|Part of the American Indian Wars|
Numaga, war chief of the Paiute
|Commanders and leaders|
John C. Hays
|Casualties and losses|
The Paiute War, also known as the Pyramid Lake War, Washoe Indian War and the Pah Ute War, was an armed conflict between Northern Paiutes allied with the Shoshone and the Bannock against intruding settlers from the United States, supported by military forces. It took place in May 1860 in the vicinity of Pyramid Lake in the Utah Territory, now in the northwest corner of present US state of Nevada. The war was preceded by a series of increasingly violent incidents, culminating in two pitched battles in which approximately eighty settlers were killed. The number of Paiutes killed in action is unrecorded. Smaller raids and skirmishes continued until a cease-fire was agreed to in August 1860; there was no treaty.
Early settlement of what is now northwestern Nevada had a tremendously disruptive effect on the Northern Paiute people. Shoshone and Paiute had subsisted on the sparse resources of the desert by hunting deer and rabbit, eating grasshoppers, rodents, seeds, nuts, berries, and roots. The fragility of the Great Basin ecosystem magnified this disruption despite the relatively low density of the settlers. The miners felled single-leaf pinyon groves, a major food source for the Paiute, and because of the Nevada deserts settled near water sources. The settlers' stock trampled or ate the sparse vegetation. In addition, settlers and Paiutes competed for grazing lands, where the settlers tried to run cattle. Indians partly adapted to the change by trading their finely woven baskets and deer and rabbit skins for food and goods. Other times settlers gave them food or blankets while some took jobs farming for the settlers or served as stock tenders on the Pony Express stations. Nonetheless they resented the encroachment into their territory. Chief Numaga traveled to Virginia City and aired the grievances of the Paiutes. Herders had driven cattle all over the Paiute grazing land, letting their livestock eat grass for Paiute ponies. Worst he claimed, these cattlemen threatened violence if Chief Numaga did not return cattle they claimed as missing from their herds. However cattle men instead told Weatherlow that Numaga and the Indians were extorting two cattle a week from them.
Violence began again and several murders were committed by Paiutes in small raiding parties before a 105 volunteer force assembled and was destroyed at the first battle of Pyramid Lake.
1857: Raids in the north, harbingers of war
In 1857 Major William M. Ormsby (who would later die in the First Battle of Pyramid lake), and a man named Smith were agents for the overland stagecoach. On October 5, 1857 Ormsby sent an express letter for ammunition to be ready for an emergency as he saw an Indian war as being inevitable from the frequent murders and robberies by the Washoe Tribe. Ormsby then allied with the Paiute tribe, who joined the fight against their ancient enemy the Washoes, with 20-30 whites and 300-400 Paiute Indians went in pursuit of the Washoes and Little Indians into Carson Valley.
1858: Treaty with the Paiute
By 1858 the Indians and Whites agreed to a treaty with the principle of equal justice for all. Thieves and killers, white or Indian, were to be turned over to the authorities. Thereafter the Paiutes under Numaga fought alongside the whites against the raiding parties of the Pit River Indians from across the Sierra Nevada. For the next two years the Paiutes and whites lived in relative peace. However the winter of 1858 was especially harsh making it impossible to get provisions or people over the Sierra Nevada. Food became scarce, forcing residents to hunt for wild game.
1859: Winter starvation
With the arrival of spring in 1859, what would be known as the Comstock Lode was made public and sparked a rush of silver prospectors to the area. However tensions had already been mounting since the first rush of silver miners had come across the Sierra Nevada. With the influx of so many people many Indians believed that an evil spirit had been angered and as a consequence was sending storms that were freezing and starving them. The Carson City newspaper Territorial Enterprise reported in December 1859 that whites were doing all they could to alleviate the Indians starving, offering them bread and provisions. However the Indians refused to eat, fearing that the food was poisoned.
