HISTORY CORNER: Deadly 1860 in Nevada desert for Indians and whites

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  • PUBLIC DOMAIN Northern Paiute Chief Numaga (c1830-1860) of the Pyramid Lake band, fought white settlers but tried to make peace.

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    FORGOTTEN NEVADA Lake Lahontan at unusually low water exposing site of Williams Station on muddy rise in distance, with only rock foundation and fence posts remaining.

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    PUBLIC DOMAIN Satellite view of Pyramid Lake area in Nevada where Paiute War battles were fought.

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    PUBLIC DOMAIN Pyramid Lake today is now center of Paiute Indian Reservation.

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    Photo courtesy of NEVADA HISTORICAL SOCIETY Major William M. Ormsby (1814-1860) lost his life while leading ragtag army of miners and settlers against Paiute Indians in retaliation for killings at Williams Station.

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    GOOGLE IMAGES Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays (1817-1883) led troops against Indians in Second Battle of Pyramid Lake.

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    GOOGLE IMAGES Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays statue in front of San Marcos County Courthouse, Texas.

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    PUBLIC DOMAIN Photo of Paiute Indians by renowned frontier photographer Timothy O’Sullivan.

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    TIMOTHY O’SULLIVAN PHOTO/PUBLIC DOMAIN Discovery of silver in Nevada brought flood of miners and settlers who disrupted life for Native Americans that led to violence.

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    Photo courtesy of CHARLIE JOHNSON/TRAVEL NEVADA Pyramid Lake Paiute Native American today.

  • PUBLIC DOMAIN Northern Paiute Chief Numaga (c1830-1860) of the Pyramid Lake band, fought white settlers but tried to make peace.

  • 1

    FORGOTTEN NEVADA Lake Lahontan at unusually low water exposing site of Williams Station on muddy rise in distance, with only rock foundation and fence posts remaining.

  • 2

    PUBLIC DOMAIN Satellite view of Pyramid Lake area in Nevada where Paiute War battles were fought.

  • 3

    PUBLIC DOMAIN Pyramid Lake today is now center of Paiute Indian Reservation.

  • 4

    Photo courtesy of NEVADA HISTORICAL SOCIETY Major William M. Ormsby (1814-1860) lost his life while leading ragtag army of miners and settlers against Paiute Indians in retaliation for killings at Williams Station.

  • 5

    GOOGLE IMAGES Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays (1817-1883) led troops against Indians in Second Battle of Pyramid Lake.

  • 6

    GOOGLE IMAGES Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays statue in front of San Marcos County Courthouse, Texas.

  • 7

    PUBLIC DOMAIN Photo of Paiute Indians by renowned frontier photographer Timothy O’Sullivan.

  • 8

    TIMOTHY O’SULLIVAN PHOTO/PUBLIC DOMAIN Discovery of silver in Nevada brought flood of miners and settlers who disrupted life for Native Americans that led to violence.

  • 9

    Photo courtesy of CHARLIE JOHNSON/TRAVEL NEVADA Pyramid Lake Paiute Native American today.

At the bottom of Lahontan Reservoir northeast of Carson City in the Nevada desert lie the ruins of the Williams stagecoach station where on May 6, 1860, a terrible thing happened that started a war between whites and three Indian tribes from Nevada and Idaho.

James O. Williams owned and operated the station on the Carson River which included a saloon and general store — assisted by his brothers Oscar, 33 and David, 22. Patrons at the station that day were Samuel Sullivan and John Fleming — both 25 — and “Dutch Phil.” Brother James O. was camping a few miles upriver.

Suddenly, nine Northern Paiutes burst in to rescue two Paiute girls, 9 and 12, being held and molested in a root cellar. The Williams brothers were accused of the abduction.

When James returned the following day, he found the station burned to the ground and the bodies of the five men present during the attack tortured and mutilated.

Other sources say the renegade Indians attacked without cause.

More killings followed.

James Williams buried his brothers and found 13 settlers killed in homes across the river. Later, bodies of unarmed prospectors were found murdered in Pyramid Lake, and at the Cold Creek Pony Express Station, the innkeeper was killed and his stock run off.

