California and the Indian Wars
The Paiute War

The Paiute War, also known as the Pyramid Lake War, Washoe Indian War and the Pah Ute War, was an armed conflict between Northern Paiutes allied with the Shoshone and the Bannock against the United States. It took place in 1860 in the vicinity of Pyramid Lake in the Utah Territory, now within present day Nevada. The war was preceded by a series of increasingly violent incidents, culminating in two pitched battles in which approximately eighty Americans were killed. The number of Paiutes killed in action is unrecorded.[citation needed] Smaller raids and skirmishes continued until a cease-fire was agreed to in August 1860, there was no treaty.

Early settlement of what is now northwestern Nevada had a tremendous disruptive effect on the Northern Paiute people. The fragility of the Great Basin ecosystem magnified this disruption despite the relatively low density of the settlers. These disruptions included the felling of Single-leaf Pinyon groves, a major food source for the Paiute, for the mining industry and monopolization of water sources. In addition, settlers and Paiutes competed for grazing lands. Several murders of settlers, including famed mountain man Peter Lassen, were widely attributed to Paiutes. Murders of Paiutes by Americans also occurred. The lack of effective government in the area meant that there was no formal judicial response to these incidents, leading to private retribution and a general atmosphere of fear and distrust. The winter of 1859 and 1860 was particularly cold and snowy in the Great Basin, and was a great hardship to the Paiute. Chief Winnemucca died in the winter of 1859. He had been influential among the Paiute, widely liked by the settlers, and therefore served as an ambassador and keeper of an uneasy peace. Paiute bands from across the Great Basin gathered at Pyramid Lake for the spring fish run due to failure of local food supplies.

Williams Station Massacre

Williams Station was a combination saloon, general store and stagecoach station located along the Carson River at the modern-day Lahontan Reservoir. On May 6, 1860 Williams Station was raided by Paiutes. Three Americans were killed and the station was burned. According to Sarah Winnemucca, this raid was in retaliation for the kidnap and rape of two young Paiute girls by the proprietors of the station. One victim managed to escape to Virginia City, and his story caused a general panic in the region. A militia was quickly formed from volunteers from Virginia City, Silver City, Carson City and Genoa with the purpose of apprehending the perpetrators. This force consisted of about 105 men and was under the overall command of Major William Ormsby.

First Battle of Pyramid Lake

Ormsby's command assembled at the ruins of the Williams Station, and then proceeded north to the Truckee River, and then along that river towards Pyramid Lake. On May 12 it was ambushed and routed by Paiute forces under the command of Numaga approximately five miles south of the lake. Seventy-six of the 105 militiamen were killed, including Ormsby[1], and many of the others were wounded. The number of Paiute killed is not recorded, but thought to be quite small in comparison.[2]

Accounts indicate that the volunteer militia of 105 were poorly armed, badly mounted, and almost completely unorganized. They met at Williams Station and finding no natives, they headed towards Pyramid Lake, a known settlement of the previously friendly Paiute Indians whose chief had recently died. Along the way they encountered a small party of Paiutes occupying a strong position on a rocky hill. The whites attacked the Indians who fled after returning a few shots. The Indians continued firing sporadically as they fled into the ravine with the 105 militia pursing them. Once in the ravine 200 to 300 Paiute warriors appeared and began shooting. They closed off the route of escape and fired on the militia from all sides. The civilian militia headed for a patch of woods as their only escape and some of the survivors of the battle were pursued twenty miles by the Paiute indians. Up to 500 Paiutes are thought to have participated in the battle. The total of dead was seventy-six civilians killed.[3]

Washoe Regiment & U.S. Regulars

In response to the first battle of Pyramid Lake, settlers called upon legendary Texas Ranger Colonel John C. Hays. Hays organized a force of local volunteer militia dubbed the "Washoe Regiment". The Washoe Regiment was composed of 13 companies from the areas surrounding Carson City NV, Virginia City NV and Sacramento CA.[4] In addition to the volunteers under Hays, the U.S. Army responded by sending a detachment of U.S. artillery and infantry from Fort Alcatraz, California. This contingent known as the "Carson River Expedition" was led by Captain Joseph Stewart. Hays' volunteers went into action at the battle of Williams Station and were then joined by Stewart's Regulars.

Washoe Regiment

Field & Staff

Colonel John C. Hays
Lt. Colonel Saunders
Major Daniel E. Hingerford


Carson Rangers
Carson Rifles
Coloma Grays
Highland Rangers “Vaqueros”
Independent City Guards of Sacramento
Nevada Rifles – Captain Van Hagen
San Juan Rifles
Sierra Guards
Silver City Guards
Spy Company – Captain Fleeson
Sutter Rifles
Truckee Rangers – Captain Lance Nightingill
Virginia Rifles – Captain Edward Farris Storey

Carson River Expedition

Field & Staff

Captain Joseph Stewart


Company H, 3rd U.S. Artillery
Detachment, 6th U.S. Infantry

Second Battle of Pyramid Lake

In late June Stewart and Hays retraced the steps of Ormsby's command and met the Numaga's Paiutes at the same location as Ormsby's fight. Hays and Stewart defeated Numage and the Paiute forces scattered across the Great Basin. After a minor skirmish in the Lake Range north-east of Pyramid Lake the volunteer forces were disbanded. Stewart's regulars stayed in the field for a little while longer before returning to the Carson River near Williams Station to construct Fort Churchill. Four whites were killed in the second battle of Pyramid lake-and claimed 160 Paiutes killed.[5]


