Spirit in the Rock: The Fierce Battle for Modoc Homelands

Jim Compton ’64's posthumously published Native American history is a nuanced portrait of a Modoc chief.

By Sandeep Kaushik ’89 | June 8, 2018

Despite a long and successful career as a foreign correspondent for NBC News, then as a local television journalist, and later as a member of the Seattle City Council, the late Jim Compton ’64 never forgot the “vicious stereotypes” of Native Americans that permeated his childhood community in southern Oregon. He vividly remembered his own father, a surgeon, vowing in a fit of rage at a Native patient never again to offer medical treatment to an Indian.

 In the preface to Spirit in the Rock, his posthumously published history of the cross-cultural misunderstandings and clash of incompatible interests that fueled the violent 1872–3 Modoc War between Native Americans and white settlers, Compton recalls, also, family summer trips to the arid lava beds, a wild, tortured terrain of black volcanic rock near present-day Klamath Falls. It was in those inhospitable lava formations that Modoc Indians spent months fighting—and often winning—a brave but quixotic war to retain a small portion of their traditional homelands against the might of the United States Army.

 Spirit in the Rock is a deeply personal effort to make some amends for the decades of mistreatment that southern Oregon tribes suffered at the hands of whites. While written with the careful precision of a professional historian, it is clearly a labor of love. The end result is a detailed and compelling story that skimps on neither plot nor character.

 At the center of the tale is Captain Jack, a Modoc chief who reluctantly led his people into a war he knew they could not win. Compton paints a nuanced portrait of this conflicted man, a kind of tragic hero who sought only to live in peace in his ancestral homelands alongside the white invaders, despite his profound anger at the accumulating injustices perpetrated against his people.

 As Compton explains, conflict became inevitable when Captain Jack’s simple but unshakable demand that the Modocs be treated fairly ran squarely into the entrepreneurial ambitions of a prominent settler family, the Applegates, who harbored big dreams of remaking the isolated Modoc homelands through the addition of a railroad line and vast drainage and irrigation schemes. The end result was a bloody conflict that culminated with the eventual capture, show trial, and hanging of Captain Jack and several of his compatriots.

 In deftly telling this undeservedly obscure story, Compton offers a valuable addition to the early history of Oregon, as well as adding an important chapter to the sad history of the havoc American westward migration wreaked on Native American peoples. Compton’s deft and empathetic telling of their story may not constitute anything close to full amends to the Modocs, but perhaps it is a start.

– Reviewed by Sandeep Kaushik ’89

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