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Hiking Hardin Butte – with a side trip to Black Crater

Photo by Lee Juillerat The trail to the battlefield overlook is easy to follow.
Photo by Lee Juillerat A hiker nears the summit of Hardin Butte.

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — Sometimes a familiar hike can be made refreshingly new.

A recent hike to Hardin Butte, a somewhat nondescript cinder cone in Lava Beds National Monument, was spiced up by adding a short cross-county detour that led to the Thomas-Wright Battlefield overlook with a view of the place where Army troops were attacked and many killed during the nearly 100-years-ago Modoc War.

And, to add some extra allure, while following the trail back to where the hike began, I took another detour to the Black Crater, a spatter cone consisting of black lava splattered in a beautiful confusion of wonderfully ragged, rough and erratically shaped formations.

The hike to Hardin Butte began from the battlefield parking lot. It’s about a quarter-mile south along the main park road to an old, unsigned road that’s not shown on park maps. From there it’s about two gentle miles east to the base of Hardin Butte. And from there it’s a make-your-own climb to the cinder cone’s 4,469-foot summit. From the summit ridge the views include the seemingly frozen lava fields of the Schonchin Lava Flow, Schonchin Butte to the south and, on sunny days, snow-capped Mount Shasta.

The cinder cone is named for Charles Hardin, who was an Army private and later a corporal during the Modoc War. At that time it was known as Sand Butte. Warm Springs Indian scouts, who worked with the Army, reported that Modoc Indians who had left Captain Jack’s Srtronghold were gathered near the cinder cone.

On April 26, 1893, a reconnaissance patrol led by Cpt. Evan Thomas and First Lt. Thomas Wright left Army headquarters at Gillems Camp and headed to Sand Butte to determine the feasibility of moving artillery into the area. The patrol included five officers, an assistant surgeon, 59 enlisted soldiers, a civilian guide and a civilian packer. According to historical accounts, instead of keeping their distance from each other, Company E, 12th infantry marched in a column, making a single mass of troops.

Twenty-four Modocs under the direction of Modoc leader Scarfaced Charley shadowed the patrol. They watched and waited as the troops reached a location surrounded by higher slopes and, because it was noon, halted. Most of the soldiers rested while others were assigned guard duty. There are several versions of what happened, with some reports saying that when the troops stopped, “Some took off their boots to ease their tired feet.” Some stories say that when the fighting began several of the bootless ran barefoot over the lava fields back to Gillems Camp.

The Modocs, hidden in the rocks above the troops, attacked when Thomas began leading some soldiers up one of the buttes. When the Modocs began firing, Thomas led a counter-attack but suffered heavy casualties. Thomas was among those killed.

Wright also died. According to “Modoc War: Its Military History & Topography,” by Erwin N. Thompson, “Wright was severely wounded on the way to the heights (the ridge above where they had rested) and his company, with one or two exceptions, deserted him and fled like a pack of sheep, then the slaughter began.” According to an Army officer who assisted with recovering bodies of the dead and wounded, 20 enlisted men and the packer were killed while 16 other enlisted men were wounded, many severely.

According to “The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age,” by Robert McNally, as Wright lay dying “the young officer buried his watch and said, ‘They shan’t get this,’ then rose up with his revolver blazing. In seconds rifle slugs tore through Wright’s groin, right wrist and chest. He slumped and died.”

(Other Modoc War books include Jim Compton’s “Spirit in the Rock: The Fierce Battle for Modoc Homelands,” Cheewa James’ “Modoc: The Tribe that Wouldn’t Die,” Keith Murray’s “The Modocs and their War,” and Jeff Riddle’s “The Indian History of the Modoc War.”)

One of the battlefield’s interpretive panels tells an oft-disputed story of Scarfaced Charley. As the panel tells, “Scarfaced Charley halted the battle, showing mercy for the few surviving soldiers: ‘All you fellas that ain’t dead had better go home. We don’t want to kill you all in one day.” Several historians, however, doubt those words were spoken, with some speculating an Army survivor told the story to explain why he had deserted.

From the overlook it’s a mile-plus on a good trail back to the parking area. Shortly before the parking lot is a trail to the Black Crater, where a rough, rocky, sometimes hard to follow trail leads into and around the large spatter cone. Geologists say it was created relatively recently, about 3,000 years ago. Be prepared for difficult footing. Along the way to Black Crater is an interpretive sign marking the site of a tree mold, where a living tree was burned away by then-fresh lava leaving an imprint of its bark inside the mold.

When visiting sites like the Thomas-Wright Battlefield, Hardin Butte and Black Crater it’s OK to break the mold and, with caution and common sense, explore. After all, when it comes to hiking to and from Hardin Butte, there are no hard and fast rules.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.