Each of about twenty-five Modoc villages was led by a civil and a war chief. Civil chiefs were selected on the basis of their wealth as well as their leadership and oratory skills; there were also some hereditary chiefs. An informal community assembly decided most legal matters.
Winter dwellings were permanent, semiexcavated lodges made of willow poles covered with tule mats and earth. Width averaged between twelve and twenty feet. People entered through a smoke hole in the roof. Temporary mat-covered structures were used at seasonal camping sites. Sweat houses were heated with steam; they were a place for cleansing as well as for praying.
Modocs followed the food supply in three seasons. They ate fish, especially salmon, trout, perch, and suckers. Men hunted a variety of large animals as well as rabbits and other small game. Antelope were driven into brush corrals. Fowl were taken with nets and decoys. Women gathered camas and other roots, greens, berries, and fruits. Seeds, especially those of the waterlily (wocus), were also important; they were gathered in the fall and ground into flour.
Fishing equipment included nets, spears, hook and line, and basket traps. Many items were made of tule or bulrushes, such as twined baskets, mats, cradles, rafts, and moccasins. The people used stone mullers and metates for grinding seeds, stone arrow straighteners, and basketry seed beaters. Modoc Indians also were actively involved in the regional trade. They especially obtained horses for slaves and plunder at the Dalles.
Modocs obtained horses early in the nineteenth century, about the time they encountered non-Natives, and by the 1830s they were aggressively raiding their neighbors for horses, slaves, and plunder. Major disease epidemics in 1833 and 1847 reduced their population considerably. Wagon trains began coming through their territory during the late 1840s, scaring the game away and disrupting their natural cycles. Hungry now, as well as anxious and resentful, they began attacking the intruders and neighboring Indians for slaves. When gold was found near their territory in 1851, miners flocked in and simply appropriated Native land, killing Indians as they liked.
The 1860s Ghost Dance brought them little comfort, and they, especially the women, drifted into debauchery during this period. In 1864, the Modocs and Klamaths ceded most of their land and moved to the Klamath Reservation. The Modocs were never comfortable there, however, and matters became worse when a food scarcity exacerbated the level of conflict with the Klamaths. They petitioned several times for their own reservation, but to no avail. In 1870, about 300 Modocs under Kintpuash (Captain Jack) reestablished a village in their former homeland on the Lost River. Increasing conflict with white settlers soon led to a military confrontation, after which the Indians escaped to the nearby lava beds.
Meanwhile, another group of Modocs under Hooker Jim also fled to the lava beds south of Tule Lake after attacking several ranches in revenge for an unprovoked army attack on their women and children. In a confrontation early in 1873, about eighty Indians held off 1,000 U.S. soldiers and irregulars. At a peace parley later that year, the Modocs killed the U.S. general and one of his negotiators. Later, another white attack was repulsed, but the Indians killed some soldiers during the negotiations. However, Modoc unity was failing, and their food was running out. Hooker Jim was captured and betrayed his people, leading troops to the hideout of Kintpuash, who was forced to surrender. At his trial, Hooker Jim provided testimony against Kintpuash and others, resulting in their being hanged. Most surviving Modocs were sent to the Quapaw Reservation in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
The Oklahoma Modocs became farmers and ranchers, and many adopted Christianity. Modoc tribal land ownership in Oklahoma ended in 1890 when their land was allotted to individuals. A group of forty-seven Modocs returned to the Klamath Reservation around 1905, but the reservation was terminated in 1954. Its lands were sold in 1964 and 1971. The Oklahoma Modocs lost their tribal status in 1956 as well, but they were restored in 1978.