The Sad History of the Lava Beds

Lava Beds National Monument is located in the far northeast corner of California. For the most part it is flat, dry, and hot. The landscape is infrequently interrupted by a heavily irrigated field of hay, slowly being mowed down by massive red machines with huge rotating cylinders of blades that strip the vegetation back exposing the rodents and insects that had found shelter from the sun in the surreal greenery of the desert. We watched coyotes reap the benefit of these harvests, as they scurried after mice scrambling in the wake of the tractors.

Entering the National Monument we were screened by a Park Ranger for White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that has decimated bat populations on the east coast and in Europe; something they are trying to prevent in the west. Any clothing worn in an eastern cave in the last 5 years is a potential carrier and asked to be left in the car in order to maintain a healthy population of bats in one of the largest, continually evolving network of caves in the United States.

The visitor’s center sat, baking in the sun. Despite having a decent number of tourists perusing the historical information in side, buying keepsakes, and conversing with Rangers, the building showed signed of neglect and a display selling color slides on the shelf, reminded me of my Father’s stories of family trips as a child in the 1960’s and 70’s. A small table in the center of the display room contained a small set of pamphlets and a nearby display case held a copy of a newspaper from the 1800’s, both of which discussed a period in the sad history of the lava beds, and the dark tubes and tunnels that lie beneath the ground.

My Grandfather with a lantern entering Skull Cave: A massive cave with a year-round ice

The Modoc people occupied a decent portion of present day oregon and northern california. Tensions initially escalated between white settlers and the Modocs in 1852 when encroachment on ancestral lands led to the killing of 65 settlers. Retaliation was quick, and the U.S. Militia killed more than 40 Modoc in return. Hostilities continued 1864 when the Klamath, Snake, and Modoc signed a treaty, which established an ‘Indian Reservation’ that relinquished nearly all of their original lands and moved the Modoc north to the Klamath’s region of present day Oregon.

Whenever a people are forcibly moved from their home, especially homeland they have occupied and developed for millennia, malcontent and tense times are often ahead. In 1872, after constant Klamath-Modoc and Settler-Modoc land and rights disputs, one of the most costly wars (and the only major ‘Indian War’ in California) broke out in the area that is now Lava Beds National Monument. 60 Modoc took on more than 600 U.S. Militia for more than 6 months in an epic struggle to prevent the movement of the last of the Modoc away from their homeland.

The massive, often interconnecting and divergent lava tube caves, which Natalie, my Grandfather, and I explored became the major stronghold for the Modoc people, allowing them to fight their oppressors despite being heavily outnumbered. The cool, often smooth edged caves provided a safe haven for the Modoc people who knew the caves well – a testament to the benefit of slow, indigenous development – allowing them to refuel, and strategize out of the monotonous heat of the land above.

Natalie and my Grandfather lead the way into the deep darkness of Valentine Cave

Finally, however, the U.S. Militia overpowered the Modoc through bribery and threats waged on those who had already been moved to the reservation. The survivors of the battle were moved to Oklahoma where most of them died in the following years from unfamiliar disease and environment. Only recently have a few Modoc decedents returned to the lava beds; many refuse to return to the site of such hostility and blood shed.

As has often been the case in history, society fails to learn from the past and the site was again used in the segregation of peoples during WWII when the United States established the Tule Lake Concentration Camp, adjacent to the lave beds, to house Japanese-Americans who had been reclassified as ‘Enemy Aliens’ and forced to leave there homes after the U.S. declared war on Japan, to be held in the sweltering heat of the desert under military watch and scrutiny.

More than 18,000 persons thought to be disloyal to the U.S. (many simply because of their Japanese Ancestry), were hosted in this maximum security facility – thousands more than the facility was designed to hold, making this the largest of the many concentration camps established by the U.S. This story in many ways is even more disturbing than the Modoc War – a complete lack of compassion, rationality, and justice on the part of the United States and forging some very disheartening and disgusting similarities with Nazi Germany. For the benefit of the reader, and to maintain the brevity which blogs ought to maintain, and which I often ignore, I will leave it to you to study the history of these events further.

For Natalie, my Grandfather, and I it was a memorable visit to a surprisingly historical spot of U.S. and Native American history.

Modoc War:

Japanese Concentration Camp at Tule Lake:

One Response to “The Sad History of the Lava Beds”
  1. Ann Ives says:

    wow, I had no idea about any of this………a note for Julie , what is lacking in our US history education…..hope this has been corrected since I was in school. Glad you guys got to see this and learn the history!

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