Sixty miles away, John Gibse and seven others were also slaughtered, with more atrocities occurring at Honey Lake and on the Truckee River.

The people at nearby Virginia City were panic- stricken. Word spread quickly throughout the area. Locals called for revenge, and soon 105 vigilantes were organized from Carson City, Virginia City, Genoa and Silver City.

They chose Major William M. Ormsby as their leader, because of his military experience in Nicaragua, when he served with renegade American mercenary William Walker who invaded the country, took over and ruled for about a year and a half before being ousted.

Now Ormsby would face angry Indians.

They were angry because in 1859 the huge Comstock silver lode was found near Virginia City and Carson City. A flood of miners rushed in to get rich — playing havoc with the environment.

They cut down piñon trees for firewood — destroying a Paiute food source of pine-nuts. Hunters and trappers went after big game, fish and waterfowl, while ranchers took over fertile lands and cut off Indian access to sources of nuts, roots and seeds.

Then a freezing stormy winter set in and the Indians faced starvation.

The Territorial Enterprise newspaper reported sympathetic whites were offering the Indians food and supplies but they refused to eat the food, fearing that it was poisoned.

Violence was inevitable, and the Pyramid Lake War of 1860 was about to take place. It would be the greatest conflict between Indians and whites in Nevada history.

A large band of Northern Paiutes, Bannocks and Shoshone met near Pyramid Lake to discuss what to do about the settlers. Most demanded war — but not Chief Numaga of the Pyramid Lake band.

He warned the others, “They will come like the sand in a whirlwind and drive you from your homes,” he said. “You will be forced among the barren rocks of the north, where your ponies will die; where you will see the women and old men starve, and listen to the cries of your children for food.”

As Numaga was speaking, word came that a mixed-race Bannock named Mogoannoga had led a raiding party on Williams Station, killing five whites. Numaga said, “There is no longer any use for counsel; we must prepare for war.”

Less than a week later, Maj. Ormsby’s poorly armed and badly mounted ragtag army left Buckland Station near Fort Churchill and headed for Williams Station. They buried the other three victims and then proceeded to the Truckee River and Pyramid Lake.

On May 12, they encountered a small party of Numaga’s band and gave chase. The warriors led them into a ravine on the banks of the Truckee River southeast of Pyramid Lake where up to 300 Paiutes trapped them with no escape. It was a slaughter.

Seventy-six men were killed and many wounded. Ormsby died from arrows in his stomach and face. The rest escaped and were chased for some 20 miles by the Indians. Only the dark of night saved them.

More whites were killed in that single battle than in any other encounter with Indians in the far West during the previous 69 years. Indian losses were few.

That was the first Battle of Pyramid Lake. There was more fighting to come.

When news reached the settlers and miners, they were struck with fear, but vowed to continue the battle. As new fighters were being recruited, stagecoach and Pony Express service over part of the Central Overland Mail route was halted.

A makeshift homemade wooden cannon was constructed, only to blow up the first time it was fired. An incomplete stone hotel in Virginia City was converted into a fortress, mines were shuttered and many settlers fled the area.

The telegraph office clattered a message to California for help. A distinguished former Texas Ranger Col. John C. Hays, founder of Oakland, answered the call and headed for Carson City. He was joined by 544 volunteer soldiers from California and the Washoe Country, followed by 207 regular Army soldiers from Fort Alcatraz under command of Capt. Joseph Stewart.

Hays didn’t wait for Stewart’s forces to arrive, but with his “Washoe Regiment” headed out after the Indians. On June 3, they found them near Williams Station and a three-hour Second Battle of Pyramid Lake ensued. Six Indians and two whites were killed. The rest of the Indians fled into the hills.

Then Stewart’s troops caught up with the Hays unit and the combined force headed for the area where the first Pyramid Lake battle took place and found Numaga’s band, who had hustled the women and children out of harm’s way to the Black Rock Desert.

