Who was Major William Ormsby? Part 3 | NevadaAppeal.com

Who was Major William Ormsby? Part 3

Richard Moreno
The tragic events of the Pyramid Lake War took place along the steep banks of the Truckee River as it winds its way to Pyramid Lake.
Richard Moreno

Throughout 1858 and 1859, Maj. William Ormsby — no doubt recalling lessons learned in the founding of Sacramento — developed his real estate holdings, particularly in Carson City, where he wholeheartedly embraced city founder Abraham Curry’s vision of the community as the seat of a new state capital.

In 1858, he opened a general store in Carson City — said to be the first commercial business in the city — and a year later constructed a two-story adobe hotel at the corner of Second and Carson Streets.

Called the Ormsby House, it was the city’s first substantial lodging house and not coincidentally was located across the street from Curry’s plaza, which the latter hoped would one day become the site of a state Capitol.

But, according to historian Sally Zanjani, Ormsby did not become a major player in the fabulous mining boom underway in nearby Virginia City, although he bought several mining claims.

Seeing new millionaires cropping up seemingly overnight in his own backyard must have alarmed Ormsby, who perhaps feared these nouveau riche mining barons would surpass him in terms of political influence.

In the spring of 1860, however, tragic circumstances presented Ormsby with a chance to climb back into the spotlight just as the movement to create a new territory was gaining momentum in Washington.

In early May, two young Paiute girls (said to have been 9 and 12) were discovered imprisoned at a trading post along the Carson River that was called Williams Station. Once word spread, a group of Paiute warriors attacked the station to free the girls.

The group killed Oscar and Edwin Williams, who owned the post with their brother, James, as well as three guests, and burned the station. James Williams, however, escaped and quickly alerted others of the attack.

Soon, white settlers throughout the eastern slope were in a panic about impending Indian attacks. Local militias quickly formed in Genoa, the Virginia City area and Carson City to protect residents and, on May 7, the groups agreed to join together to take the fight to the Native Americans clustered at Pyramid Lake.

An expeditionary force of 105 men set out from Virginia City. In his book, “History of the Comstock Lode,” published in 1883, mining historian Elliott Lord described the citizen militia as a “motley company mustered from the mining towns and settlements in the valley, poorly mounted and armed as a rule with wretched muskets and shot-guns.”

The army included the Carson City Rangers, a group of about two dozen volunteers and local soldiers from the future Capital City area led by none other than Maj. William Ormsby.

On May 9, 1860, the company set off for Williams Station, arriving a day later. After burying the dead, they voted unanimously to continue to Pyramid Lake to avenge the attack.

They spent the next night near the present-day community of Wadsworth before heading north along the Truckee River to the lake. About three and a half miles south of the lake, the trail dropped down a steep incline into a broad meadow, bordered by a mountain to the west and a higher plateau to the east, with clusters of cottonwoods growing along the river.

Shortly after riding into the meadow, the militia encountered a group of Native American warriors standing on an elevated point to their right front, just out of gunshot range. Ormsby is said to have given the order for the company to dismount and tighten their saddle straps in preparation for a charge.

The militia members climbed back onto their horses and the order was given to pursue the distant warriors. A group of about 30 rode up onto the plateau but when they arrived the Indians seemed to have disappeared.

However, another group of Indians appeared on a rise that was again just out of range. As the confused riders began to ride out to confront them once again, Paiute warriors armed with rifles and bows suddenly cropped up from behind the sagebrush in front and to the flanks of the militia members and started firing at the citizen soldiers.

As the confused militia members attempted to retreat, they encountered additional warriors, who continued the attack.

The battle turned into a rout and Ormsby, who had been wounded in both arms and in his mouth, tried to rally the surviving members of his group to retreat via the steep trail that had led them into the meadow.

However, they were quickly surrounded by the Native American fighters who maintained their furious assault. Riding on a mule that had been shot through its flank, Ormsby tried to ride out of the meadow but his saddle turned and he was thrown to the ground.

According to later accounts, Ormsby pleaded for his life with the warriors but was cut down by several arrows and died on the battlefield. He was 45 years old.

(More next week in part 4.)

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.