On January 13, 1860 Dexter Demming was murdered and his home was raided. Territorial Governor Isaac Roop sent Captain Weatherlow to ascertain whether Paiute or Pit River Indians were responsible. After catching up with the raiding party it was ascertained that the raiders were part of the Smoke Creek Sam (Chief Saaba) band of Paiutes - a band that had broken off from Numaga and Winnemucca (aka Chief Truckee). The whites began to demand revenge. A meeting was held in Susanville with Governor Roop and Captain Weatherlow. The governor directed Weatherlow and Thomas Harvey to meet Numaga at Pyramid Lake and ask him about the murders and to honor the treaty and turn over the killers.
While traveling to Pyramid Lake, the two whites were captured by Paiutes of the Smoke Creek Sam band. When the warriors wanted to kill the whites, one warrior named "Pike" (who had lived in Harvey's home as a child) intervened for Harvey, who was allowed to leave. Pike was also eventually able to convince the band to release Weatherlow. The two men finally arrived at Chief Numaga's camp, where the Chief refused to admit or deny that his people had killed Dexter Demming. Weatherlow pressed the Chief to follow the treaty, and Numaga finally stated he would not intervene if his people committed depredations against whites, would refuse to come back to the City to resolve anything peacefully, and ultimately aware of the recent silver discoveries, demanded $16,000 for the grazing land.
Weatherlow and Harvey left the meeting warning the cattlemen on their journey home of the impending crisis. The men informed them that Chief Nagama was blackmailing them by requiring they turn over two cows a week to them, which they had been doing.
Plans for war
After returning Weatherlow warned that all out war was inevitable. The local population though started to doubt it would come to that. They started to doubt the Paiutes were really to blame, because although Dexter Demming had been killed, it became known that his brother Jack had once killed an Indian, and persons seeking revenge might have mistaken the two men. However, on February 12, 1860, Governor Roop wrote to Brevet Brigadier General Newman S. Clarke, the commander of the Department of the Pacific, stating that the Honey Lake Valley was in danger from the Paiutes. He asked for a platoon of men, arms and ammunition to drive the Paiutes from their strongholds.
During March and April, the Indians gathered at Pyramid Lake, to determine whether to drive the whites out. While a majority of the men voted for war, without a unanimous decision they were forced to postpone their plans; Chief Numaga had voted against war. On the other hand, Chief Winnemucca greatly disliked Numaga, since Numaga spoke English, so the whites looked to Numaga and not Winnemucca as the leader of the Paiute. As Numaga debated whether to go to war, two Paiute children went missing and what would be known as the Williams Station massacre unfolded into war.
Williams Station massacre
Williams Station was a combination saloon, general store and stagecoach station on the Carson River at the present Lahontan Reservoir. On May 6 it was raided by Paiutes while its owner was away. There are conflicting versions as to why an Indian war party killed all the white men and burned Williams Station. Some accounts claim that the raid was made without cause by a renegade band from the north, but the story Pauite Indians gave in an 1880 interview stated was that the white men had firstly ripped off a young Indian in a deal for his pony for a bad gun and had captured two Paiute children. In the argument to back out of the deal the white's dog bit the boy and the men laughed at him. The young Indian then reported to the tribe that he heard two missing Paiute children in their root cellar. The Indians stated Williams upon their arrival tried to say the boy only heard the dog yelp and not the missing two kids. Ultimately the group killed the men and found the kids tied up and that in their rage started murdering all the whites in the area and left.
When Williams returned on May 8 he found his two brothers' bodies mutilated, as well as all the patrons of the saloon murdered. After killing the men and burning the station the Indian War party marked their trail with blood. Williams discovered that two nearby families of white settlers were also dead (13 people). Further during the last fight at Pyramid lake bodies of several parties of unarmed prospectors were also found to have been murdered. Passions were aroused, as stories escalated to include tales of 500 Indians who killed every person in the vicinity of Williams Station, including Pony Express Stations that were raided.
