Lava Beds National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument


As one of the longest continually occupied areas in North America, the history and cultural legacy of the lava beds stretches back thousands of years. Explore the history early Native Americans left behind in rock art and at archeological sites, the conflict of the Modoc War, and the traditions and heritage of homesteaders, ranchers, cave explorers, "CCC boys," and the modern Modoc and Klamath tribes.

The winter of 1872-1873 was a troubled one in the Lava Beds, where a small band of Modoc Indians was beseiged by a U.S. Army force outnumbering them as much as ten to one. The majority of the battlefields of his conflict, known as the Modoc War, are located within the monument and are still preserved today.

Modoc Homeland
The land that was later to become Lava Beds National Monument, as well as the highlands to the south and wetlands to the north, was home to paleolithic peoples for thousands of years. This area is still infused with cultural and spiritual importance for many modern people of Modoc and Klamath descent.

Like most National Park Service sites during the Depression, newly established Lava Beds National Monument benefited from the work of a Civilian Conservation Corps crew. Between 1935 and 1942, hundreds of "CCC boys" constructed all of the original infrastructure of the monument, much of which you can still drive on, walk on, and enjoy during a visit more than 60 years later.

Rock Art
Discover an extensive collection of awe-inspiring pictographs and petroglyphs throughout the Lava Beds landscape.

Early Exploration and Use
A host of colorful characters populate the early modern history of Lava Beds, including J.D. Howard, a cave explorer; homesteading families that ran sheep and an underground ice skating business; and moonshiners who set up stills in the remote caves during Prohibition.

The Civilian Conservation Corps at Lava Beds

Gillems Camp, one of the principal military encampments of the Modoc War of 1872-73, came to life again under very different circumstances sixty years after the army left the lava beds. The old campsite became the center of Camp Tulelake, a base for a succession of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews that would transform the newly established national monument.

The CCC was a very successful relief program during the Great Depression. In an effort to alleviate unemployment while making needed improvements to public lands, President Franklin Roosevelt's administration started the CCC in 1935. Men enlisted for six-month tours of duty, and most re-enrolled for a full two years. Up to 150 young men were formed into work crews under Army supervision. The CCC swiftly constructed thousands of camps all over the country, including hundreds in neglected or newly established western national park sites.

Among the tasks assigned to these crews were road and trail building, firefighting, the installation of electric and telephone lines, and the construction of park administrative and visitor services buildings. For his work, a young CCC enrollee received room and board in an Army-style camp and $30 a month, of which $25 was sent home to his family. With over three million total enrollees, the CCC program contributed enormously to the economies of many impoverished hometowns.

Within a few months in 1935, a 'strike camp' of army surplus tents with wood frames and floors was established on the old shoreline of Tule Lake. After two frigid winters, permanent wooden buildings finally replaced the tents. Camp Tulelake included barracks, mess halls, offices, a motor pool, and mechanical workshops.

The CCC crews were kept very busy. Different crews at Lava Beds built roads through the monument, laid the first power and telephone lines, and built a superintendent's residence and headquarters building at Indian Well (where the modern Visitor Center stands). They also built a campground (the current "A" loop of the campground) and picnic tables you can still eat at in the campground and at Fleener Chimneys. CCC boys from Camp Tulelake developed dozens of trails through the lava tube caves. They moved over ten million cubic yards of earth and debris from the caves near the Visitor Center and installed ladders and stairways - all without heavy construction equipment. In the caves, the CCC crews used picks, shovels, block-and-tackle rigs, and wheelbarrows. Occasionally, they used dynamite to widen natural openings, but the debris was removed largely by hand.

After an 8-hour workday, most CCC enrollees took classes to earn high school diplomas and improve their technical skills for future employment. Like many camps, Tulelake produced a camp newspaper that gave rare glimpses into the difficult and isolated life in the lava beds under Army command. Imagine the turmoil when 150 CCC boys showed up at a dance hall in the tiny neighboring towns!

With the outbreak of World War II, the CCC was terminated and many of the former enrollees became soldiers. The last CCC crew at Camp Tulelake closed the facility in the spring of 1942. During the war, the old buildings deteriorated, so that by 1949, most had been demolished. Today, little remains at Camp Tulelake except one piece of concrete foundation, but the CCC legacy lives on in the infrastructure still in use today at Lava Beds.

The CCC's legacy also lives on in the great personal and societal changes it wrought. Young men with few opportunities in life learned to run heavy machinery, read and write, and depend on themselves under Army discipline far from home. Public lands were transformed, but so were lives. Giving jobs and hope to nearly five percent of the adult male population at the time, the scale of the program is hard to imagine today.

Take the time to walk the guided trail at Gillems Camp or up to the Schonchin Butte fire lookout and contemplate the extraordinary effort of the CCC boys of Camp Tulelake.

