Major Ormsby’s dream
May 15, 2008
Editor’s note: This is the first 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 “Profit, Plots and Lynching”
Perhaps more than other Nevada towns or cities, Carson City was born of specific reasons. Strong beliefs lie at its root. Those reasons inform the City and helped to create Nevada.
The West ought to be different from the East. Nevada ought to be different from California. Longtime Carson residents lead visitors toward an image of 19th century western life – to old houses and museums – and not to the monoliths of state government that fill the center of town. Growth is sometimes guided toward images of the past and away from the frivolity and transience that characterizes other Nevada spots. Carson City holds fast to a dream of the West that may have come and gone elsewhere, a dream that propelled the gold rush and then the silver rush.
Who had this dream? Who planted these ideas here along the eastern slope? Who wanted co-existence with the Paiutes and stood for the rule of law along the emigrant trail? Who felt that California had failed in its promise to create a new empire of democracy, unrestricted labor and American profit? Who planned for cities in the desert, including Carson and Virginia? Who has been forgotten because his death left only an incomplete vision and a sketchy trail of backroom machinations? Major William Matthew Ormsby.
Today, Carson City’s image of settlement may seem to be the statue of Abraham Curry, gazing across the lawn on the Legislative plaza, blueprints in hand. A perpetual booster of Carson City, Abraham Curry embodies the local story of hometown western growth. In contrast, his tale buried by the pain of conflict, William Ormsby looms over the creation of Nevada and Carson City like a puppeteer pulling the strings.
His name is rarely mentioned except in conjunction with an unfinished hotel.
Major, as his friends called him, came from Pennsylvania. His title may reflect participation in the state militia. He married into a well placed southern family. He trekked to California during 1849. In California, Major failed at nearly everything he tried. His effort to open a Sacramento mint rested on the abilities of a dentist hired to melt the gold dust. His journey to the East to bring horses for sale in his brother-in-law’s Sacramento horse market resulted in the death of all the horses. He was the last man to attempt the ill-advised Hasting’s Cutoff of Donner party fame. His crusade to Nicaragua with William Walker ended when the locals resisted the benefits of Yankee improvement.
Like many men in gold rush California, Ormsby interpreted this poor record not as a personal flaw but as a sign that the world needed changing. During 1857, Major arrived in Genoa, then part of Utah Territory, as agent for Jared Crandall’s Pioneer Stage line. He came as point man in a visionary political effort.
For years, leading Californians had asked for federal funding of a stage line from the East to the West. With Congress failing to act, Crandall, Ormsby and others set out to build a stage line from the West to the East. Among the goals for many – as documented in a book by Ormsby’s friend and cohort, Judge James Crane – was an increase in California’s population so that its southern half could become a slave state. By mirroring the abolitionist/slave split between states in the East, the West could, many felt, preserve true democracy, local rights and the national harmony. With the East edging steadily toward conflict over slavery or states’ right (depending on your slant) Ormsby appears to arrived in Genoa, Utah Territory, to make it the focal point for this effort.
In Genoa, Ormsby rang his cowbell and called a meeting to petition Congress for a new Territory. The convention sent Judge James Crane to Washington. Ormsby and Crane hoped to find Southern support for a new territory. They called it Sierra Nevada Territory because their local supporters resided mostly to the north, in Honey Lake. There, Issac Roop was sub-dividing land and wanted to avoid paying California taxes. If the border to the new Territory could be the crest of the Sierra Nevada, Honey Lake would reside in the new territory and not in California.
The Major appears to have inherited a Honey Lake treaty with the Paiutes. Ormsby made friends with Chief Winnemucca and took Winnemucca’s daughter, Sarah, into his house. This appears to have been an effort to improve communication between settlers and Native Americans.
On the day of the Genoa meeting, renegades from the Humboldt stole the supplies Ormsby had taken to the Truckee Meadows for a stage station. The Major rode East to the Humboldt and talked to traders. A few days later, someone tried to burn down Ormsby’s house in Genoa. Ormsby concluded that a band of renegades and outlaws was committing depredations along the emigrant trail. It may well have been true. However, it has never been clear that the effort was as organized as Ormsby supposed. He may have been a man who created great plans but he may also have been a man who supposed grand schemes among his enemies. Whether this was his personality or an effect of the local stimulant, strychnine whiskey, isn’t clear.
Ormsby identified the leader of the local opposition as the legendary local gambler, Lucky Bill. This may have been a convenient conclusion. In Carson Valley and across the far West, Lucky Bill was well liked. Where Ormsby was quiet and calculating, Lucky Bill was bold and an extrovert. That winter, Lucky Bill, Uncle Billy and the undercover reporter for the San Francisco Herald, Richard Allen, seem to have gotten together and proposed a different new Territory – Carson Territory. They were not well organized. They too may have been drinking strychnine whiskey, sometimes called Tarantula Juice.
During spring of 1858 it was conveniently noticed that Lucky Bill may have murdered a man. A posse of Honey Lake “Neversweats” – apparently referring to their casual life-style – rode south to Genoa. Ormsby showed them where to find Lucky Bill’s house. They built a scaffold, held a trial and hanged Lucky Bill. Ormsby’s friends now declared themselves a “People’s Committee” – a euphemism for vigilantes. Ormsby was careful never to directly join their actions. He rarely spoke to the press. The Major was a man who rang a cowbell and called meetings.
• Next week: Major Ormsby meets his end.
Learn more about Major Ormsby
The Carson City Historical Society will hold a lecture on Major Ormsby by Chris Bayer at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Carson City Library, 900 North Roop St.
Bayer will tell a story of political intrigue, profit and war along the Eastern Slope, and talk of the vigilante committee that created Nevada Territory and set Carson City in place as its capital.