Battle at Pyramid Lake: An uneasy peace secured
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part story about clashes between settlers and Paiute warriors near Pyramid Lake.
In the spring of 1860, a major battle between Paiute Indians and early settlers from Utah Territory (Nevada) took place along the Truckee River just south of Pyramid Lake.
After two young Indian maidens were abducted and abused by several white men, Paiute warriors responded by rescuing the girls and killing the perpetrators. To thwart a perceived Indian rebellion and massacre, residents from the nearby communities of Virginia City, Carson City and Truckee rallied a group of 105 men who vowed to take the law into their own hands by attacking the Indians. It was a rash decision and fatal miscalculation.
The vigilantes, poorly equipped and badly organized, were lured into a trap by the Paiutes who surrounded the bewildered men and the rout began. As the warriors began shooting bullets and arrows at the outnumbered and outgunned regiment, the pioneers beat a fast retreat to a small grove of cottonwood trees lining the Truckee River. But instead of finding safety in the brush, the woods were swarming with warriors led by young Chiquito Winnemucca.
As Chiquito and his band readied to charge the settlers, the warrior Numaga, who had counseled peace and patience among his tribe, rushed to halt the final attack. Unfortunately, his last attempt at a peace parley came too late; Chiquito and his braves rushed past Numaga and routed the terrified regiment.
What had begun as an orderly retreat became a wild, panic-stricken stampede. Where the trail narrowed and climbed a steep bank, the fleeing soldiers on horseback stalled. Chiquito and his warriors cut eight men down before the others escaped. The trail then ran out into open desert country, straight and level. The fastest horses led the retreat. The saddleless Indian ponies ran like the wind, enabling the pursuing Paiutes to take down the fleeing soldiers one by one.
John “Snowshoe” Thompson, the legendary skiing mailman of the Sierra, was at the battle at Pyramid Lake. During the retreat, his horse was shot out from under him. Snowshoe was one of the fastest men alive on skis, but now his life depended on the outcome of a foot race with the pursuing warriors. Thompson later said, “I pledge you my word that more than once I wished that all the valley was buried in snow, and I was mounted on my snowshoes.”
As Thompson ran for the river, he felt hot breath over his shoulder. Expecting hand-to-hand combat with a Paiute brave, he wheeled about quickly. His elbow struck the nose of a riderless horse, saddled and bridled. He leaped onto the animal and escaped with his life. For the rest of his days, Snowshoe Thompson believed that the horse had been heaven-sent.
The Indians chased the volunteers for 20 miles, killing as many as they could. Of the 105 white men who went into battle at Pyramid Lake, 76 died and several were wounded. The Paiutes later claimed that, “had the battle opened two hours earlier in the day there would not have been one white survivor.” They were probably right. It was only by the cover of darkness that any of the volunteers escaped.
For three days no news reached the communities of western Nevada regarding the fate of the reckless men who had rushed out to do battle with the Paiute Nation. Every night Indian signal fires were seen glowing on the distant ridges, but not one word from any of the missing men reached the settlements. The desert’s silence was an ominous omen. Finally, on May 13, an exhausted rider tore into town. The man had ridden all night, nearly 100 miles. He was covered with alkali dust and bore bad news. The Indians had slain Major Ormsby and nearly wiped out the command. The Paiutes had trapped the soldiers like rats and killed nearly three-fourths of them. The shocked citizens figured the man was hysterical.
Throughout the night and following morning, survivors from the battle slowly straggled in. The men told tales of horror and of a fate worse than death. One refugee claimed that he had seen thousands of mounted warriors headed for the settlements. It seemed that the Indians had resolved to take back their country.
Panic swept the Comstock and eastern Sierra. Martial law was declared in Virginia City. The town’s few women and children were moved into an unfinished stone house that had been converted into a fortress called Fort Riley. Citizens organized an armed militia and picket guards were posted on the city’s perimeter. At Carson City, the Penrod Hotel was barricaded with wood; and sentries were stationed around town.
News of the massacre spread like wildfire and Californians organized at once. Citizens in Sacramento and Placerville contributed money to raise militias. Downieville residents were furious to hear that Henry Meredith, a well-liked local, had died in the fight. To avenge his death, they recruited, armed and equipped 165 men in just 36 hours.
This volunteer regiment, known as the Sierra Battalion, marched from Downieville over snow-covered Donner Pass to Virginia City in just five days. Miners from La Porte and farmers from Placerville also crossed the icy mountain range to join the expanding army. San Francisco sent money and arms, as well as the 6th Infantry from the Presidio and the 3rd Artillery command from Benicia. California Governor John Downey issued 500 muskets with plenty of ammunition for Nevada’s defense.
On May 31, 1860, more than 1,000 well-armed troops and volunteers marched back towards Pyramid Lake seeking revenge. The soldiers slowly made their way along the Truckee River, cautious of attack. On June 2, two feet of snow fell on the Sierra and the weather in the desert was cold and blustery. That afternoon, 300 Paiute warriors on horseback and 300 armed braves on foot attacked the regiments.
Instead of one large battle, there were many separate skirmishes as the outgunned Indians slowly retreated toward their villages at Pyramid Lake. There were numerous casualties on both sides. Forty-eight hours later, the American troops closed in on the Paiute settlement near the lake. The village was deserted. A distinct trail revealed that the Indians had fled into the Black Rock Desert. At that point the whites declared victory and withdrew.
The Paiutes were a bold and fearless tribe when protecting their ancestral homeland, but their warriors could not compete with the overwhelming firepower brought to bear by the determined soldiers.
An uneasy peace was secured; Fort Churchill was built on the Carson River, and Indian reservations were established at Pyramid and Walker lakes. The white man was here to stay, and the Paiutes’ way of life would never be the same.
Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.