Another three-hour battle took place, without either side winning. Three whites were killed, with possibly a few Indian losses. Then during the night, the Indians slipped away and the battle was over.

But that was not the end of the Paiute wars.

In the days that followed, Hays and Stewart continued to chase the Indians. On June 5, Col. Hays sent a patrol of scouts into a canyon northeast of Pyramid Lake, where they were ambushed. Pvt. William Allen was killed and became the last casualty of the Paiute War.

Small skirmishes and isolated killings continued over the years. Numaga tried his best to keep the peace. He spoke English — having learned while working as a field hand for the Mission Fathers in the Santa Clara Valley — and was highly respected by both Indians and whites.

An Army expedition attempting to quell the violence in 1866 failed, and the Indian raids and thefts continued, with killings on both sides.

By 1868, the Paiutes couldn’t wage war anymore and bands dispersed into the Black Rock and Smoke Creek deserts, while some went to Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Captain Joseph Stewart was ordered to build Fort Churchill on the north bank of the Carson River to protect transcontinental trade and transportation routes through the western Great Basin — as well as keep the peace with the Indians. The fort was only used until 1869 when it was abandoned.

Nevada became a state on Oct. 31, 1864 — the same year that the Snake War started between white settlers and the “Snake Indians” — Northern Paiute, Bannock and Western Shoshone. The new battlefields would be in Nevada, Oregon, Idaho and California.

When it was over four years later, the casualties from both sides would total 1,762 dead, wounded or captured.

Causes for the Snake Wars were the same as almost all the other conflicts between Native Americans and whites as America was growing during the turbulent 1800s.

Chief Numaga became friends with the white man but often presented them with grievances on behalf of his people. He died of tuberculosis on November 5, 1871 near Wadsworth, Nev.

Today, about 2,000 descendants of his band live at Pyramid Lake Reservation.

“I love my people; let them live,” he said, “and when their spirits shall be called to the great Camp in the southern sky, let their bones rest where their fathers were buried.”

• • •

Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

Battle sites today…

According to the National Park Service, the Paiute War battlefields today look pretty much the way they did in 1860. Tourists come to enjoy camping and fishing on Pyramid Lake, and the local Paiute tribe of some 2,000 boast an elegant museum.

Look of a leader…

Northern Paiute Chief Numaga was at least six feet tall, with great physical strength and quiet dignity. Historian Gary L. Ecelbarger wrote that a soldier who saw him in August 1860 said, “In appearance he is all that romance could desire, deep-chested and strong-limbed, with a watchful, earnest expression of countenance, indicative of graver thought and study [than is] common to the aboriginal race.”

Warning from Numaga…

“You would make war upon the whites; I ask you to pause and reflect. The white men are like the stars over your heads. You have wrongs, great wrongs that rise up like those mountains before you; but can you, from the mountain tops, reach and blot out those stars?

“Your enemies are like the sands in the bed of your rivers; when taken away they only give place for more to come and settle there. Could you defeat the whites in Nevada, from over the mountains in California would come to help them an army of white men that would cover your country like a blanket.”

— Paiute Chief Numaga

Where are the Paiutes today?

Today, the Paiute live on Fallon Indian Reservation, Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, Summit Lake Indian Reservation and Walker River Indian Reservations in Nevada, Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeast Idaho, Fort Bidwell Indian Reservation in California and in other small enclaves in the West.

The legendary Texas Ranger…

John (“Jack”) Coffee Hays — nephew of President Andrew Jackson — joined the Texas Rangers at age 19 and quickly made his mark. He re-armed the rangers with 5-shot Colt Paterson revolvers, replacing single-shot weapons. He fought the Comanche in the Battle Walker’s Creek in 1844, and during the Mexican-American War, commanded the legendary First Regiment, Texas Mounted Rifleman under General Zachary Taylor.

In 1850, he was elected as first Sheriff of San Francisco and replaced vigilantes with law and order, then became wealthy in real estate and was a founder of Oakland. He turned down offers by both North and South to serve in the Civil War.

Jack Hays died in Oakland in 1883.

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