Paiute Indian War
The Paiute War, also known as the Paiute Indian War, the Pyramid Lake War and the Pah Ute War, was a war between Northern Paiutes (along with some Shoshone and Bannock) and white settlers that took place in 1860 in the vicinity of Pyramid Lake in the Utah Territory (now Nevada). The war was preceded by a series of increasingly violent incidents, culminating in two pitched battles in which approximately 80 whites were killed, including the commander, Major William Ormsby. The number of Paiutes killed in action is unrecorded, but was probably fewer. Smaller raids and skirmishes continued until a cease-fire was agreed to in August of 1860. There was no treaty.
Early white settlement of what is now northwestern Nevada had a tremendous disruptive effect on the Northern Paiute people. The fragility of the Great Basin ecosystem magnified this disruption despite the relatively low density of white settlers. These disruptions included the felling of Single-leaf Pinyon groves (a major food source for the Paiute) for the mining industry and monopolization of water sources. In addition, settlers and Paiutes competed for grazing lands.
Several murders of whites, including famed mountain man Peter Lassen, were widely attributed to Paiutes. Murders of Paiutes by whites also occurred. The lack of effective government in the area meant that there was no formal judicial response to these incidents, leading to private retribution and a general atmosphere of fear and distrust.
The winter of 1859-1860 was particularly cold and snowy in the Great Basin, and was a great hardship to the Paiute. Paiute bands from across the Great Basin gathered at Pyramid Lake for the spring fish run due to failure of local food supplies. In addition, Captain Truckee, who was widely liked by whites and influential among the Paiute and therefore served as a go-between, died in the winter of 1859.
Williams Station Incident
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. Three whites were killed and the station was burned. According to Sarah Winnemucca, this raid was in retaliation for the kidnap and rape of two young Paiute girls by the proprietors of the station. One white managed to escape to Virginia City, and his story caused a general panic in the region.
A militia was quickly formed from volunteers from Virginia City, Silver City, Carson City and Genoa with the purpose of apprehending the perpetrators. This force consisted of about 105 men and was under the overall command of William Ormsby.
First Battle of Pyramid Lake
Ormsby's command assembled at the ruins of the Williams Station, and then proceeded north to the Truckee River, and then along that river towards Pyramid Lake. On May 12 it was ambushed and routed by Paiute forces under the command of Numaga approximately five miles south of the lake. Seventy-six of the 105 militiamen were killed, including Ormsby, and many of the others were wounded. The number of Paiute killed is not recorded, but thought to be quite small in comparison.
Second Battle of Pyramid Lake
In response to the first battle of Pyramid Lake, Federal troops and elements of the California militia were sent to the area. In late June this force retraced the steps of Ormsby's command, but met only slight resistance. The Paiute forces scattered across the Great Basin, and after a minor skirmish in the Lake Range north-east of Pyramid Lake the federal force gave up the chase.
After the inconclusive 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 agreed to. 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, 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.
Effect on the Pony Express
The war is of particular note because of its effect on the famed Pony Express. Several stations were ambushed and the service experienced their first and only delays in delivery.
- Nevada Appeal, March 16, 2008: Maj. Ormsby, others perish fighting Indians
- Egan, Ferol. Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860. University of Nevada Press: Nevada. ISBN 0-87417-097-4 (on Amazon and Google Books).
- Some text excerpted from Wikipedia's Paiute War page.