The Conflicted History of the Lava Beds National Monument

By Ryan Loughrey

This past summer, we visited the desolate and beautiful Lava Beds National Monument to try to escape the heat by seeking refuge in the many caves that dot this area. I knew a little about the history, but wanted to explore more. Thus, this is a companion piece that dives more into the rich human history that spans a few thousand years. It is based off my own research and perceptions, if it is inaccurate or if you have personal experience, please feel free to let me know!

An Oh Too Brief History of the Park

Illustration of Captain Jack’s Stronghold during Modoc War

According to the National Park Service, the area is one of the “longest continually occupied areas in North America.” It was long a home to indigenous populations, most notably the Modoc and Klamath nations. At several locations in the Monument, petroglyphs can be found. This past weekend, we visited Big Painted Cave, Symbol Bridge and Petroglyph Point. The last one is one of the more popular destination in the park despite being a bit of a drive. Petroglyph Point is a sheer rock that has been carved into for generations. It is visible from any point of elevation in the park and I remember standing at the Visitor Center of the park looking out across the lowlands and seeing the spiked mountain to the north and the sheer face of Petroglyph Point right beside it.

As settlers expanded westward, displacing the indigenous populations, the local conflict came to a head in the Modoc War (1872-1873). Leading up to the war, the Modoc were forcibly placed in a reservation with one of their historic enemies, the Klamath. The Modoc Leader Kientpoos (also known as Captain Jack) loosely led several smaller groups into an area that is now known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a location that can be visited in the Park today. It has deep lava trenches cut through the area, as well as small caves, and can seem labyrinthine and enigmatic to anyone not familiar with the area.

RELATED: Take this Hike to see Ancient Northern California Petroglyphs

Approximately 50 Modoc warriors and their families held the area against roughly 300 US soldiers and volunteers until peace talks were negotiated. Captain Jack was deceived by one of the local Modoc leaders into ambushing the U.S. peace commission, leading to a renewed pursuit of the tribe. The Modoc then were chased across the area, until the group essentially broke into smaller bands, and one captured band betrayed the rest by working with the US to track down Captain Jack which lead to his surrender. Anyone who has visited knows the landscape makes for brutal hiking, let alone warfare.

Another location in the Monument is Gillam’s Camp. Used as a barracks during the Modoc Wars, it was converted to be a base for a series of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews around 1935. The CCC was one of the New Deal programs under Franklin Delano Roosevelt to alleviate the effects the Great Depression had on the nation. (FDR was famous for inundating the country with an ‘alphabet soup’ of programs, a progressive move that saw the creation of not only the CCC, but also the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), WPA (Works Progress Administration), SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), and more).

In Lava Beds, crews built roads through the monument, laid power and telephone lines, built a superintendent’s residence and headquarters (where the modern Visitor Center is), built a campground, developed numerous trails through the caves using mainly hand tools, made the trail to and building at Schonchin Butte Lookout, and made picnic tables that still stand at Fleener Chimneys. Although much of the structures created at this time don’t exist anymore, the infrastructure created is still in use today.

Later, this stretch of the world became infamous for another reason: Tule Lake was one of the Internment Camps used during WW11. According to History.com, following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Government created Executive Order 9066. The Order authorized the removal of people from military areas, which was broadly defined as the whole west coast. Later that year, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in remote internment camps, all without due process.

Tule Lake became known because it was notorious for being the location where the so-called “disloyal” Japanese Americans were held, and it was the only camp turned into a maximum-security segregation center, with 1,000 military police guarding the facility. Anyone who has visited the area knows how remote it is and how hot it gets in summer, making it an ideal prison and a challenging home. After the war, Japanese Americans were forced to reintegrate to American life, often facing guarded suspicion or outright racism. In 2008, the World War II Valor in the Pacific National monument was created to honor the memory of the Americans unjustly imprisoned in these locations, and visitors can see the museum and National Park Service locations.

This corner of California has a rich history, not to mention the geologic history that created the barren and rocky landscape pocked with caves. Lava Beds National Monument can offer a glimpse into the country’s history, as well as a simple and visceral experience of caving.

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