A militia was quickly formed from Virginia City, Silver City, Carson City and Genoa, to apprehend the marauders. This force consisted of about 105 men and William Ormsby, a man who was reportedly quick to jump to conclusions; he tried to be the de facto leader of the whole group, but ultimately there was no overall leader of the group. They did not believe that the Indians would fight back. The groups were individually led as follows:
- Genoa Rangers - Captain F. F. Condon
- Carson City Rangers - Major William Ormsby
- Silver City Guards - Captain R. G. Watkins
- 1st Virginia City Company - Captain F. Johnston
- 2nd Virginia City Company - Captain Archie McDonald
Each group of riders constituted no more than an undisciplined, leaderless mob of more than one hundred poorly armed riders with few rifles between them. A man in the group, Samuel Buckland, later stated the men were full of whisky and without discipline. While Ormsby assumed a leadership position as being the first to arrive at the station, the five different groups never selected an overall commander and were disorganized in battle.
The Carson City Rangers arrived first at the ruins of Williams Station, stopping to rest and wait for other volunteer groups. All the men met at the Williams Station to bury the dead and gather and stay the night. That night Judge John Cradlebaugh in the Carson City Rangers told his men that he did not come to wage a war to defend white civilization but to protect threatened communities. He advised his men that the William brothers had a bad reputation for shady dealings with both whites and Indians, and that the Indians probably had a good reason for their attack. Come morning he, his men, and a few others from the other groups, returned to Carson City. The remaining men proceeded north to the Truckee River, and then along that river towards Pyramid Lake. They noticed that the path left by the Indians to follow was too obvious. Articles from the shop were laid out like a trail and tracks of unshod Indian ponies were visible.
First Battle of Pyramid Lake
On May 12 the whites were attacked and routed by Paiute forces under the command of Chief Numaga approximately five miles south of the lake. The whites were poorly armed, badly mounted, and almost completely unorganized. They had encountered a small party of Paiutes; they attacked the Indians, who fled after returning a few shots. The Indians continued firing sporadically as they fled into the ravine with the whites in pursuit. Once in the ravine a large group of Indians appeared, closing the escape route and firing on the whites from all sides. The survivors escaped into a patch of woods; they were pursued for some 20 miles. Seventy-six whites were dead, including Ormsby; and many of the others were wounded. According to Angel's first History of Nevada, three Indians were killed in the battle. However Paiute Indian, Johnny Calico who was 12 at the time told a historian in 1924 that only 3 were injured and no one died.
Indians interviewed in 1880 for Nevada Historian Angel Myron's book reported the whites panicked when the assault began and they threw down their guns and surrendered and instead were killed, further that when Major Ormsby, badly wounded attempted to surrender, he was likewise killed.
Organization of U.S. forces
In response to the first battle of Pyramid Lake, settlers called upon legendary Texas Ranger Colonel John C. Hays, who organized a force of local volunteer militia dubbed the "Washoe Regiment". It was composed of 13 companies from the areas surrounding Carson City NV, Virginia City NV, Nevada City CA, and Sacramento CA. In addition to the volunteers under Hays, the US Army responded by sending a detachment of artillery and infantry from Fort Alcatraz, California. This contingent, known as the "Carson River Expedition", was led by Captain Joseph Stewart. Hays' volunteers went into action at the Battle of Williams Station and were then joined by Stewart's regulars.
Field & Staff
- Colonel John C. Hays
- Lt. Colonel Edward J. Saunders
- Major Daniel E. Hungerford
- Company A "Spy Company" – Captain L. B. Fleeson
- Company B "Sierra Guards" – Captain E. J. Smith
- Company C "Truckee Rangers" – Captain Alanson W. Nightingill (The nearby Nightingale Mountains were later named in honor of Nightingill; he later became the first state controller of Nevada.)
