Looking back at Petaluma minister’s connection to Modoc War

It was the only major Native American war fought in California and it gripped the nation's attention almost 150 years ago as a band of warriors held off a much larger force of the U.S. Army in a harsh, volcanic environment known today as Lava Beds National Monument.

The Modoc War in 1872-73, near the Oregon border, was the sole Native American conflict in American history in which a full ranking general, Edward R.S. Canby, was killed.

A lesser known casualty was a Methodist minister from Petaluma, Eleazer Thomas, who like Canby was killed in the war.

Thomas, 58, a preacher with strong compassion for the Modocs, was part of the commission attempting to make peace with the tribe.

The slaying of the two men shocked the nation.

"Awful News from the Lava Bed," was the headline on April 12th, 1873 in the Petaluma Evening Argus.

The Sonoma Democrat reported, "Dr. Thomas, who was so cruelly massacred by the Modoc tribe while on an errand of mercy in their behalf, was widely and favorably known throughout this county."

At the same time, the newspaper acknowledged the Modoc War "originated in a bungling attempt on the part of United States authorities to remove the Indians to a reservation unacceptable to them."

It was a story that would be repeated throughout the west as Native Americans were displaced by waves of white settlers and gold prospectors, and forced to abandon their traditions and culture.

Native Americans were lost to diseases and killed outright, but they also fought back with attacks on wagon trains and ranches.

The prevalent plan in the latter half of the 1800s was to force Native Americans on reservations where the United States could watch over them.

A Petaluma minister’s involvement

Some people had sympathy for the Modocs' plight, but public sentiment turned against them with the killing of the general and the Petaluma minister.

Thomas, who lived in San Francisco before coming to Sonoma County, had an estimated 6,000 people attend his funeral at the Powell Street Methodist Church, where he once served. California Gov. Newton Booth and San Francisco Mayor William Alvord were among the pallbearers.

A big reason there was such an outpouring is because the prolonged conflict at the Lava beds attracted the attention of newspapers across the nation. Reporters, photographers and illustrators flocked there to cover the story of a handful of Native Americans holding off 1,000 soldiers and volunteers.

This was several years before Sitting Bull and Custer's Last Stand, or the flight of the Nez Perce under Chief Joseph, Native American battles that would go on to capture the public’s attention.

Modocs forced out

The seeds of war were planted in the 1840s when a new route to Oregon territory was established directly through homelands where the Modocs lived, hunted and fished.

As white settlers began encroaching on the Modoc land, friction between the two groups escalated. The Modocs were forced onto a reservation in Oregon and were made to live with a tribe they did not get along with.

Instead of staying, some Modocs led by Keintpoos, also known as Capt. Jack, returned home. Conflict with local ranchers brought pressure to remove those tribal members again. There were clashes between the Modocs and soldiers, and men on both sides were killed along with civilians.

Capt. Jack and about 55 warriors, along with their families, fled to the lava beds, a maze of sharp rock formations and shallow caves that served as a natural fortress.

The group was surrounded and a five-month siege ensued. Nearly 60 soldiers, 15 Modoc warriors and several Native American women and children were killed during the conflict.

Capt Jack is a hero

Capt. Jack became a hero to some, especially after an intrepid New York Herald reporter snuck into the lava beds and interviewed him. Capt. Jack aired a list of complaints going back 20 years and defended his tribe’s actions.

Back East, especially, many spoke out about the horrible treatment Native Americans received. Religious and humanitarian groups were concerned about the national policy in which the Army forced Native Americans to leave their home for new reservations.

President Grant ordered a peace treaty and Gen. Canby, 56, a Civil War veteran was summoned to help.

It was a time when church officials were increasingly assuming responsibility for overseeing Native Americans on reservations. Later, the Dawes Act of 1887 stripped over ninety million acres of tribal land from Native Americans and sold to non-natives.

‘His intentions were really good’

Thomas, a native New Yorker, had his ministry transferred to California in 1855, first serving as a pastor in San Francisco.

He recognized a paucity of church books and traveled around California to spur publishing of religious materials. He also took interest "in all questions relating to our Indian population," according to his daughter.

In 1872, Thomas was appointed Presiding Elder of the Petaluma District and by the next spring was sent to connect with the Modocs.

Cheewa James, a former Lava Beds parks ranger, Modoc descendant, and author of "The Tribe that Wouldn't Die," noted that "all accounts said he was a very fine man and was obviously very anti-war. He wanted the war to end. His intentions were really good."

The Modocs wanted to secure 2,000 acres of their homeland for their reservation, but Canby insisted they return to the Oregon reservation.

After weeks of stalemate, Capt. Jack agreed to leave his stronghold for peace talks.

But the night before, fellow tribe members denounced Capt. Jack for caving to the move. He was belittled, leading him to yield to a plan to kill Canby and other commissioners.

Plus the Modocs never forgot an incident 20 years before when a notorious rancher turned vigilante rode into a Modoc camp under a white flag of peace and killed more than 30 men, women and children, including Capt. Jack's father.

On Good Friday, April 11, 1873, Capt. Jack and his Modoc lieutenants met Canby and the peace commission. When Canby again refused the Modoc's requests, Capt. Jack pulled out a pistol, shot and killed him. Rev. Thomas was shot twice by a Modoc named Boston Charley and died.

Attendance at Thomas' funeral was huge, with dignitaries including 55 ministers, six generals, six colonels and at least three captains, according to James.

Capt. Jack was captured months later. After a military trial, Capt. Jack, Boston Charley and two others were convicted and hanged.

Some Modocs remained on the Klamath reservation. But 150 men, women and children were put on a train to Oklahoma Indian Territory where they struggled to survive for many decades with the ravages of disease, corruption of government officials, and substandard food and goods.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette