Fort Bidwell, California – Protecting the Trails

Fort Bidwell, California 1865

Fort Bidwell, California 1865

Located near the north end of Surprise Valley in what is now Modoc County, California, Fort Bidwell was built in 1863. Strategically located in the state’s northwestern corner, its purpose was to protect the travel routes from Oregon and Idaho, including the Applegate and Lassen Trails.

Originally called Camp Bidwell, it was named for Mexican War veteran Major John Bidwell of the California Volunteers. The initial camp was short-lived, abandoned in early 1865, but due to numerous Indian raids; it was quickly reestablished near its original location in July 1865. The new post, built of logs, housed two companies of soldiers.

A few months later, the soldiers joined local citizens to fight Indians in Guano Valley, Nevada. They attacked the Indian camp, killing 81 braves and 15 women and children.

Enlisted Barracks at Fort Bidwell, California about 1890.

Enlisted Barracks at Fort Bidwell, California, about 1890.

In 1870, the fort relocated again, expanding just to the south. The new location included a parade ground and numerous buildings, including an officers’ row, barracks, a school, a theatre, workshops, cavalry stables, a powder magazine, and a hospital. By this time, a small settlement comprised mostly of ranchers and Paiute Indians had also been established.

In 1867, troops from the fort fought in the Battle of Infernal Caverns in 1867 with General George Crook against the Paiute, Pit River, and Modoc Indians.

The presence of more and more white settlers on Modoc Indian lands began to incite several skirmishes with the Modoc Indians. In 1872, the Modoc War erupted when U.S. Army troops, including soldiers from Fort Bidwell, rode to the main Modoc camp to remove its inhabitants forcibly. The soldiers were also involved in the Nez Perce campaign of 1877 and the Bannock campaign the following year.

Surrender of the Modoc Indians, 1873, Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper

Surrender of the Modoc Indians, 1873, Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper

On April 5, 1879, the post’s name was officially changed to Fort Bidwell. For the next several years, the post settled into noncombatant activities. The garrison continued to be occupied with soldiers until October 21, 1893. The military reservation was transferred to the Department of Interior on November 22, 1890, when it became the Fort Bidwell Indian Reservation, which included a government Indian school. When the soldiers were sent to other places in 1893, the former military barracks were utilized as student dormitories for the Indian School.

In 1930, the boarding school was discontinued, and the old military barracks were torn down. However, the officer’s quarters still stand. Nearby is the old post’s cemetery. The fort is located in the town of Fort Bidwell, California.

Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.

Also See:

California Forts & Presidios

Forts & Presidios Photo Gallery

The Modoc – Fighting in the Lava Beds

Modoc War