Major Ormsby helps create the Nevada Territory
May 15, 2008
Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts of Chris Bayer’s essay on Major William Matthew Ormsby and his impact on the early years of Carson City. This is based on Bayer’s book, “Profits, Plots and Lynching”
At the time of Major Ormsby’s arrival in Genoa the Mormon administration in Salt Lake was withdrawing direct control over the eastern slope. However, in the wake of Lucky Bill’s lynching, Genoa residents brought back Utah’s control, creating a new Utah judge. Major Ormsby had few friends in Genoa. That spring, in the midst of the struggle with Lucky Bill and before the lynching, Judge Crane apparently wrote Ormsby, recommending establishment of a capitol for the new Territory. Shortly after Lucky Bill’s lynching, Musser, Proctor and Curry arrived to purchase the Mankin Ranch in Eagle Valley. Ormsby soon relocated to the new Carson City.
By spring of 1859, it was apparent that Congress would not create Nevada Territory, and failed to fund the central overland wagon road. Judge James Crane returned from Washington and, a couple days later, the California press began to announce the Ophir strike – later called the Comstock lode. In their 1857 petition to Congress, Ormsby and Crane had alluded to vast local riches. It seems they now chose to reveal this wealth to pave the way for another meeting during August of 1859. Ormsby again rang his cowbell and, in Genoa, the People’s Committee declared a new Territory. To ensure due process, a vote was held and, thanks to ballots obtained from emigrants in wagons, provisional Nevada Territory found a local majority. About half of the local population held that they still lived in Utah.
By fall of 1859, buildings were going up in Carson City. An unfunded and decrepit stage line was patched together across the Great Basin. While Henry Comstock was delivering a wagon-load of ore for assay in San Francisco, his ranch was taken for a new city called Virginia. James Crane announced an intention to tax Ophir mines for the new Territory. A couple days later, he fell over dead while eating dinner in Gold Canyon.
Thousands of young men were now flocking to the Eastern Slope, dotting the landscape with their tents. As 1859 became 1860, a terrible winter buried the eastern slope – four feet of snow on the valley floor. It left men and cattle nearly starving. By spring the stage line hadn’t run in months. When news arrived that traders had been killed along the emigrant trail, the Major rang his cowbell in Carson City.
Ormsby and roughly 100 other men rode out to the Big Bend of the Carson River. At the Williams trading station they heard a dying trader implicate the Pauites in what the newly build telegraph in Carson City described as a “massacre.” The force rode north to Pyramid Lake. Ormsby asked for overall command but was voted down. At Pyramid Lake, Ormsby and others interpreted what may have been a peace pipe as a battle axe.
What happened next can perhaps only be explained as the desperation of a man whose dream seemed to be unraveling. Ormsby must have assumed that he faced a renegade band. He had good friends among the Pauite leaders.
Ormsby and his 30 Carson City men rode their mules up a sandy knoll and appear to have attacked. They carried shotguns and revolvers and faced a larger group of Paiutes on horseback with long rifles. As firing began, the mules spooked and floundered. Ormsby and his group returned to the main force. As the entire force turned back, the settlers found themselves facing more Paiutes. Outnumbered, fleeing in panic, Ormsby and around 80 others were slain as they fled, single file along the river bank. Sarah Winnemucca later wrote of how her “best good friend” died when his saddle turned. His Paiute friend, Numaga, told him to lie down and pretend to be dead. Ormsby delayed, already wounded and was killed.
On the last day of President Buchanan’s administration, Congress legally created Nevada Territory and funded the central overland wagon road through Carson City.
Almost immediately after his death, most people seem to have been eager to forget the Major. With the nation disintegrating, with gold and silver at hand, national politics seemed toxic. To this day, Carson City sometimes continues to enact the gold rush ideal of settlement in the wilderness – a place of quiet streets, trees and community.
Many men had talked about a new Territory in western Utah. William Ormsby tied the idea of a new Territory to the welfare of the nation as a whole.
Ormsby’s dream wasn’t complex. Like many in the far West, William Ormsby sought a new kind of America, different from the East, unfettered by restrictive culture or law. Like many who had failed to find this in California, ahead of most others, the Major again sought that dream in Nevada, with Carson City as its capitol.