Modoc Homeland

The Modoc people once lived on both sides of what is now the California-Oregon border, in villages on and near Tule, Lower Klamath, and Clear Lakes. Like the ancient people who first inhabited this area more than 11,000 years ago, they took advantage of abundant waterfowl and game, edible and medicinal plants, and an easily accessible water supply. They moved about the region freely with the seasons, until the coming of whites in 1826 when the pattern of Modoc life began to change. The Modoc, a fiercely independent people, began to clash with some of the newcomers that laid claim to Modoc grounds for their own uses, and the seeds were sown for one of the most tragic of the Indian Wars: the Modoc War of 1872-73.

Seasonal Life
The band of Modoc that inhabited lands in and around the lava beds followed a seasonal round, from permanent winter villages around local lakes and into the highlands of Medicine Lake to the south. The annual journey began with the end of the last winter storms, when wildflowers signaled the coming of spring. Temporary camps were erected near Lost River (which connects Tule and Clear Lakes), consisting of groups of domed huts made of tule reeds. Here the Modoc could take advantage of fish spawning runs, as well as gather bird eggs, roots, and berries.

With the coming of summer, the Modoc moved to higher elevations south of the lava beds (on today's Modoc National Forest) where they established mountain camps to hunt and gather nuts and berries. Autumn was a crucial time for the Modoc people when food was prepared and transported down to permanent winter camps on the banks of lakes and rivers. Their earth lodges, as many as twenty in each village, were readied for the severe cold of winter storms. When the band moved back into these villages in winter, older people repaired broken tools and weaved baskets, while the younger members of the village listened to the elders recount the history of the tribe in legend and song.

Throughout the year, many different places of spiritual importance both in the lava beds and the highlands were visited by both spiritual leaders and young tribal members coming of age.

Using Plants and Animals
The Modoc used many plants in this area for food, medicine, tools, or a combination of all three. The water lily, or "wocas," provided a staple food when its seeds were ground into meal or flour in rock mortars. Tule reeds found along shorelines provided material for baskets, sleeping mats, and sandals, among many other uses. The Modoc also used sagebrush bark to make baskets, clothing and footwear. Women were responsible for much of the plant gathering and food preparation.

The Modoc developed intricate hunting and fishing implements from local materials. They fashioned boats and rafts for transportation and fishing from tule reeds, and hollowed out sturdier dugout canoes with fire and scraping. Nets of woven tule fibers weighted with lava rocks were used to catch seasonal runs of fish. Waterfowl were also caught in nets as they flew low over ridgelines.

Bows were constructed from juniper limbs with deer sinew bowstrings. Arrow shafts were constructed from tule reeds, while the arrowheads were razor-sharp pieces of obsidian gathered from the highlands and worked with deer antler tools. Birds, fish, and game were all hunted with obsidian-tipped arrows or spears. Modoc men hunted mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and many types of waterfowl. The hunt was an important part of a Modoc man's life, and preparation for the hunt usually involved time in a sweat lodge.

Modern Modoc Peoples
The Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma
The Modoc War of 1872-73 had a devastating impact on the Modoc people. After the war ended, 155 Modoc who had fought alongside Captain Jack in the lava beds were transported as prisoners over 2000 miles by rail to the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma. For these Modoc, this marked the beginning of a desperate struggle for survival in the history of their people. Where were the grasses and reeds they needed to make their fine baskets? Where were the lakes, teeming with millions of waterfowl, and the winter herds? What of the spirits of their ancestors left behind?

Disease soon spread through the tribe in Oklahoma, as they lacked resistance to new illnesses. As the Modoc tried to adapt to planting strange crops, they were weakened by malaria. Thirty-three died in a single year. By the turn of the century twenty-seven years later, there were fewer than 50 Modoc on the rolls of the Quapaw Agency. Even so, the Modoc demonstrated their historic tenacity by working hard to make their land productive and to increase their herds of livestock. The Modoc further supplemented their meager government rations by working for whites in the border settlements, and by making and selling the popular arts and crafts of other tribes.

The Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma today is composed of descendants of only seven of the original 155 prisoners of war. The Modoc are now part of an eight-tribe council made up of native peoples from all parts of the country. More than a century after their exile, the Modoc of Oklahoma have continued to adapt to life in a new land, raising cattle and establishing businesses with their neighbors. Their history is one of adaptation and persistence—both an end and a beginning for a people and a way of life.

The Klamath Tribes
During the Modoc War, many Modoc never became involved in the conflict.They were never exiled to Oklahoma like the followers of Captain Jack. They were, however, forced to remain on the Klamath Reservation, on the homeland of their Klamath neighbors instead of their own land. Though the climate and resources were similar to those to which they were accustomed, there were daily reminders that they were not home. They dealt in close quarters with Indian Agents as well as Klamath and Yahooskin tribal members. Like all Native Americans in the nineteenth century, they were also forbidden to practice their traditional religion or speak their native language.

All three tribes came to be recognized by the federal government as the Klamath Tribes, and engaged in many profitable ventures in the twentieth century in ranching, freighting, and the timber industry. In 1954, however, the Klamath Tribes were terminated from federal recognition. After a legal struggle spanning decades, they were finally successful in regaining status as a federally-recognized tribe in 1986. A Restoration Celebration is held every August in Chiloquin, Oregon to mark the event.

