Battle brews at Pyramid Lake
In 1858, the Paiute Indians of present-day Northern Nevada were in the midst of a war council. The young braves were furious. White miners and settlers were encroaching on the sacred ancestral lands around Pyramid Lake, terminus of the Truckee River. The intruders were killing the game and cutting down trees from which the Indians harvested pine nuts, an important staple of their diet. That very year, Indian agent Frederick Dodge had sent a report to Washington, D.C., the game is gone, and now, the steady tread of the white man is upon them, the green valleys too, once spotted with game are not theirs now, necessity makes them barter the virtue of their companions … Driven by destitution they seek refuge in crime.For a time, strong leadership in the Paiute Nation kept the angry braves in check, but after the severe winter of 1859-60, the tribe was facing starvation. In May 1860, the various tribal sects from western Nevada were calling for action against the white invaders. Old Winnemucca, son of Chief Truckee and a leader of the Paiutes, kept his silence. The shrewd chief was willing to let the younger men assume responsibility for this war.
Winnemucca was resigned to living with the white man and counseled peace. (His father, Truckee, had always been on friendly terms with the pioneers who were settling the West, but the increasing population was now squeezing the Indians out.) Only the brave warrior Numaga foresaw the disaster looming for his people. Numaga dressed in the white mans clothing and had little authority, but he possessed a keen intellect and determined courage. He told the tribal leaders Your enemies are like sands in the bed of the rivers; when taken away they only give place for more to come and settle. Numagas sage advice was always met by a cold stony silence. One chief came to him and said, Your skin is red, but your heart is white; go away and live among the palefaces. That evening an Indian riding a foam-flecked pony dashed into the council to inform the chiefs that a group of angry braves had burned Williams Station and killed several settlers. The bold attack occurred because the white men at the station had kidnapped two 12-year-old Indian girls and had held them bound and gagged in a secret cellar underneath the station house. When the Indians found out, they rescued the girls, killed the men and set fire to the station. At the news, the prescient Numaga solemnly stared in the direction of Williams Station and said There is no longer any use for counsel; we must prepare for war, for the soldiers will now come here and fight us.
At about the same time In Virginia City, a breathless rider stormed in from the darkness. It was James Williams, one of the owners of the burned out trading post. Williams had survived the attack because he was away when it occurred, but his two brothers were among those killed. The horrifying news alarmed the populace. There were small isolated groups of prospectors and ranchers scattered throughout Northern Nevada and the Sierra east slope. They must be protected. Excitement ran high and men began calling for revenge: The savages must be punished. In the saloons that night, hundreds of rowdy young men strutting with the reckless courage that comes with drinking alcohol declared their intent to ride out in the morning to take the fight to the Indians.Bold boasts were made over brimming beer mugs, … an Injun for breakfast and his pony to ride. It had been a long, cold winter; the miners were restless. Panic spread quickly over the telegraph wires and men in Truckee, Carson City, and Genoa were called to arms. But at sunrise the next day, only 105 men showed up for the battle. The rest had fled to California or prudently declined to join in the rash action. The military squads were a sloppy mixture of independent elements, poorly armed, and lacking discipline and training. They still believed that the battle against the Pyramid Lake Indians would be easy, that the Indians would not fight. After all, the western Nevada tribes had generally been friendly to the whites.The reckless volunteers gathered quickly from communities throughout the region. Capt. Alanson Nightingill led the Truckee Rangers; J. Reed headed the Sierra Guards. The Virginia Rifles and the Highland Rangers joined these squads. John Snowshoe Thompson was there, mustering with the Genoa Rangers. The Carson City squad was led by Maj. William Ormsby, who would later die in the skirmish. Capt. R. Watkins, a veteran of a recent military excursion into Nicaragua where he had lost a leg, was tied to a saddle so he could once again ride into battle. Four years before, Maj. Ormsby and Capt. Watkins had joined William Walker, who was leading a renegade army of Yankee freebooters into Central America. Walkers intent was to confiscate large tracts of Nicaraguan land and sell it to his American supporters. Although the United States government did not condone this invasive military action, Walker enjoyed great support among the American people. Many believed in Manifest Destiny and the spread of democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere. In the duality of American conquest, profit and freedom fit hand to glove.
On May 12, 1860, this rag tag military outfit advanced into the desert toward Pyramid Lake, terminus of the Truckee River. They met no resistance until they drew within two miles of the southern end of Pyramid Lake. At that point, a band of 150 Paiute warriors suddenly appeared on an elevated plain, just out of gunshot range. Most of the white men were armed with revolvers and shotguns, poor weapons for distance and accuracy. One volunteer who possessed a telescopic rifle was ordered to fire. The Paiutes answered back with a barrage of whistling bullets. Major Ormsby told the men to tighten the girths of their saddles; they were going to war. Moments later, the major gave the order to charge. Thirty men dashed up an easy grade onto the plateau, but the Indians had disappeared. The vast landscape of sand and sagebrush seemed empty. Just then more mounted warriors were sighted, once again out of revolver or shotgun range. Slowly the soldiers noticed that there were more braves positioned to the east and south in a half circle. They suddenly realized that they had charged right into a trap and were now surrounded by hundreds of mounted Paiutes. More armed warriors appeared from behind the sagebrush surrounding the confused soldiers and then a hail of deadly Paiute arrows and bullets ripped through the air. The frightened horses began bucking under the soldiers, forcing them to drop their guns into order to control their mounts. All of the men had heard stories of what happened to white men captured by Indians. The tales were chilling. Fear swept through the regiment and they broke into a run for the protection of a small grove of cottonwood trees bordering the Truckee River. It was their only chance to survive. Stay tuned for the conclusion of this story in Mark McLaughlin’s next column in the June 6 Sierra Sun.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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