Modoc County History

MODOC COUNTY, California was created in February 17, 1874, from the eastern section of Siskiyou County. It was first purposed to name the new county "Canby" for General who lost his life in the Modoc Indian War. Later name "Summit" was suggested but there were many objections and it was finally named Modoc.

Modoc County is a land which the Indians called "The Smiles of God" and so intense was their love for this land of ragged lava plateaus, fertile valleys and towering mountains that many hundreds of these aboriginal inhabitants defended it to their death against the invasion of the white man. Because of those fierce Indian wars between 1848 and 1911, this area was once referred to as the Bloody Ground of the Pacific.

It was felt that the land which is now known as Modoc County, underwent more government changes in its time than any other county in the state.

In the beginning, Modoc was a part of the Utah Territory, and then transferred into the Nevada Territory when it was created. When Nevada became a state, Modoc County was placed within the boundaries of California, becoming a part of Shasta County.

Shasta County contained what is now Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama, Lassen and Modoc counties. Shasta County was divided into two counties in 1852, Shasta and Siskiyou, with Modoc being placed in Siskiyou County.

In 1872, an effort was made by the residents of Surprise Valley, along with others who had settled in this area, to form a new county. On February 17, 1874, a bill was passed and signed by then Governor Newton Booth authorizing the formation of a new county -- Modoc.

An election was held on May 5, 1874, to elect county officials and to select a county seat. Lake City received the highest votes as to being the county seat; however, the county fathers decided to Make Dorris Bridge (now Alturas) the county seat, as it contained the majority of people. It was also felt that Dorris Bridge would serve the interests of the new county to better advantage than Lake City, as it was located at the crossroads of the main north-south and east-west routes.


The History of Alturas

As the seat of Modoc County, Alturas (Spanish for "Valley on Top of a Mountain") lies in the broad valley of the Pit River, near the center of the county. Alturas was originally occupied by a branch of the Pit River or Achomawe Tribe of Native Americans before white men arrived. The village was knows as Kosealekte. The valley is a prehistoric lake bed which formed from alternating erosion and rebuilding of the volcamic flows of the Modoc Plateau which surrounds all but the northeast side of it. The northeast edge of the valley is at the foot of the Warner Mountains;, which is the most western range of the Nevada Basin, about ten miles east of town.

The city's limit is bordered on the south by the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, where natural wetlands have been preserved. A new vista point has been built along the highway a quarter mile from town to allow viewing deer, antelope, Sandhill Cranes, Canada Geese, and other inhabitants. Animals don't understand much about man's arbitrary boundaries and occasionally wander up Main Street. Until 1874, Alturas was knows as Dorris Bridge (named for James Dorris, the town's first white settler). He built a simple wooden bridge across the creek at the east end of town. He later erected a house that became a stopover for travelers and the beginning of Modoc County. The city is a marketing center for local ranchers who raise livestock, potatoes and alfalfa.

The Applegate Trail

1996 marks the 150th anniversary of the Applegate Trail, the southern route of the Oregon Trail. It was blazed in 1846 as an alternate, and hopefully safer route to Oregon. Three brothers, Lindsay, Jesse, and Charles Applegate and their extended families came to Oregon on the original Oregon Trail during the first major migration in 1843. As the party was rafting through the rapids on the Columbia River just outside The Dalles one of their rafts capsized in the current and Lindsay's son Warren, age 9, Jesse's son Edward, also age 9, along with Alexander Mac (Uncle Mac, age 70) drowned. This tragedy made the brothers determined to save others similar grief and find a safer route to the Oregon Territory.

By the Spring of 1846, the brothers had settled in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, planted crops and built cabins, but they were determined to find a safer, more secure route for emigration. Charles stayed home to care for the family and land. Lindsay and Jesse, along with Levi Scott and ten others formed a scouting party to be known as the the South Road Expedition. On June 20, 1846, they left La Creole Creek (now Rickreall) near Dallas, Oregon on their journey south. They traveled down the Willamette Valley through what is now Corvallis and Eugene. They continued on to just south of Ashland, then turned east, reaching Greensprings Mountain about where Highway 66 crosses today. On they traveled across Oregon and Nevada until they reached the Humboldt River, then they turned north along the river for 200 miles.

Being short on supplies, Jesse Applegate was chosen to lead the party continuing onto Fort Hall, Idaho to get supplies and inform emigrants about the new trail. The others proceeded up the Humboldt to where Winnemucca is now and set up a rendezvous and rested the stock. (The Applegate Trail runs from Humboldt, Nevada to Dallas, Oregon. Near Humboldt it joins the California Trail, running from near Fort Hall, Idaho to the gold country of California., see map (65K))

On August 9, 1846 a group of as many as 100 wagons set out from Fort Hall to cross the new Applegate Trail. In September, the first of the wagons left the Humboldt River and headed across the Black Rock Desert, a treacherous section of the trail filled with Indian attacks, overpowering heat, and very little forage for the animals. Next the wagons rolled into Surprise Valley, then onto Goose Lake and Tule Lake. The party crossed the Lost River on a natural stone bridge, the bridge and a marker to record the expedition are near Merrill, Oregon. The wagons then swung southwest around lower Klamath Lake and on towards Greensprings (in the southeast corner of what is now Jackson County).

Levi Scott led the wagon train on from present day Ashland towards the Willamette Valley. The rains had started by the time the wagons reached the Rogue Valley and from here on it would be either rain or snow for weather conditions. Brush and trees made the the trail hard to clear, but the men who joined the Applegate Train had to guarantee to do the road building and clearing needed to be done before more travelers could use the trail. The train lost Meadow's Vanderpool's flock of sheep at Rock Point to the Indians, and Martha Leland Crowley, a young girl, died October 18, 1846, while the train was moving across present day Sunny Valley, Oregon. The creek where Martha Crowley died was aptly named Grave Creek. A covered bridge (built in 1920) still spans the creek. The wagon train continued through the southwestern valleys of Oregon until they reached their final destination in the Willamette Valley. The group had survived much hardship and trouble, but they created a new passage to the Oregon Territory that would be used for many years.

In 1853 alone over 3500 men, women, and children took this route. Today, Interstate 5 and Highway 66 travel the same route. The Applegate was designated a National Historic Trail by the US Congress on August 3, 1992. Known as the southern route of the Oregon Trail, the Applegate Trail provided an alternative for settlers who wanted to avoid the perils of the Columbia River. Not all settlers appreciated the trail some even felt the Applegates had hindered rather than helped them on their way. Time proved the real test, however. After nearly 150 years the Applegate Trail endures as the basis for the state's major transportation routes, allowing today's traveler the opportunity to retrace the steps of Oregon's early trailblazers.

This article was created based on materials provided by the Southern Oregon Historical Society
and the Josephine County Historical Society.

The Modoc County Historical Society

The Modoc County Historical Society was established in 1978 to help preserve and promote interest in the history of the far northeastern corner of California. The Journal of the Modoc County Historical Society, an annual publication since 1979, chronicles a great variety of Modoc County history and features many original source documents unpublished anywhere else. In 1994 the Modoc County Historical Society was winner of the California Historical Society's Award of Merit in Local History for the quality of its Journal over the years.

For membership information or to purchase particular issues of the Journal of the Modoc County Historical Society please write to the following address: Modoc County Historical Society, P.O. Box 1689 Alturas, CA 96101