Return to Joaquin Miller page

Literature of Mount Shasta

Shadows of Shasta

Life Amongst the Modocs: Unwritten History
Chapter I

By Joaquin Miller

Return to Mount Shasta home page

Lonely as God, and white as a winter moon, Mount Shasta starts up sudden and solitary from the heart of the great black forests of Northern California.

You would hardly call Mount Shasta a part of the Sierras; you would say rather that it is the great white tower of some ancient and eternal wall, with here and there the white walls overthrown.

It has no rival! There is not even a snow-crowned subject in sight of its dominion. A shining pyramid in mail of everlasting frosts and ice, the sailor sometimes, in a day of singular clearness, catches glimpses of it from the sea a hundred miles away to the west; and it may be seen from the dome of the capital 300 miles distant. The immigrant coming from the east beholds the snowy, solitary pillar from afar out on the arid sagebrush plains, and lifts his hands in silence as in answer to a sign.

Column upon column of storm-strained tamarack, strong-tossing pines, and warlike-looking firs have rallied here. They stand with their backs against this mountain, frowning down dark-browed, and confronting the face of the Saxon. They defy the advance of civilization into their ranks. What if these dark and splendid columns, a hundred miles in depth, should be the last to go down in America! What if this should be the old guard gathered here, marshalled around their emperor in plumes and armour, that may die but not surrender!

Ascend this mountain, stand against the snow above the upper belt of pines, and take a glance below. Toward the sea nothing but the black and unbroken forest. Mountains, it is true, dip and divide and break the monotony as the waves break up the sea; yet it is still the sea, still the unbroken forest, black and magnificent. To the south the landscape sinks and declines gradually, but still maintains its column of dark-plumed grenadiers, till the Sacramento Valley is reached, nearly a hundred miles away. Silver rivers run here, the sweetest in the world. They wind and wind among the rocks and mossy roots, with California lilies, and the yew with scarlet berries dipping in the water, and trout idling in the eddies and cool places by the basketful. On the east, the forest still keeps up unbroken rank till the Pit River valley is reached; and even there it surrounds the valley, and locks it up tight in its black embrace. To the north, it is true, Shasta valley makes quite a dimple in the sable sea, and men plough there, and Mexicans drive mules or herd their mustang ponies on the open plain. But the valley is limited, surrounded by the forest, confined and imprisoned.

Look intently down among the black and rolling hills, forty miles away to the west, and here and there you will see a haze of cloud or smoke hung up above the trees; or, driven by the wind that is coming from the sea, it may drag and creep along as if tangled in the tops.

These are mining camps. Men are there, down in these dreadful canyons, out of sight of the sun, swallowed up, buried in the impenetrable gloom of the forest, toiling for gold. Each one of these camps is a world in itself. History, romance, tragedy, poetry in every one of them. They are connected together, and reach the outer world only by a narrow little pack trail, stretching through the timber, stringing round the mountains, barely wide enough to admit of footmen and little Mexican mules with their apparajos, to pass in single file. We will descend into one of these camps by-and-by. I dwelt there a year, many and many a year ago. I shall picture that camp as it was, and describe events as they happened. Giants were there, great men were there.

They were very strong, energetic and resolute, and hence were neither gentle or sympathetic. They were honourable, noble, brave and generous, and yet they would have dragged a Trojan around the wall by the heels and thought nothing of it. Coming suddenly into the country with prejudices against and apprehensions of the Indians, of whom they knew nothing save through novels, they of course were in no mood to study their nature. Besides, they knew that they were in a way, trespassers if not invaders, that the Government had never treated for the land or offered any terms whatever to the Indians, and like most men who feel that they are somehow in the wrong, did not care to get on terms with their antagonists. They would have named the Indian a Trojan, and dragged him around, not only by the heels but by the scalp, rather than have taken time or trouble, as a rule, to get in the right of the matter.

