It took place in 1860 in the vicinity of Pyramid Lake in the Utah Territory, now within present day Nevada. The war was the result of a series of increasingly violent incidents, culminating in two pitched battles in which approximately 80 Americans were killed.
The number of Paiutes killed in action is unrecorded. 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 tremendous disruptive effect on the Northern Paiute people. The settlers in the Great Basin was a disruption to the Paiute food supply, including the felling of Single-leaf Pinyon groves which was a major food source for the Paiute. And yes, mining, an attempt to monopolize water sources, and settlers competing with the Paiutes for grazing lands all added to the tensions.
Several murders of settlers, including famed mountainman Peter Lassen, were widely attributed to Paiutes. But then again, crimes such as murder and even kidnappings of Paiute Indians by American settlers also took place.
The lack of Law and an effective territory 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 and 1860 was particularly cold and snowy in the Great Basin, and was a great hardship to the Paiute. Chief Winnemucca died in the winter of 1859. He had been influential among the Paiute, and widely liked by the settlers. He served as a sort of ambassador and keeper of the peace - as uneasy a peace as it was.
Paiute bands from across the Great Basin gathered at Pyramid Lake for the spring fish run due to dwindling local food supplies.
The Williams Station Massacre
Williams Station was a combination saloon, general store, and stagecoach station was located along the Carson River at the modern-day Lahontan Reservoir. On May 6th, 1860, Williams Station was raided by Paiutes. And yes, it was ugly.
Three Americans there were killed, mutilated, and the station was burned. Later on people found evidence that those killed were burned alive.
According to Paiute Sarah Winnemucca, the raid was in retaliation for the kidnapping and rape of two young Paiute girls by the proprietors of the station. It's true, this series of conflicts was actually caused, not for no reason by marauding Paiute braves, but instead in retaliation of the kidnapping of two young Paiute girls by three white men who were subsequently killed by a band of Paiute who were there to rescue the girls.
A survivor of the retaliation raid managed to escape and make it to Virginia City. It was his story that caused a general panic in the region among settlers.
No, it isn't believed that anyone stopped to ask why the Paiute attacked -- it didn't matter if the Paiute were doing the exact same thing that the settlers would have done in their shoes.
Out of this a militia was quickly formed from volunteers from Virginia City, Silver City, Carson City and Genoa, Nevada, with the supposed purpose of "apprehending the perpetrators." Others say it was an eye for an eye, and this force consisted of about 105 men under the overall command of Major William Ormsby.
The First Battle of Pyramid Lake
Major 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 12th, 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 Major Ormsby. Many of the others were wounded. The number of Paiute killed is not recorded, but thought to be only a few in comparison. And yes, accounts indicate that the volunteer militia of 105 were poorly armed, badly mounted, and were almost completely unorganized.
Their fate started after they met at Williams Station and finding no natives, the militia 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 occupying a strong position on a rocky hill. The whites didn't waste any time at all, especially not stopping to think, they simply attacked head long toward the Paiutes who fled after returning a few shots.
The Paiute braves would turn now and again to continue firing -- all fairly sporadically as they fled into a rocky ravine with the 105 militia pursing them.
Once in the ravine, it is believed that up to 500 Paiute warriors appeared seemingly out of no where and began raining fire upon the militia. Shooting from high ground, the militia found itself in a trap.
Yes, the Paiute sprung a trap on the foolish whites who ran headlong into it. And then, after the Paiute sprung the trap, they closed off the route of escape and fired on the militia from all sides.
With shots coming down on them from seemingly everywhere, the civilian militia headed for a patch of woods as their only escape. Some of the survivors of the battle were pursued twenty miles by the Paiute Indians. Many never made it back.
Of the up to 500 Paiutes who are thought to have participated in the battle, only a few were lost. The militia didn't fair as well, seventysix were killed and left behind.
The Washoe Regiment & U.S. Regulars
So the first major confrontation on May 12th, 1860 was undertaken by a poorly organized and badly armed group of Nevada Volunteers which consisted of 105 American miners, farmers. ranchers, and other settlers led by Major William Ormsby.
