the As It Was series broadcast daily by Jefferson Public Radio. A University of Oregon journalism graduate, Turner was a reporter for the Coos Bay World and managing editor of the Democrat-Herald in Albany before joining the Associated Press in Portland in 1967. Turner spent 35 years with the AP before retiring in Ashland.