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Paiute War
Part of the American Indian Wars
Numaga, high chief of the Paiute during the war.
Date 1860
Location Pyramid Lake, Nevada
Result United States victory
Flag of the United States (1859-1861).svg United States Paiute
Commanders and leaders
United States William Ormsby
United States John C. Hays
United States Joseph Stewart
207 cavalry
649 militia
~500 warriors
Casualties and losses
~80 killed
~35 wounded
Unknown killed
Unknown wounded

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 May 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 settlers 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 tremendously 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 were committed by both Paiutes and the settlers. 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 1859-1860 was particularly cold and snowy in the Great Basin, creating great hardship for 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 monopolization and destruction of local food supplies by the settlers.


Williams Station MassacreEdit

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. This raid was in retaliation for the kidnap and rape of two young Paiute girls by the proprietors of the station. Three Americans were killed and the station was burned.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. It was organized as follows:[1]

  • Genoa Rangers - Captain F. F. Condon
  • Carson City Rangers - Major William Ormsby
  • Silver City Guards - Captain R. G. Watkins
  • 1st Virginia City Company - Captain F. Johnston
  • 2nd Virginia City Company - Captain Archie McDonald

First Battle of Pyramid LakeEdit

Ormsby's command assembled at the ruins of 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,[2] and many of the others were wounded. The number of Paiute killed is not recorded, but thought to be quite small in comparison.[3]

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 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. Up to 500 Paiutes are thought to have participated in the battle. The total of dead was seventy-six civilian militia members. It is unknown how many Paiutes were killed.[4]

Organization of U.S. ForcesEdit

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, Nevada City, CA and Sacramento CA.[5] 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 J. Saunders
  • Major Daniel E. Hungerford


  • Company A “Spy Company” – Captain L. B. Fleeson
  • Company B “Sierra Guards” – Captain E. J. Smith
  • Company C “Truckee Rangers” – Captain Alanson W. Nightingill
  • Company D “Sierra Guards” – Captain J. B. Reed
  • Company E “Carson Rangers” – Captain P. H. Clayton
  • Company F “Nevada Rifles” – Captain J. B Van Hagan (CA)
  • Company G “Sierra Guards” – Captain F. F. Patterson
  • Company H “San Juan Rifles” – Captain N. C. Miller
  • Company I “Independent City Guards of Sacramento” – Captain A. G. Snowden (CA)
  • Company J “from Sacramento” – Captain Joseph Virgo (CA)
  • Company K “Virginia Rifles” – Captain Edward Farris Storey
  • Company L “Carson Rifles” – Captain J.L. Blackburn
  • Company M “Silver City Guards” – Captain Ford
  • Company N “Highland Rangers/Vaqueros” – Captain S. B. Wallace
  • Company O “Sierra Guards” – Captain Creed Haymond

Carson River Expedition
Field & Staff

  • Captain Joseph Stewart
  • Captain T. Moore, Quartermaster
  • Lieutenant Horatio G. Gibson, Asst. Commissary of Substance


  • Company G, 3rd U.S. Artillery - Captain Joseph Stewart
  • Company I, 3rd U.S. Artillery - Lieutenant Horatio G. Gibson
  • Company A, 6th U.S. Infantry - Captain F. F. Flint
  • Company H, 6th U.S. Infantry - Lieutenant J. McCreary

Second Battle of Pyramid LakeEdit

In late June, Stewart and Hays retraced the steps of Ormsby's command and met Numaga's Paiutes at the same location as Ormsby's fight. Hays and Stewart defeated Numaga 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 regiment members were killed in the second battle of Pyramid lake, and 160 Paiutes were claimed to have been killed.[6]


After the 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 riders distinguished 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. [7]

See alsoEdit


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

External linksEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Egan, Ferol. Sand in a Whirlwind: The Paiute Indian War of 1860. Lincoln: University of Nevada Press, 1985. ISBN 0-87417-097-4

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