They were ambushed by Paiutes under Chief Numaga at Big Bend in the Truckee River Valley in Nevada - and the ambush resulted in an Indian victory in which 76 white men, including Major Ormsby, were killed.
There was no mail service for a few weeks after Major Ormsby was defeated in the Battle of Pyramid Lake. I'll talk more about the mail, and especially about the Pony Express, at the end of this article.
The U.S. Army responded to the call as well. Captain Joseph Stewart left Fort Alcatraz, California, with 144 Regulars from the 3rd U.S. Artillery and 6th U.S. Infantry regiments. He arrived in Carson City to await further developments.
The Washoe Regiment of Volunteer was composed of 13 companies of men from the areas surrounding Carson City and Virginia City, Nevada, as well as from Sacramento and Placerville, California. 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.
As stated before, the Carson River Expedition commander from Fort Alcatraz was Captain Joseph Stewart -- and his 144 men came from Company H, 3rd U.S. Artillery, and a Detachment of the 6th U.S. Infantry.
Capt Stewart abandoned these forts in favor of a larger fort along the Carson River. He began construction in 1861 and named the post Fort Churchill.
As far as wars go, the second round went much better for the settlers as they were proven victorious killing almost 160 Indians while suffering a loss of only 4 of their own number. In reality, the papers of the time were correct in deeming the Second Battle of Pyramid Lake "inconclusive" because it didn't really solve a thing.
Small skirmishes and raids continued until August, when finally an informal cease-fire between Chief Numaga and white surveyors working in the area north of Pyramid Lake was achieved. While the number of Paiutes killed in action during the Pyramid Lake War was probably pretty small. But the disruption to food gathering activities, and the fact that they were denied access to fishing in Pyramid Lake, all may have killed more Paiutes from starvation later.
The Pyramid Lake War was followed later by the Owens Valley Indian War 1861-1864, the Snake War 1864-1868, and the Bannock War of 1878. Some might find a great victory in starving out your enemy, personally I don't.
For me, I believe the Paiute Indians had proven themselves to be great warriors and outstanding tacticians.
As for those who tried to starve them into submission? Well, just as with those who were responsible for slaughtering the buffalo to cheat the Plains Indians out of a food source year later, those responsible for trying to starve the Paiute Indians should have been hung!
Actions like that will only make future generations wonder who really was the "civilized" race between the two, the Indians who were the victim of such efforts or those in command of the U.S. Army who were really responsible for such vindictive policies?
So now, what does the Pony Express have to do with this story?
Well, for those interested in the connections between events, the Pyramid Lake War might be of particular interest because of its effect on mail delivery and the Pony Express. As stated before, American settlements in the area grew. As they did, several violent incidents occurred, including the Pyramid Lake War of 1860.
The Paiute uprising at the time lead to attacks that resulted in the loss of many Pony Express riders along with their horses. And yes, along with those riders and their horses, there was complete destruction of every rest station between California and Salt Lake during the Pyramid Lake War. Because of this, the Pony Express mail service experienced its first and only delays in delivery.
A few brave riders distinguished themselves during that time, especially Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam. On May 10th, 1860, Haslam was assigned the run from Friday's Station in Lake Tahoe to Buckland Station near Fort Churchill which was a distance of 75 miles to the East.
"Pony Bob" Haslam is credited with having made the longest round trip ride of the Pony Express. He had received the Eastbound mail from San Francisco at Friday's Station, but at Buckland's Station his relief rider was so badly frightened over the threat from the Paiutes that he actually refused to take the mail.
Pony Bob agreed to take the mail all the way to Smith's Creek for a total distance of 190 miles without a rest. After a rest of nine hours, he retraced his route with the Westbound mail.
At Cold Springs he found that Indians had raided the place, killing the station keeper and running off all of the stock. When he finally reached Buckland's Station, completing a 380-mile round trip, it became the longest on record for the Pony Express.
It is said that Pony Bob accomplished the amazing round trip without stopping purely out of necessity to save his scalp. And frankly, I can understand that sort of motivation!