What caused the Modoc War: A book review of Jim Compton’s Spirit in the Rock

By Luke Sprague

November 7, 2017

Jim Compton. Spirit in the Rock: The Fierce Battle for Modoc Homelands. Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 2017. 340 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-87422-350-7.

Jim Compton’s Spirit in the Rock: The Fierce Battle for Modoc Homelands moves the reader deftly through the causes of the Modoc War, onto the lava beds, into Captain Jack’s stronghold, and then standing amongst the witnesses at Captain Jack’s execution.

Compton provides the required Modoc War facts while efficiently moving the reader along the storyline. He doesn’t overburden the reader with historical information and instead strikes the necessary balance between detail and reading flow—likely his background as a Seattle journalist..

In keeping with his succinct style, Compton uses short chapters that supply the reader with nice bite-size chunks as the narrative alternates between the strands of the story. This technique works well for him.

Compton also does not engage in over-editorialization nor hyperbole but instead presents the reader with the already compelling Modoc War facts and context.

In the process of retelling the story, he gives the reader a keen biographical sketch of Kintpuash a.k.a. “Captain Jack,” a key leader in the Modoc War. Compton further rounds out this sketch with a sense of Kintpuash’s family. It is in this straightforward voice that Compton shines.

So, if you are looking for a historical narrative loaded with the salacious or speculative then this book is not for you. His voice remains metered and his treatment of native and white sides balanced. Compton’s effective epilogue brings the reader full circle back to the beginning of the book.

Given Compton’s extensive knowledge about the Modoc War and level of research, this solid narrative should stand at the center of the Modoc War debate for decades.

Applegate Trail cutoff, 500x401

Here is the marker for the Applegate Trail in Nevada. Jim Compton’s book talks about Jesse and Lindsay Applegate, their motivations, and their central role in the Modoc War.

Given Jim Compton’s passing prior to the publication of the book, it is difficult to know to what degree his finished manuscript affected the final elements of the book. His voice was clear throughout the book, therefore his intent certainly influenced the final publication.

With due respect to him and those who completed his work, some elements could have used a little tuning. The photographs add only limited value to the reader and this could be a result of the 6” x 9” format. Also, the maps are almost too simplified and they could contain more detail without confusing the reader. Lastly, the afterword attempts to link Compton’s historical narrative to current political debate, an unnecessary exercise that adds nothing to the book.

Overall, this book scores a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars and should be required reading for those studying what caused the Modoc War, the Modoc War itself, Captain Jack, and to a limited degree Modoc Indian culture.

Luke Sprague in military uniform, small thumbnail

Luke Sprague is an author, veteran, and military historian at HistoryMint. He commanded a detachment of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne). To find out more about services he offers click here.