Lava Beds Homeland
Lava Beds National Monument is one of few remaining places in the traditional homeland of Captain Jack's southern Modoc band that has changed little since its occupation by native peoples. Places where the ancestors of modern Modoc people lived, gathered plants, conducted spiritual activities, and made their stand during the Modoc War remain, and are protected by the National Park Service. Today tribal members participate in both private activities and public education efforts at Lava Beds to ensure these connections to the landscape endure.

Rock Art at Lava Beds

Petroglyphs and Pictographs
One reason Lava Beds is such a special place to contemplate cultural history is that it contains two types of rock art, or rock imagery— carved petroglyphs and painted pictographs. All of the monument's rock imagery is located in the traditional territory of the Modoc people and their ancestors or predecessors.

It is hard to determine the age of rock art. This is especially true of petroglyphs, since material was removed in their creation, not added. It is possible that some of these images at Lava Beds were made more that 6,000 years ago. Estimating the age of an individual petroglyph based on weathering is complicated by the number of times it may have been inundated in water as Tule Lake rose and fell around the island that later became known as Petroglyph Point. Interestingly, some of the geometric patterns found in the rock imagery here appear on household items up to 5,000 years old from nearby Nightfire Island. Could some of the same people have carved those same patterns into the rocks at Petroglyph Point? With over 5,000 individual carvings, this site is one of the most extensive representations of American Indian rock art in California—it is possible that dozens or even hundreds of generations of artists paddled out in canoes, sharp sticks or stones in hand, to leave their mark here in the soft volcanic tuff.

Most of the pictographs at Lava Beds are found around cave entrances. They are painted in black, produced from a charcoal base mixed with animal fat, and white, made with a clay base. Occasionally red was used, likely made from substances obtained through trade with Paiute Indians to the east. Since scientific dating techniques are possible with the carbon-based materials in some pigments, some pictographs at Lava Beds have been dated to as many as to 1,500 years ago. However, since Lava Beds remains a sacred landscape for people of Modoc-Klamath descent, it is possible that other images are relatively recent. As with petroglyphs, guessing the age of an individual image by its condition can be deceiving. Images exposed to direct sun, wind, and rain fade much faster than those in more sheltered areas. Excellent examples of pictographs can be seen at Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave on boulders along the trail and walls around the entrances. Perhaps you can imagine generations of artists making their way out to caves such as these with paint supplies and an idea in mind. If you look closely, most lines on such pictographs seem to be about the width of a human finger—literally applied by hand.

What Do They Mean?
Unlike rock art in other areas of the West, images here seem to be dominated by geometric patterns instead of depictions of people and animals. Looking at the images at Lava Beds, most visitors can't help but imagine what such patterns might mean. Unfortunately, historic events in this area have made gathering information difficult. Before the Modoc War caused tribal fracturing and the removal of the Lava Beds' band of Modocs to Oklahoma, no ethnographic study was ever done with Modoc peoples to record their stories about images they may have been familiar with or their beliefs about images left behind by even earlier peoples. Today, it is probable that some knowledge surrounding the rock imagery of the lava beds is not shared with those on the outside.

Still, many visitors to rock art sites come away feeling they are very special places, places that perhaps even reach across time and culture to speak to universal human experiences. Petroglyph Point is the center of a Modoc creation story, while other sites with pictographs hold traditional significance for some modern Modoc and Klamath people. Were only individuals holding important positions in the tribe permitted to create rock art at some places on certain occasions? Were other images created in association with special activities to mark important points in a a person's life? Though each observer can imagine in his or her own mind what circumstances and meaning might have led to the creation of each image, only each original artist, long gone, knows for sure.

Help Protect Rock Art!
Visitors to the rock art sites of Lava Beds may notice that these places have not always been respected in modern times. Vandalism significantly mars some sites, especially Petroglyph Point. This type of activity unfortunately reflects the disrespect of a few for a cultural history that belongs to us all— a history that the National Park Service is mandated to protect.

Though a chain-link fence was installed in the 1930s at Petroglyph Point to provide some protection to the images, pictographs at other sites depend upon the personal responsibility of each visitor to look but not touch. The oil on our hands can cause damage to the delicate images. You can help protect these treasures by reporting any inappropriate activity you see at rock art sites to a ranger or other law enforcement officer as soon as possible.

You may also notice painted markings left in lava tube caves by early explorers and even a few Japanese characters carved into the boulders at Petroglyph Point by interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. Though visitors may wonder why some markings are protected and others are considered graffiti, consider that hundreds of thousands of people now visit here annually! What would Lava Beds look like if each person left their mark— and what would remain of ancient rock art? Though someday nature will reclaim each image left behind by the Modoc and earlier peoples, each of us has the opportunity not only to open our minds to their wonder and mystery, but also to do our part to protect this heritage for future generations. We thank you for appreciating and respecting these very special places and for helping others do the same.