Dennis Cassinelli: Indian Wars Part 3: Conflict persists in second battle
In my previous article, I told about the ill-prepared attempt by the quickly formed Comstock militiamen to retaliate for the massacre at Williams Station. This group of 105 untrained volunteers was gathered from the farms, mines and businesses around the Comstock region. Not expecting the resolve of the 700 Paiutes gathered for a council at Pyramid Lake, these inexperienced militiamen were quickly defeated. Seventy-six of them, including Major Ormsby, were killed in the brutal first battle. The survivors, many of them wounded, limped back to Virginia City to regroup. Typical of the tragic events in that battle was the death of Major Ormsby.
In his attempt to escape the horde of Indians driving the whites from the narrow valley, Major Ormsby was riding a mule that had been shot through the flank and spurted blood with every step. The major had been shot in the mouth and wounded in both arms, yet he rode on. Others of the group wanted to rally another attack, but the major warned they should do what they could to save themselves.
As Ormsby was halfway up the steep grade leaving the narrow valley, his saddle turned and threw him to the ground. The major then walked to the top of the grade and turned around to face the pursuers. He recognized some who he had met before and desperately tried to seek mercy from them based on the past friendship he had with them. This proved of no use and he was killed with arrows to the stomach and in the face.
The remaining escapees continued on toward where Wadsworth now stands until it became too dark for the Indians to see them any longer. In all, there were 76 militiamen killed that day in the most disastrous conflict the whites ever waged in what is now the state of Nevada. Most of the survivors were wounded, but the Indians suffered no loss of life and just a few wounded braves.
Since the first attempt to defeat the threat of violence from the Indians had miserably failed, the local settlers and the mining interests on the Comstock decided to seek help from nearby California.
Former Texas Ranger, Colonel John C. Hays, happened to be in Virginia City at the time on business and promptly organized a regiment of about 500 volunteers which he called the “Washoe Regiment.” Placerville, Sacramento and Nevada City contributed another 160 volunteers to the effort. Hays and the Washoe Regiment quickly marched out to Williams Station and had a brief skirmish with about 150 Paiutes. The Indians retreated back home to Pyramid Lake and sent all their women and children to hide out in the Black Rock Desert, knowing a major battle was imminent.
Meanwhile, Captain Joseph Stewart, Commander of Fort Alcatraz in San Francisco, took command of a regiment of 200 regular army soldiers called the “Carson Valley Expedition.” Stewart’s forces joined up with those of Col. Hays near where Wadsworth is now located on June 1, 1860. Col. Hays took command of the combined forces and the expedition headed north along the Truckee River to engage the enemy on June 2, 1860.
Col. Hayes sent an advance party of two companies down river where they soon found the scattered remains of many of those volunteers killed in the first battle nearly a month earlier. The main force moved slowly and cautiously at some distance behind and made a stand in a mile-wide canyon flanked on the west by the steep Virginia Range and on the east by the Truckee River. This was done to prevent being outflanked by the Indians. Near the middle of the battlefield there was a rocky butte with gullies running down the sides where troops could find cover for making a stand.
The advance party encountered the Indians rapidly coming toward them in a wedge-shaped formation. The advance party quickly retreated back toward the main force. The Paiutes advanced so quickly they took possession of the rocky butte and formed a skirmish line that extended from the Truckee River to the mountains on the west. Captain Stewart’s Regulars formed the skirmish line along the west side and the volunteers formed to the east along the river. Captain Edward Farris Storey, commanding the volunteers from Virginia City, and Captain J.B. Van Hagen from California each led their companies to make a charge on the rocky butte and succeeded in taking it back from the Indians.
The Paiutes were slowly driven back along the skirmish line on the west side near the mountains by Captain Stewart’s forces and along the river by those of Col. Hays.
The battle line was nearly a mile long. For three hours the fighting continued until at last, the Paiute forces retreated back along the Truckee River toward Pyramid Lake.
On June 4, Captain Stewart’s forces followed the path of the retreating Indians and found their village at Pyramid Lake to be abandoned. Col. Hays sent a group of scouts in pursuit of the Indians through a canyon northeast of the lake on June 5. The scouts were ambushed and Private William Allen was killed. He was the last casualty of the Pyramid Lake Indian War. Also killed was Captain Edward Farris Storey. He has been honored for his service and sacrifice by the people of the Comstock by having Storey County named for him. Major William Ormsby, killed in the first battle, has been honored by naming Ormsby County (now Carson City) after him.
Following the battle, Captain Stewart and his men built several earthen fortifications in the event the hostile Indians returned to the area to resume the fight. These were later abandoned when Stewart was assigned to construct a more permanent fort along the banks of the Carson River near Bucklands ranch. This was to become Fort Churchill.
In this, the second battle, there were three whites killed and five wounded. There are conflicting reports on how many Indians were killed since they carried many of their dead away with them as they retreated. In all, 750 volunteers and army regulars participated in the campaign. It’s estimated there were 300 Paiute braves involved in the battle. An estimated 25 of them were killed and perhaps 20 more were wounded.
In my next and final article in this series, I will tell about the aftermath of this tragic time in our history and the construction of Fort Churchill to protect people from future Indian attacks.
Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount to reduce inventory and Dennis will pay the postage.