I say that the greatest, the grandest body of men that have ever been gathered together since the siege of Troy, was once here on the Pacific. I grant that they were rough enough sometimes. I admit that they took a peculiar delight in periodical six-shooter war dances, these wild-bearded, hairy-breasted men, and that they did a great deal of promiscuous killing among each other, but then they did it in such a manly sort of way!

There is another race in these forests. I lived with them nearly five years. A great sin it was thought then, indeed. You do not see the smoke of their wigwams through the trees. They do not smite the mountain rocks for gold, nor fell the pines, nor roil up the waters and ruin them for the fishermen. All this magnificent forest is their estate. The Great Spirit made this mountain first of all, and gave it to them, they say, and they have possessed it ever since. They preserve the forest, keep out the fires, for it is the park for their deer.

I shall endeavour to make this sketch of my life with the Indians--a subject about which so much has been written and so little is known--true in every particular. In so far as I succeed in doing that I think the work will be novel and original. No man with a strict regard for truth should attempt to write his autobiography with a view to publication during his life; the temptations are too great.

A man standing on the gallows, without hope of descending and mixing again with his fellow men, might trust himself to utter "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," as the law hath it; and a Crusoe on his island, without sail in sight or hope of sail, might be equally sincere, but I know of few other conditions in which I could follow a man through his account of himself with perfect confidence.

This narrative, however, while the thread of it is necessarily spun around a few years of my early life, is not particularly of myself, but of a race of people that has lived centuries of history and never yet had a historian; that has suffered nearly four hundred years of wrong, and never yet had an advocate.
I must write of myself, because I was among these people of whom I write, though often in the background, giving place to the inner and actual lives of a silent and mysterious people, a race of prophets; poets without the gift of expression--a race that has been often, almost always, mistreated, and never understood--a race that is moving noiselessly from the face of the earth; dreamers that sometimes waken from their mysteriousness and simplicity, and then, blood, brutality, and all the ferocity that marks a man of maddened passions, women without mercy and without reason, brand them with the appropriate name of savages.

But beyond this, I have a word to say for the Indian. I saw him as he was, not as he is. In one little spot of our land, I saw him as he was centuries ago in every part of it perhaps, a Druid and a dreamer--the mildest and the tamest of beings. I saw him as no man can see him now. I saw him as no man ever saw him who had not the desire and patience to observe, the sympathy to understand, and the intelligence to communicate his observations to those who would really like to understand him. He is truly "the gentle savage;" the worst and the best of men, the tamest and the fiercest of beings. The world cannot understand the combination of these two qualities. For want of a truer comparison let us liken him to a jealous woman--a whole-souled uncultured woman, strong in her passions and her love. A sort of Parisian woman, now made desperate by a long siege and an endless war.

A singular combination of circumstances laid his life bare to me. I was a child and he was a child. He permitted me to enter his heart.

As I write these opening lines here to-day in the Old World, a war of extermination is declared against the Modoc Indians in the New. I know these people. I know every foot of their once vast possessions, stretching away to the north and east of Mount Shasta. I know their rights and their wrongs. I have known them for nearly twenty years.

Peace commissioners have been killed by the Modocs, and the civilized world condemns them. I am not prepared to defend their conduct. This narrative is not for their defence, or for the defence of the Indian, or any one; but I could, by a ten-line paragraph, throw a bombshell into the camp of the civilized world at this moment, and change the whole drift of public opinion. But it would be too late to be of any particular use to this one doomed tribe.

Years and years ago, when Captain Jack was but a boy, the Modocs were at war with the whites, who were then scouring the country in search of gold. A company took the field under the command of a brave and reckless ruffian named Ben Wright.

The Indians were not so well armed and equipped as their enemies. The necessities of the case, to say nothing of their nature, compelled them to fight from behind the cover of the rocks and trees. They were hard to reach, and generally came out best in the few little battles that were fought.