After the inconclusive second battle of Pyramid Lake, the federal forces built a small fort at the southern end of Pyramid Lake to deny that area to the Paiutes. Small skirmishes and raids continued until August, when an informal cease-fire between Numaga and white surveyors working in the area north of Pyramid Lake was achieved. In 1861 the fort at Pyramid Lake was abandoned in favor of Fort Churchill, which was further south, along the Carson River. While the number of Paiutes killed in action during the Pyramid Lake War was probably quite small[citation needed], the disruption to food gathering activities, especially fishing in Pyramid Lake, may have killed more from starvation. The Bannock War of 1878 may be viewed as a continuation of the Pyramid Lake War, as some Paiutes and Bannock fought in both wars. The war is of particular note because of its effect on the famed Pony Express. Several stations were ambushed and the service experienced its first and only delays in delivery. A few brave riders distingushed themselves during this time, especially Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam, who accomplished (out of necessity) a 380-mile round trip between Lake Tahoe (Friday's Station) and Fort Churchill and back with only nine hours of rest around May 10 of 1860. [6]
[edit] See also


1. Find a Grave: Major William Ormsby,
2. The California State Military Museum; California and the Indian Wars, The Battle of Pyramid Lake
3. History of the Big Bonanza, William Wright, American Publishing Co, 1877, pp 118-120
4. Egan p.191
5. Find a Grave: William S. Allen,
6. Christopher Corbett, "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express", Broadway Books, New York, 2003, pp. 178-199.

The Battle of Pyramid Lake
by Mark W. Swarthout
This series of conflicts was caused by the kidnaping of two young Indian women by three white men who were subsequently killed by a band of rescuing Indians. In the first major confrontation May 12th, 1860 a poorly organized and badly armed group of Nevada Volunteers (which consited of white miners and settlers) led by Major William Ormsby were ambushed by Paiutes under Numaga at Big Bend in the Truckee River Valley in Nevada. This resulted in an Indian victory in which 76 white men, including Major Ormsby, were killed.
There was no mail service for a few weeks after Major Ormsby was defeated in the Battle of Pyramid Lake. The general Indian uprising at this time lead to attacks that resulted in the loss of many Pony Express riders along with their horses, not to mention the destruction of every rest station between California and Salt Lake.
In a later confrontation on the 2nd of June, the Indians were outnumbered by the now better organized settlers. The settlers proved victorious, killing almost 160 Indians while suffering a loss of only 3 or 4 of their own number. No further hostilities ensued; the Indians were driven off their reservation, but later were allowed to return so long as they agreed to use peaceful means to settle disputes and grievances.

The following newspaper article recalls the events of May 12, 1860:


    The Ovid Bee - September 26, 1860 CALIFORNIA.-- Rumor was rife here some two or more months ago that a brother of ours, (Mahlon) and a cousin, Eugene Angel, had been either captured or massacred by the Indians, in California, sometime in May last. We have been in painful suspense ever since, until a day or two ago, the following letter, written by a brother of Mr. Angel to his sister in Otsego county, arrived here, confirming the rumor in regard to the probable fate of our cousin -- and escape of our brother.



    Pilot Hill, El Dorado Co., California, June 8, 1860

    Dear Sister:--
    My letters have usually been of a sad and sorrowful nature, in giving a faithful account of the hardships and misfortunes that have attended Eugene and myself, but never has it fallen to my lot before to write a letter bearing so sad news as this.
    I lately sent you a paper containing an account of a battle with the Indians near Pyramid Lake, in Utah Territory (now the State of Nevada). Our dear brother Eugene was in the battle. You will see by the paper that nearly all the command retreated leaving a few brave and good men to the mercy of the Savages. A gentleman -- Maj. Ormsby was Captain of the company from Carson City, and Eugene was Lieutenant, Eugene, Maj O. and another person whose name has escaped my memory, were the last on the field. Maj. O. died a few miles from the battle ground, and the other escaped and reports that he saw Eugene's horse running amont the Indians without a rider. No one saw him fall, but his long absence forbids all hope. I did not learn of his being in the battle until two weeks after it, as his name was not reported in the papers, and Mahlon did not inform me of it, as he was endeavoring to raise a party to go in search of him and others, owing to the want of arms and the panic that existed he did not succeed. I expect to see Mahlon in a day or two and shall go over the mountain as soon as I can.
    The many reflections this sad occurrence gives rise to are too harrowing to my feelings to record. Eugene was brave, generous and honorable, and was cut off at the moment that a prospect of an easier and pleasanter life was opening to view but he has fallen--not unwept--no indeed--but unhonored and unknown. He had many friends in California and Utah, and none who fell are mourned more sincerely than Eugene. Poor Eugene! his acquirements and abilities were such as to enable him to rise to a higher position, but he was not one of those who press themselves forward into notice disregardful of abilities, as is the case with most of the prominent men of this State.
    Your affectionate Brother,
    Myron W. Angel




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Updated 8 February 2016