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Maj. Ormsby, others perish fighting Indians

Sue Ballew
Special to the Appeal

Who knows what fortune or misfortune the spring of 1860 might bring? Lance Nightingill’s reports from Black Rock seemed to indicate about 150 Indians were at Pyramid Lake hunting and fishing. There was peace among them except that some of the cattlemen had “violated faith with them – had deceived them …” and the Indians had retaliated by executing a few cattle, according to the Territorial Enterprise. The cattlemen retaliated and took some horses belonging to the Indians. Later, when the Nightingill party went upstream to do some fishing, his friend Robert McDowell disappeared “… undoubtedly killed by the red devils.”

The sad news came in a Territorial Enterprise Extra, “Indian Fight at Pyramid Lake.” In an incident at Williams Station, parties had gone out to investigate the murder and burning of Williams Station. Apparently two brothers had kidnapped two Indian sisters, only 12 years or so, molested them and hid them. This enraged the tribe. The girls’ father killed the two brothers and three others and burned the station (from onlinenevada.org/pyramid_lake_war).

This incident caused an expedition led by Carson City Rangers, Genoa Rangers, Virginia Rangers and Silver City Guards that were all under the command of Major Ormsby. The Indian fight at Pyramid Lake began on the morning of May 12 at Big Meadows on the Truckee River. There were a few warriors on a hill to the right of the Meadows. The rangers were told not to fire until an order was given, but one of the men shot an Indian with a telescope rifle and the Indians began firing on the party. ” … the Indians retreated until they got the whites into a position which suited them; they then commenced a murderous fire.” About 50 or 60 of the party were killed, and about 500 Indians fighting, 150 on horseback (Shoshones, Pah-Utahs and others). Among those killed: “Major Ormsby, Dr. Tjader, Henry Meredith, W. S. Spear, Mr. Armstrong, J. Bowdes, A. R. Elliott. K. Newton, R. Nowden, Mr. Galehousen, W. Hawkins, A. Havens, G. Jonner, W, Macintosh, T. Kelley, A. G. R. Hammond, Bob Ridley, Mr. Allen, and Wm Armington. Many still missing.”

On May 19th, 1860, the Territorial Enterprise headline said, “Death of Maj. Ormsby.” “The death of Maj. Ormsby is occurrence that requires something more than a passing notice at our hands. He was born in Mercer County, Pa., September 3d. He came to California across the plains in 1849. Recrossed them again in 1852 and 1855 … he was extensively engaged in staging and various other kids of business. In April 1857 he came to Genoa, Carson Valley. He was the first man who conceived and carried into execution the plan of applying to Congress for a separate Territorial organization … The future history of Nevada Territory will bear honorable testimony to the memory of Maj. Ormsby… Courageous as a lion he died fighting bravely till the last. ‘He sleeps his last sleep, He has fought his last battle…’ He has left an amiable wife and interesting daughter to mourn his loss.”

During these sad times people were in a panic. Armed forces were coming from all directions. Col. Sanders of Sacramento arrived on the 17th with 25 stand of arms and 8,000 rounds of ammunition … Mr. Wallace of Placerville came too with 47 stand of arms. “Arms and ammunitions are on their way here as fast as possible. We will soon have here … enough men and arms to whip all the Indians in Utah and the Mormons into the bargain.” People were guarding their lives and building forts for safety. Families were leaving Truckee Meadows, Steamboat and Washoe taking their stock and household goods. Miners were coming to Carson and Virginia, leaving “small squads of armed men…” Many of the Washo came into town and gave up arms, then to Lake Bigler [Lake Tahoe] for spring hunting and fishing. Mining was temporarily suspended. A proclamation was made, “That during sixty days, or until the settlement of the present Indian difficulties, no claim or mining ground within the Territory, shall be subject to re-location, or liable to be jumped for non work.” Even the Pony Express was interrupted.

In Virginia City, women and their children were put in an unfinished stone house later called Fort Riley. In Silver City a fort was erected on rocks that overlooked the town and a cannon was mounted to keep invaders away. The Penrod Hotel in Carson City was used as fortification with barricades and pickets and in Genoa the stone house of Warren Wasson was taken as a fort (History of Nevada 1540-1888 Hubert Howe Bancroft).

On the wall of Carson City’s Foreman-Roberts House Museum is a framed display of James Doane Roberts “Certificate of Indian Wars” along with a watch with an Indian etched on the back and a medal. He too fought in the Pyramid Lake War, but lived to tell about it – and the rest is history.

• Sue Ballew is the daughter of Bill Dolan, who wrote the Past Pages column for the Nevada Appeal from 1947 until his death in 2006. She is president of the Carson City Historical Society.