The Fort Klamath Museum: A Profile on a Civil War-era Outpost

Set along the Wood River some 35 miles north of Klamath Falls, Fort Klamath ranks among the most fascinating historical sites in Oregon. The first major permanent white settlement in the Upper Klamath Basin, this bygone military outpost is most illuminating as a site to ponder the complicated relationship between the region’s Euro-American settlement and its original, indigenous inhabitants. One of the most significant of America’s Indian Wars is closely tied to this patch of ground, which you can visit on a time-traveling tour at the 8-acre Fort Klamath Museum & Park.

Introducing Fort Klamath

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Established in the thick of the Civil War, Fort Klamath was established, in part, to protect white emigrants settling in the area. Discover Klamath

Fort Klamath was established in September 1863—the thick of the Civil War—in part to protect white emigrants settling in Southern Oregon and Northern California along the Applegate Trail, a southwesterly spur off the Oregon Trail. The fort itself initially occupied a thousand acres; better than 3,000 additional acres served to grow hay for its military horses. The first soldiers to occupy Fort Klamath were infantry and cavalry volunteers, who were replaced in 1867 by Army regulars.

Negotiations with the native Klamath, Yahooskin, and Modoc peoples in the vicinity of Fort Klamath led to the establishment of the Klamath Reservation south of the fort in 1864. The fort was also an important hub during its first decade in the drawn-out battles the U.S. government waged during the so-called “Snake War” against the Northern Paiute, Bannock, and Western Shoshone tribes.

Initially supplied by pack trains out of Jacksonville, Oregon, and later by barges over Upper Klamath Lake, Fort Klamath used a pony express for dispatches before it was eventually connected to Fort Bidwell (in northeastern California’s Surprise Valley) and Ashland by telegraph. (Learn some other fascinating Fort Klamath history nuggets in this Klamath Herald & News profile!)

The Modoc War

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Fort Klamath is best known for its involvement in the Modoc War, a six-month battle between the federal government and the Modoc people. Discover Klamath

Fort Klamath is most associated with the roughly six-month fight between the federal government and the Modoc people known as the Modoc War. While a fairly short campaign, it stemmed from long-simmering tensions and garnered national attention ahead of such later, high-profile conflicts between the U.S. and American Indians as the Great Sioux War and the Nez Perce War.

Many Modocs balked at being relocated to the Klamath Reservation, preferring their traditional homeland along the Lost River. Efforts by the federal government to force them onto the reservation led to the first battle of the Modoc War in November 1872. The resistant Modocs were led by a man U.S. forces called “Captain Jack,” but who was known among his people as Kintpuash (or Kientpoos).

Kintpuash’s Modoc band holed up in the redoubt of the volcanic rocklands south of Tule Lake: the rugged country now protected in Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California, just a stone’s throw south of the Oregon state line and Klamath County. Here the outnumbered American Indians were able to resist the Army’s attempts to subdue them, including in a dramatic underdog confrontation at “Captain Jack’s Stronghold” which saw a mere 50-odd Modoc warriors triumph over several hundred soldiers.

A U.S. peace commission that followed ended in violence as the Modocs killed General E.R.S. Canby and Reverend Eleaser Thomas in April 1873. The following month, the Battle of Sand Butte ended up a decisive Army victory over Kintpuash’s warriors. Kintpuash and three other captured Modoc leaders—Boston Charley, Schonchin John, and Black Jim—were executed under President Ulysses S. Grant’s orders on October 3rd, 1873; two other Modocs tried at the fort, Brancho and Slolux, were put in prison on Alcatraz Island, while the rest of the Modoc captives were sent to Oklahoma.

Fort Klamath didn’t last much longer after the close of the Modoc War: It was closed under congressional order in 1889. A small portion of its original acreage—primarily Fort Klamath’s parade grounds—was dedicated as a museum in 1973.

The Fort Klamath Museum

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You can see the graves of Kintpuash and other Modoc warriors at the museum today. Discover Klamath

The grave markers of Kintpuash, Boston Charley, Sconchin John, and Black Jim remain at Fort Klamath—a testament to the short but momentous struggle of the Modoc War. There are no original structures on the grounds, but several of the fort’s buildings have been recreated, including the post office and the guardhouse, which houses the Fort Klamath Museum. The engrossing exhibits explore the story of the Modoc War as well as other aspects of the fort’s history. You’ll be able to see vintage military uniforms, weapons, cavalry tack, and other artifacts up close, plus a diorama depicting the layout of the fort in its heyday.

Open 10 am to 6 pm Thursdays through Mondays from Memorial Day to September, the Fort Klamath Museum & Park is free to explore, although donations are accepted and much appreciated.

The Modoc War Audio Tour

If a visit to Fort Klamath fires a deeper curiosity about the Modoc War, be sure to check out the free audio tour The Modoc War: A Homeland Lost, produced by the Klamath Basin Rural Tourism Studio alongside Discover Klamath, Discover Siskiyou, Travel Oregon, and Rural Klamath Connects. The narrator for this illuminating, 60-mile narrated drive between the Klamath County Museum in Klamath Falls and Lava Beds National Monument is Cheewa James, author of MODOC: The Tribe That Wouldn’t Die and a direct descendant of one of the pivotal figures of the War: the Modoc warrior Shkeitko, aka “Shacknasty Jim.”

Stops along the way include the Klamath County town of Merrill, located within the Modocs’ traditional Lost River territory, and such Lava Beds landmarks as Captain Jack’s Stronghold and Petroglyph Point.

Events in Klamath County have, at times, echoed far outside the region. The Fort Klamath Museum—and the Modoc War audio tour—underscore that fact, and provide plenty to ponder while visiting this beautiful, story-filled place!

Written by Ethan Shaw for Matcha in partnership with Discover Klamath Visitor and Convention Bureau.