In this emergency Captain Wright proposed to meet the chiefs in council, for the purpose of making a lasting and permanent treaty. The Indians consented, and the leaders came in. "Go back,"; said Wright, "and bring in all your people; we will have council, and celebrate our peace with a feast."
The Indians came in in great numbers, laid down their arms, and then at a sign Wright and his men fell upon them, and murdered them without mercy. Captain Wright boasted on his return that he had made a permanent treaty with at least a thousand Indians.

Captain Jack was but a boy then, but he was a true Indian. He was not a chief then. I believe he was not even of the blood which entitles him to that place by inheritance, but he was a bold, shrewd Indian, and won the confidence of the tribe. He united himself to a band of the Modocs, worked his way to their head, and bided his time for revenge. For nearly half a lifetime he and his warriors waited their chance, and when it came they were not unequal to the occasion.

They have murdered, perhaps, one white man to one hundred Indians that were butchered in the same way, and not so very far from the same spot. I deplore the conduct of the Modocs. It will contribute to the misfortune of nearly every Indian in America, however well some of the rulers of the land may feel towards the race.

With these facts before you, considering our superiority in understanding right and wrong, and all that, you may not be so much surprised at the faithful following in this case of the example we set the Modoc Indians, which resulted in the massacre, and the universal condemnation of Captain Jack and his clan.

To return to my reason for publishing this sketch at this time. You will see that treating chiefly of the Indians, as it does, it may render them a service, that by-and-by would be of but little use, by instructing good men who have to deal with this peculiar people.

I know full well how many men there are on the border who are ready to rise up and contradict everything that looks like clemency or an apology for the Indian, and have therefore given only a brief account of the Ben Wright treachery and tragedy, and only such an account as I believe the fiercest enemy of the Indians living in that region admits to be true, or, at least, such an account as Ben Wright gave and was accustomed to boast of.

The Indian account of the affair, however, which I have heard a hundred times around their camp fires, and over which they seemed to never tire of brooding and mourning, is quite another story. It is dark and dreadful. The day is even yet with them, a sort of St. Bartholomew's Eve, and their mournful narration of all the bloody and brutal events would fill a volume.

They waited for revenge, a very bad thing for Indians to do, I find; though a Christian king can wait a lifetime, and a Christian nation wait a century. They saw their tribe wasting away every year; every year the hordes of white settlers were eating into the heart of their hunting grounds, still they lay in their lava beds or moved like shadows through the stormy forests and silently waited, and then when the whites came into their camp to talk for peace, as they had gone into the camp of the whites, they showed themselves but too apt scholars in the bloody lesson of long ago.

The scene of this narrative lies immediately about the base of Mount Shasta. The Klamat river with its tributaries flows from its snows on the north, and the quiet Sacramento from the south. The Shasta Indians, now but the remnant of a tribe at one time the most powerful on the Pacific, live at the south base of the mountain, while the Modocs and Pit River Indians live at the east and north-east, with the Klamats still to the north. The other sides and base of the mountain is disputed territory, since the driving out of its original owners, between settlers and hunters, and the roving bands of Indians.

It was late in the fall. I do not know the day or even remember the month; but I do know that I was alone, a frail, sensitive, girl-looking boy, almost destitute, trying to make my way to the mines of California, and that before I had ridden my little spotted Cayuse pony half way up the ten-mile trail that then crossed the Siskiyou mountains, I met little patches of snow; and that a keen, cold wind came pitching down between the trees into my face from the Californian side of the summit.

At one place I saw where a moccasin track was in the snow, and leading across the trail; a very large track I thought it was then, but now I know that it was made by many feet stepping in the same impression.

My dress was scant enough for winter, and it was chill and dismal. A fantastic dress, too, for one looking to the rugged life of the miner; a sort of cross between an Indian chief and a Mexican vaquero, with a preference for colour carried to extremes.

As I approached the summit the snow grew deeper, and the dark firs, weighted with snow, reached their sable and supple limbs across my path as if to catch me by the yellow hair, that fell, like a school-girl's, on my shoulders. Some of the little firs were covered with snow, and were converted into pyramids and snowy pillars.

