Paiute War

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Paiute War
Part of the American Indian Wars
Numaga, War chief of the Paiute during the war.
Date 1860
Location Pyramid Lake, Nevada
Result American victory
 United States Paiute
Commanders and leaders
United States William Ormsby
United States John C. Hays
United States Joseph Stewart
207 cavalry
649 militia
~500 warriors
Casualties and losses
~80 killed
~35 wounded
Unknown killed
Unknown wounded

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 the United States. It took place in May 1860 in the vicinity of Pyramid Lake in the Utah Territory, now within present day 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.[citation needed] 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 has subsisted on the sparse resources of the desert by hunting dear and rabbit, eating grasshoppers and rodents and harvesting 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. Further the settlers stock trampled or at 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[edit]

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. Major 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.[1][2]

1858 Treaty with the Paiute[edit]

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 War Chief Numaga fought side by side the whites against the raiding parties of the Pit River Indians from across the Sierra Nevada.The next two years the Pauties and whites lived in relative peace with each other. However the winter of 1858 was especially harsh making it impossible to get provisions or people over the Sierra Nevada. Food became scare and expensive forcing residents to hunt for wild game, which was abundant.[3][4]

1859 Winter Starvation[edit]

With the arrival of Spring in 1859, what would be known as the Comstock lode was made public and sparked a silver rush of 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. Newspaper Territorial Enterprise in Carson City dated December 1859 reported 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.

Spring 1860[edit]

Treaty Broken[edit]

On January 13, 1860 Dexter Demming was murdered and his home raided, the newly elected governor of the territory sent Captain Weatherlow to ascertain whether Paiute or Pit River Indians were responsible.[5] 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). After scapegoating the deaths of their friends to the acts of the Pit River Raiders and feeling betrayed and lied too after confirming that Paiutes had broken the peace whites began to demand revenge. A meeting was held in Susanville with the newly elected governor Roop and Captain Weatherlow. Ultimately the governor ordered Weatherlow and Thomas Harvey to talk with Chief Numaga at Pyramid Lake and ask him about the murders and to honor the treaty and turn over the killers.[6]

Riding through the snow Harvey and Weatherlow were captured by 30 armed Paiute men of the Smoke Creek Sam band. On the verge of being executed a young warrior named "Pike" intervened for Thomas Harvey as Mr. Harvey had raised him as a child. Smoke Creek Sam was therefore willing to let Mr. Harvey has his freedom. It took another Indian Council and a lot of talking by Pike though before they would let Weatherlow leave. Although they forbid them going to Chief Numaga the men in a dense fog were able to do so later. At Chief Numaga's camp the Chief refused to admit or deny that his people had killed Dexter Demming. Captain Weatherlow pressed the Chief to follow the treaty. Chief 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, being outnumbered they do [7][8]

Plans for War[edit]

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, while Dexter Demming was murdered, his brother Jack Demming had killed a lone Indian before and they probably mistook Dexter Demming for Jack Demming. However on February 12, 1860 Governor Isaac Roop took it more serious and wrote to Brevet Brigadier General Newman S. Clarke, the commander of the Department of the Pacific stating that the Honey Lake Valley was about to be plunged into a bloody and protracted war with the Paiutes. He asked the army send a dragoon of men, arms and ammunition to drive the Paiutes from their strongholds.[9][10]

By March and April 1860 all the tribes gathered at Pyramid Lake to vote on whether to wage war with the whites. While a majority of the men voted for war without a unanimous decision they were forced to postpone their plans for war. Chief Numaga, the man most thought would lead them in battle had voted against war. On the other hand Chief Winnemucca greatly disliked Numaga as Chief Numaga spoke English and the settlers looked to Numaga and not Winnemucca as the leader of the Paiute and told him to just go live with the whites. As Numaga debated whether to go to war two Paiute children went missing and what would be known as the William Station Massacre unfolded into war.[11][12]


Williams Station Massacre[edit]

Williams Station was a combination saloon, general store and stagecoach station located along the Carson River at the modern-day Lahontan Reservoir. On May 6, 1860 Williams Station 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 interviewed in 1880 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 Mr. Williams returned on May 8 he found his two brother's bodies mutilated and tortured as well as all the patrons of the saloon murdered.[13] After killing the men and burning the station the Indian War party marked their trial with blood. Williams discovered that the two homes across the river of settler families (13 people) were likewise murdered. Further during the last fight at Pyramid lake bodies of several parties of unarmed prospectors were also found to have been murdered.[14] Passions fumed as whites suspected it may the start now of all out war with the Indians as reports started to come in that around five hundred Indians killed every person in the vicinity of Williams Station, including Pony Express Stations that were raided and everyone killed.

