B. Scott Holmes

Just trying to stay alive and keep my sideburns too

The Paiute Indian War of 1860

Mon, 08/12/2013 - 15:26 -- scott

I had thought I'd pretty much worked out all the narration I wanted for my Mark Twain tour through the Great Basin province of Nevada, from Utah to Carson City. It just needed a few photographs to break up the hour long Google Earth Tour. But from the few comments Twain made in his chapters on this region as well as the histories of the stations along the way I came to realize how large an effect the so call Paiute War played in what Sam Clemens experienced. The white man, or “American” had arrived and had disrupted the ecosystem, which included the Northern Paiute people. They had cut down many of the groves of the single-leaf pinyon, an important food source for the Paiute. They had taken control of the water sources. They had taken control of large areas of grazing land.

Another factor was the winter of 1859-60, which was unusually cold, and also the passing of Chief (Old) Winnemucca, a very influential person largely responsible of keeping the peace between the whites and the Indians. In the Spring of 1860 a large number of Paiutes gathered at Pyramid Lake for the spring fish run. This was a larger gathering than usual due to the diminished food supplies caused by the settlers.

What is generally reported as the initial cause for the Paiute War of 1860 is the attack on Williams Station, which is now beneath Lahontan reservoir. There are a number of accounts of what happened, most of which say some of the men from Williams Station kidnapped and raped two Paiute girls. A group of Paiutes, possibly “a force of Anishinabe soldiers”, attacked the station forcing the perpetrators into the house and then burning it down. The Indians were said to have dismissed a number of people not responsible for the rapes before firing the house.

At the time this occurred the Indians had been in council pondering what to do about the white encroachment. Chief Winnemucca (Younger), also known as Poito, was for war. Chief Numaga argued for peace. When news of the attack arrived Numaga is reported to have said  "There is no longer any use for counsel; we must prepare for war, for the soldiers will now come here to fight us." This is obviously a paraphrase as it is doubtful the council was being held in the English language.

One victim, or at least on onlooker, of the attack on the station escaped to Virginia City and caused a general panic. A militia was quickly formed from volunteers, about 105 men, under the overall command of Major William Ormsby. Accounts indicate that the volunteer militia was poorly armed, badly mounted, and almost completely unorganized. They met at Williams Station but found no natives. They headed towards Pyramid Lake. and encountered a small party of Paiutes on a rocky hill carrying a white flag, possibly in an attempt to explain the events at the station . 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 militia pursing 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 total dead was seventy-six civilian militia members including Ormsby and an unknown number of Paiutes.

An army officer arriving in the region just after the battle found a scene of chaos and some panic, with trains of people returning to California to avoid the Indians. Volunteers were armed and mustered. Colonel Jack Hays, a former Texas Ranger, was given command of the United States forces, who set out from California on 2 June 1860. Hays fought the Paiutes in two skirmishes near Pyramid Lake. Neither was decisive, but the Indians sustained sufficient injuries to destroy Numaga's loosely coordinated command structure. The bands dispersed into the Black Rock and Smoke Creek deserts and the surrounding hills. Some travelled further into Oregon, Idaho and Washington Territory. The war petered out. U.S. troops built a temporary fort near Pyramid Lake, then moved to the more permanent Fort Churchill, which guarded the wagon trail from the east.

This is obviously not the end of hostilities with some horrendous events still to come, but neither Poito (Winnemucca) nor Numaga involved. Poito was born a Shoshone but became Paiute through marriage to Old Winnemucca's daughter. He was poisoned in 1882. Numaga was born sometime around 1830. He was said by some to be the son of Chief Winnemucca and brother of Sarah Winnemucca. Sarah Winnemucca wrote that he was her cousin. He died of tuberculosis, a "white man's disease", in 1871.

 In his 1881 history, Myron Angel gave a reconstruction of Numaga's speech that may reveal as much about Angel as it does about 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. What hope is there for the Pah-Ute? From where is to come your guns, your powder, your lead, your dried meats to live upon, and hay to feed your ponies with while you carry on this war. Your enemies have all of these things, more than they can use. They will come like the sand in a whirlwind and drive you from your homes. 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. I love my people; let them live; and when their spirits shall be called to the great Camp in the southern sky, let their bones rest where their fathers were buried. [Angel, Myron (1881). History of Nevada. Oakland, California: Thompson and West. Retrieved 2012-09-14.]