I crossed the summit in safety, with a dreamy sort of delight, a half-articulated "Thank God!" and began to descend. Here the snow disappeared on the south side of the mountain, and a generous flood of sunshine took its place.

After a while I turned a sharp-cut point in the trail, with dense woods hanging on either shoulder, and an open world before me. I lifted my eyes and looked away to the south.

Mount Shasta was before me. For the first time I now looked upon the mountain in whose shadows so many tragedies were to be enacted; the most comely and perfect snow peak in America. Nearly a hundred miles away, it seemed in the pure, clear atmosphere of the mountains to be almost at hand. Above the woods, above the clouds, almost above the snow, it looked like the first approach of land to another world. Away across a grey sea of clouds that arose from the Klamat and Shasta rivers, the mountain stood, a solitary island; white and flashing like a pyramid of silver! solemn, majestic and sublime! Lonely and cold and white. A cloud or two about his brow, sometimes resting there, then wreathed and coiled about, then blown like banners streaming in the wind.

I had lifted my hands to Mount Hood, uncovered my head, bowed down and felt unutterable things, loved, admired, adored, with all the strength of an impulsive and passionate young heart. But he who loves and worships naturally and freely, as all strong, true souls must and will do, loves that which is most magnificent and most lovable in his scope of vision. Hood is a magnificent idol; is sufficient, if you do not see Shasta.

A grander or a lovelier object makes shipwreck of a former love. This is sadly so.

Jealousy is born of an instinctive knowledge of this truth. . . .

Hood is rugged, kingly, majestic, immortal! But he is only the head and front of a well-raised family. He is not alone in his splendour. Your admiration is divided and weakened. Beyond the Columbia St. Helen's flashes in the sun in summer or is folded in clouds from the sea in winter. On either hand Jefferson and Washington divide the attention; then farther away, fair as a stud of fallen stars, the white Three Sisters are grouped together about the fountain springs of the Willamette river;--all in a line--all in one range of mountains; as it were, mighty milestones along the way of clouds!--marble pillars pointing the road to God!

Mount Shasta has all the sublimity, all the strength, majesty, and magnificence of Hood; yet is so alone, unsupported, and solitary, that you go down before him utterly, with a undivided adoration--a sympathy for his loneliness and a devotion for his valour--an admiration that shall pass unchallenged.
I dismounted and stood in the declining sun, hat in hand, and looked long and earnestly across the sea of clouds. Now and then long strings of swans went by to Klamat lakes. I could hear them calling to each other. Far and faint and unearthly their echoes seemed, and were as sounds that had lost their way, and come to me for protection.

I looked and listened long but uttered not a sound; strangely mute for a boy; besides, exclamation at such a time is a sacrilege.

At last I threw a kiss across the sea of clouds, as the red banners and belts of gold streamed from the summit in the setting-sun, and turned, took up my lariat, mounted, and proceeded down the mountain.

Should ever your fortune lead you to cross the Chinese wall that divides the people of Oregon from the people of California, stop at the Mountain House and ask for the old mountain trail. Take the direction and stop at the top of what is called the first summit of the Siskiyou mountains, for there you will see to the left hand by the trail a pile of rocks high as your head, put there to mark where a party fell a few days after.

Dismount and contribute a stone to the monument from the loose rocks that lie up and down the trail. It is a pretty Indian custom that the whites sometimes adopt and cherish. I never fail to observe it here, for this spot means a great deal to me.

I uncover my head, take up a stone and lay it on the pile, then turn my face to Mount Shasta and kiss my hand, for the want of some better expression.

 

Geology ~ Environment ~ Native Americans ~ Folklore ~ History ~ Art ~ Literature
Recreation ~ Maps ~ Mount Shasta Collection ~ Bibliography ~ Lesson Plans ~ About Project