Militia Forms on Fears of All Out War[edit]

A militia was quickly formed from Virginia City, Silver City, Carson City and Genoa with the purpose of apprehending the perpetrators. This force consisted of about 105 men and William Ormsby, a man reported being 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. This group as one reporter stated the whole group had taken an immense punishment of whiskey and thought peace could easily be restored and shouting "An Indian for breakfast and a pony to ride...".[15] It never occurred to them in their drunken state that the Indians would fight back. The groups were individually lead as follows:[16]

  • 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. As Samuel Buckland in the group later recalled the men were also fully 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 was 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 very good reason for their attack. Come morning he and his men headed back to Carson City as well as a few other men who decided to desert. That morning the men then proceeded north to the Truckee River, and then along that river towards Pyramid Lake. The men 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[edit]

On May 12 it was ambushed and routed by Paiute forces under the command of Chief Numaga approximately five miles south of the lake.

Accounts indicate that the volunteer militia of 105 were poorly armed, badly mounted, and almost completely unorganized. They met at Williams Station and finding no natives, they headed towards Pyramid Lake, a known settlement of the previously friendly Paiute Indians whose chief had recently died. Along the way they encountered a small party of Paiutes on a rocky hill. The whites attacked the Indians who fled after returning a few shots. The Indians continued firing sporadically as they fled into the ravine with the 105 militia pursuing them. Once in the ravine 200 to 300 Paiute warriors appeared and began shooting. They closed off the route of escape and fired on the militia from all sides. The civilian militia headed for a patch of woods as their only escape and some of the survivors of the battle were pursued twenty miles. Up to 500 Paiutes are thought to have participated in the battle. The total of dead was seventy-six civilian militia members out of the 105 militiamen were killed, including Ormsby,[17] 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.[18]

Organization of U.S. Forces[edit]

In response to the first battle of Pyramid Lake, settlers called upon legendary Texas Ranger Colonel John C. Hays. Hays organized a force of local volunteer militia dubbed the "Washoe Regiment". The Washoe Regiment was composed of 13 companies from the areas surrounding Carson City NV, Virginia City NV, Nevada City, CA and Sacramento CA.[19] In addition to the volunteers under Hays, the U.S. Army responded by sending a detachment of U.S. 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.

Washoe Regiment
Field & Staff

  • Colonel John C. Hays
  • Lt. Colonel 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 also later became the first state controller of Nevada)[20]
  • 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 U.S. Artillery - Captain Joseph Stewart
  • Company I, 3rd U.S. Artillery - Lieutenant Horatio G. Gibson
  • Company A, 6th U.S. Infantry - Captain F. F. Flint
  • Company H, 6th U.S. Infantry - Lieutenant J. McCreary

Second Battle of Pyramid Lake[edit]

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 north-east of Pyramid Lake, the volunteer forces were disbanded. Stewart's regulars stayed in the field for a little while longer before returning 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 claimed to have been killed.[21] Exact numbers are not known as the Indians carried off their dead. However over 70 bodies were 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, which was further south, along the Carson River. While the number of Paiutes killed in action during the Pyramid Lake War was probably quite small[citation needed], 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 first and 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. [22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860
  2. ^ Tahoe Place Names: The Origin and History of Names in the Lake Tahoe Basin By Barbara Lekisch
  3. ^ Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860
  4. ^ Tahoe Place Names: The Origin and History of Names in the Lake Tahoe Basin By Barbara Lekisch
  5. ^ History of the State of Nevada pg 148
  6. ^ Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860
  7. ^ Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860
  8. ^ Tahoe Place Names: The Origin and History of Names in the Lake Tahoe Basin By Barbara Lekisch
  9. ^ Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860
  10. ^ Tahoe Place Names: The Origin and History of Names in the Lake Tahoe Basin By Barbara Lekisch
  11. ^ Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860
  12. ^ Tahoe Place Names: The Origin and History of Names in the Lake Tahoe Basin By Barbara Lekisch
  13. ^ Pony Express: An Illustrated History
  14. ^ Tahoe Place Names: The Origin and History of Names in the Lake Tahoe Basin By Barbara Lekisch
  15. ^ Warren Wasson, Nevada Historical Society, Vol XIII, No. 3 (1969) pg,. 3)
  16. ^ Indians and their Wars in Nevada
  17. ^ Maj William Ormsby
  18. ^ Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express
  19. ^ Egan p.191
  20. ^ Carlson, Helen S. (1974). Nevada Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. University of Nevada Press. p. 177. ISBN 087417094X. Retrieved 2015-03-08. 
  21. ^ [1]
  22. ^ Christopher Corbett, "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express", Broadway Books, New York, 2003, pp. 178-199.

Further reading[edit]

  • Egan, Ferol. Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860. Lincoln: University of Nevada Press, 1985. ISBN 0-87417-097-4

External links[edit]