Spirit in the Rock: The Fierce Battle for Modoc Homelands, by Jim Compton, Washington State University Press, Pullman, 2017, $27.95

The struggle for land between American Indians and encroaching white settlers inflamed passions over several centuries, but few clashes claimed such disproportionate news coverage or starkly changing sympathies as the drama that unfolded in 1872–73 amid the lava beds along the California-Oregon border. There, fewer than 60 Modoc Indians tenuously led by Kintpuash, better known to period settlers and history as Captain Jack, made an armed stand to remain in their ancestral lands, as ensured in an 1864 treaty, from which they now faced mass eviction by force. By the time Captain Jack and the last of his warriors were overpowered in June 1873, more than 1,000 U.S. Army troops and California militia had participated in the conflict, suffering more than 100 casualties, their dead including Civil War veteran Maj. Gen. Edward R.S. Canby, the highest ranking officer killed during the Indian wars. Five Modoc warriors and perhaps a dozen noncombatants are known to have died in the fighting. In June 1874 Secretary of War William W. Belknap announced the affair had cost $411,068, making it the most expensive Indian war of its scope in U.S. history.

Americans have a soft spot in their hearts for underdogs, and the Modocs’ spirited and resourceful defense got its share of public sympathy until April 11, 1872, when Captain Jack, under pressure from a larger, more hostile faction within his camp, abruptly murdered Canby amid peace negotiations. Virtually overnight outraged Americans saw no alternative than to send Captain Jack to the gallows, many echoing General William T. Sherman’s final pronouncement on the Modocs: “You will be fully justified in their utter extermination.”

Journalist Jim Compton began researching the Modoc War in 2006, completing his studies in January 2014 only to die two months later. His wife, Carol Arnold, saw the project through to publication, and Spirit in the Rock proves a worthy addition to literature on the event. Besides the usual clash of cultures, which the author retrospectively explains, he also reveals a hitherto overlooked motive behind the settlers’ insistent effort to take possession of Modoc territory—the ambitions of Jesse Applegate and Jesse Carr to control the rivers and lakes and build a railroad through what promised to be a lucrative piece of California real estate. The reader might bear that in mind as he retraces the steps of Captain Jack, his handful of allies and legion of enemies in a drama that starkly summarizes many of the United States’ Indian wars.

—Jon Guttman