- Company D "Sierra Guards" – Captain J. B. Reed
- Company E "Carson Rangers" – Captain P. H. Clayton
- Company F "Nevada Rifles" – Captain J. B. Van Hagan (CA)
- Company G "Sierra Guards" – Captain F. F. Patterson
- Company H "San Juan Rifles" – Captain N. C. Miller
- Company I "Independent City Guards of Sacramento" – Captain A. G. Snowden (CA)
- Company J "from Sacramento" – Captain Joseph Virgo (CA)
- Company K "Virginia Rifles" – Captain Edward Farris Storey
- Company L "Carson Rifles" – Captain J.L. Blackburn
- Company M "Silver City Guards" – Captain Ford
- Company N "Highland Rangers/Vaqueros" – Captain S. B. Wallace
- Company O "Sierra Guards" – Captain Creed Haymond
Carson River Expedition
Field & Staff
- Captain Joseph Stewart
- Captain T. Moore, Quartermaster
- Lieutenant Horatio G. Gibson, Asst. Commissary of Substance
- Company G, 3rd US Artillery - Captain Joseph Stewart
- Company I, 3rd US Artillery - Lieutenant Horatio G. Gibson
- Company A, 6th US Infantry - Captain F. F. Flint
- Company H, 6th US Infantry - Lieutenant J. McCreary
Second Battle of Pyramid Lake
In late June, Stewart and Hays retraced the steps of Ormsby's command and met Numaga's Paiutes at the same location as Ormsby's fight. Hays and Stewart defeated Numaga, and the Paiute forces scattered across the Great Basin. After a minor skirmish in the Lake Range northeast of Pyramid Lake, the volunteer forces were disbanded, and later Stewart's regulars returned to the Carson River near Williams Station to construct Fort Churchill. Four regiment members were killed in the second battle of Pyramid lake, and 160 Paiutes were reported to have been killed. Exact numbers are not known as the Indians carried off their dead. However over 70 bodies were later discovered in a nearby canyon.
After the second battle of Pyramid Lake, the federal forces built a small fort at the southern end of Pyramid Lake to deny that area to the Paiutes. Small skirmishes and raids continued until August, when an informal cease-fire between Numaga and white surveyors working in the area north of Pyramid Lake was achieved. In 1861 the fort at Pyramid Lake was abandoned in favor of Fort Churchill, further south on the Carson River. While the number of Paiutes killed in action during the Pyramid Lake War was probably quite small, the disruption to food gathering activities, especially fishing in Pyramid Lake, may have killed more from starvation. The Bannock War of 1878 may be viewed as a continuation of the Pyramid Lake War, as some Paiutes and Bannock fought in both wars. The war is of particular note because of its effect on the famed Pony Express. Several stations were ambushed and the service experienced its only delays in delivery. A few riders distinguished themselves during this time, especially Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam, who accomplished (out of necessity) a 380-mile round trip between Lake Tahoe (Friday's Station) and Fort Churchill and back with only nine hours of rest around May 10 of 1860. 
- Egan, Ferol. Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860. Lincoln: University of Nevada Press, 1985. ISBN 0-87417-097-4
- Lekisch, Barbara Tahoe Place Names: The Origin and History of Names in the Lake Tahoe Basin
- History of the State of Nevada, p. 148
- Pony Express: An Illustrated History
- One reporter stated the whole group had taken an immense punishment of whiskey, and thought peace could easily be restored by shouting "An Indian for breakfast and a pony to ride..." (Warren Wasson, Nevada Historical Society, Vol XIII, No. 3 (1969) p. 3)
- Indians and their Wars in Nevada
- Maj William Ormsby
- Vincent's semi-annual United States register: a work in which the principal ...P.402
- Corbett, Christopher, Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express, Broadway Books, New York (2003) pp. 178-199
- Life of Daniel E. Hungerford p.179
- Carlson, Helen S. (1974). Nevada Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. University of Nevada Press. p. 177. ISBN 087417094X. Retrieved 8 March 2015.