Dennis Cassinelli: The Pyramid Lake Indian Wars, Part 4: The Aftermath
In this, the last article in the series about the Pyramid Lake Indian Wars, I tell about the consequences of this tragic and memorable time in the history of Nevada. As with many wars that have been fought throughout our history, there were no real winners.
In terms of the number of combatants killed or wounded, the totally unprepared militiamen of the first battle who marched against the Indians following the Williams Station incident suffered the greatest number of casualties; 76 of them were killed and many more were wounded. Three more were killed in the massacre at Williams Station. There were reports that the Indians were justified in the killings at Williams Station due to the white men at the station having kidnapped and molested two Paiute girls.
Casualties suffered by the Indians were much lighter in terms of numbers killed and wounded. It has been difficult for historians to quantify the actual number of Indian casualties. Often the Indians were seen taking dead or wounded warriors away from the battlefields and no one is sure how many there were. Eyewitness accounts are widely varied. The real casualty of the war to the Indians was the loss of their way of life being destroyed by the sudden influx of whites into the territory following the discovery of silver in the Comstock. They had the foresight to send their women and children off to seek refuge in the Black Rock Desert country when the threat of war became eminent.
When the much larger force of military men came after the Indians following the first battle, the Indians were wise in making a retreat to the north to minimize their casualties. The second battle proved inconclusive, since there was no real defeat of the Indians. The real defeat to them was the loss of their lifestyle and the freedom to pursue the hunter-gatherer way of life that had sustained them for the past 10,000 years. Undoubtedly many of these people may have starved or were forced to move away from the area to find refuge among other tribes.
Back in Virginia City and other places on the Comstock, there was a major panic after the massacre at Williams Station and especially after the First Battle at Pyramid Lake in which the Indians clearly defeated the militiamen. People were spooked at all sorts of rumors about Indians seen coming up Gold Canyon after them and threatening to kill everyone. In their panic, some miners built a large cannon out of wood banded together with iron and set it up on the rocks at Devil’s Gate near Silver City. Fortunately, they never had to use it because when it was finally set off some time later, it exploded into smithereens.
The federal forces quickly built a small fort at the south end of Pyramid Lake in case any threat of hostile Indians surfaced. Several skirmishes continued for a few months, but were not of any consequence. The small fort near Pyramid Lake was abandoned in 1861 when Fort Churchill was built further south along the banks of the Carson River. This was located on the route of the Overland Trail and the Pony Express for protection of people traveling west to the Comstock and California. During the time of the Indian hostilities, there were actually some delays in mail service due to ambushes at some of the pony express stations.
A number of the Indians who had fought in the Pyramid Lake Indian Wars went on the participate in the Bannock Indian battles in Oregon and Idaho. Like the Pyramid Lake battles, these were fought due to the loss of food and other resources brought on by the influx of white settlers taking possession of former Indian lands.
In August 1860, an informal cease fire between the whites and Numaga was reached in the area north of Pyramid Lake. By 1861, many of the Indians began returning to the reservation at Pyramid Lake. With the limited resources then available to them, they made a determined effort to assimilate somewhat to the life enjoyed by the white settlers. Some of the men found work on the farms and ranches of the region. Women began to seek jobs as domestic workers in various capacities. In 1890, the Stewart Indian School was established in Carson City in an effort to encourage young Indian children to assimilate into the culture of the whites.
Some enterprising Indians found a market in Virginia City for the salmon-like cutthroat trout and Cui-ui fish they caught at Pyramid Lake. Wagon loads of the fresh catch were brought to the Comstock to provide fresh fish for the restaurants and markets. A cannery was set up in Wadsworth during the 1880s to process the fish being caught at Pyramid Lake and nearby Winnemucca Lake.
Eventually, a small colony of Indians set up camps of sorts near Virginia City, Dayton, Reno, Carson City and other western Nevada towns to be near where they could find work among the thriving white population. It took time for the whites to get over their fear of the Indians and the Indians had an uphill battle finding work in a population filled with distrust and prejudice. Those who chose to stay on the reservations were provided with housing and a food allowance by the federal government. It was many years before the Pinion forests returned following the Comstock boom so the Indians could once again gather the pine nuts they once used for their survival. And thus ended one of the more painful stories in the history of Nevada.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.