Fort Churchill – William’s Station and the Pyramid Lake Wars

April 1st, 1860

This is a Teppline (Timeline) that identifies the main events regarding the establishment of Fort Churchill (Nevada) and the subsequent history of the fort, its demise, and its preservation and ultimately partial restoration.

This information is incomplete.  Subsequent information and research may reveal portions of this information as being inaccurate.  This does, however, represent the best available information circa 1959.

Dates are represented by an eight digit number.  The first four digits are the year.  The next two digits are the month.  The final two digits represent the day (civil day) of the month.  A double zero indicates that either the month or the day has not been identified.  Information in parentheses indicates the approximate duration of the event described.

The geographical information reflects location names and political subdivisions in current use, not necessarily names or subdivisions in use at the time of the event.

The purpose of this post is for educational purposes and to aid in a detailed historical discussion of the events as well as to encourage further research and information gathering.  This version has been compiled from previous versions and was last updated March 24, 2010.  Submissions of documented corrections and additions are most welcome.

April 1, 1860
_________________________________________________________________________
1860
_________________________________________________________________________
1860.00.00

North America – United States of America – California / Nevada – Sierra Nevada Mountain Range (Region)
~  The winter of 1859 – 1860 is a very severe winter in the northern region of the Sierra Nevada’s.
_________________________________________________________________________
APRIL 1860
_________________________________________________________________________
1860.04.01

North America – United States of America – Nevada – Storey County –
Virginia City –
~  The first child to be born in the new mining settlement of Virginia City is born.  The Virginia City area is also known as the Comstock Lode.
_________________________________________________________________________
1860.04.03 – 1861.10.24  (19 months)

*  PONY EXPRESS BEGINS OPERATION
North America – United States of America – Missouri – Buchanan County
Saint Joseph –
~  The Pony Express begins operations, carrying mail on a 1,996-mile route between St. Joseph, Missouri and San Francisco, California.  The route crosses Nevada across the center of the state along the new Simpson trail, a shorter route that for most of its distance is far south of the original California Trail that followed the meanderings of the Humboldt River to the north.  New stations are established along the way, but at Ragtown (near the Carson and Humboldt Sinks) the new route joins the older immigrant trail and one Pony Express Station beyond (going west) is “Williams”.

~  The route followed by the Pony Express across Nevada would later become what is now essentially U.S. Route 50.
_________________________________________________________________________
1860.04.00

North America – United States of America – Nevada – Washoe County – Pyramid Lake
~ A council of the people (Western Shoshone (Paiute) Indians) living in the Pyramid Lake area meets to discuss the problems created by the increasing encroachment of the mud (white outsiders) people.  Numaga, leader among the Paiutes urges caution and conciliation.
_________________________________________________________________________
MAY 1860
_________________________________________________________________________
1860.05.07

*  WILLIAM’S STATION INCIDENT
North America – United States of America – Nevada – Lyon County – Big Bend of the Carson River –
William’s Station
~  Five (5) people are found dead at William’s Station, a trading post and Pony Express Station, located at the lower (northwestern) end of the Big Bend of the Carson River.  It appears that Indians attacked the station and killed those who were there.  Word quickly spreads about “the William’s Station incident”.

~  William’s Station is a prosperous one-room trading post and saloon situated near the convergence of  the new Simpson Emigrant Trail and the southern branch of the original California Trail.  It has also recently become a Pony Express Station.  The station is located near the Carson River on the “north” (actually “west” at the Big Bend) side of the river, approximately ten (10) miles northeast of Buckland’s Station, owned by Samuel S. Buckland (Sam Buckland).  Buckland’s Station is the next station to the west as the route follows the Carson River upstream toward the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

~ The site (with a new cabin) will later be known as Honey Lake Smith’s or the Honey Lake Smith Place.  It is at this cabin that Samuel Clemmons (Mark Twain) will struggle against a flooding Carson River (about 1862) a true story described with some embellishment in the book “Roughing It” by Mark Twain.

~  In May of 1860 the site was named for the “Williams Boys”, three brothers from Maine.   James O. Williams was the oldest, he was assisted in the operation of the post and station by his two younger brothers – Oscar Williams and David Williams.

~  In early May, James was called away on business, leaving his younger brothers to “mind the store”.   These two brothers are soon joined at this cabin post by three other men:  Sam Sullivan, James Fleming, and a third man, known only as “Dutch Phil”.

~  Several different accounts claim to relate what then really happened.  The initial and perhaps most widespread account suggests that it was an unjustified and wanton attack by Indians, feared to be the first skirmish in a much larger war designed to drive the “white man” out of the region.

~  Those that knew those that were killed had other theories.  The fact is that the William’s boys apparently were gamblers and perhaps not particularly honest ones.  The story suggests that three unknown gamblers lost all their money (“coin”) to the William’s boys and rather than take their losses at this remote location, these gamblers decided to subsequently murder their gambling associates and retrieve not only their losses, but to also rob the coin of the trading post.  To conceal their crime they set fire to and burned the cabin with the bodies of those murdered inside.  The incident was then reported, accusing the “Indians” of the murders and holding the Indians responsible for the burning of the station.

~  A third, and apparently truer story reveals the character, or rather lack of character of the two younger William’s brothers.   In this account, while their older brother is gone, the two younger brothers remaining at the trading cabin detain (kidnap) two Indian girls who probably came to the station to trade.   The girls are held captive for several days, and are probably subjected to various sexual depredations (rapes) by the five men that were at this small cabin.

~  Members of the girls tribe are understandably incensed by this outrage, and nine braves attack the station to free the captured women, which they succeed in doing.  However, before their departure, all five occupants at the station end up dead.   Four are evidently killed and the fifth is found drowned.

~  Reports claim that the Indian’s had planned to go on to Buckland’s Station next, but instead decide to return north to Pyramid Lake, their area of life and council.

~  The story is greatly complicated by the fact that the assumption of most of the “whites” at the time, and of most of the “white” writers subsequently, is that the “Indians” involved in the incident were Paiutes from the Pyramid Lake region.  Actually, after the passage of several years it is learned that the “Indians” involved were probably from Walker Lake to the south, and were of a different tribe.
_________________________________________________________________________
1860.05.07

North America – United States of America – Western Nevada
Carson City / Virginia City
~  The incident is characterized as a “massacre”.  Word spreads rapidly through the Carson Valley and to Virginia City.
__________________________________________________________________________
1860.05.08

North America – United States of America – Western Nevada
Carson City / Virginia City
~  A small and motley band of volunteers joins together as “an army of retribution”, some are armed with only knives and ropes, many are full of whiskey, they leave Carson City intent on making the perhaps seventy (70) mile trek to Pyramid Lake.  Their wish (when sober) is retaliation and their aim is vengeance, although some clearly join the assemblage out of curiosity or a sense of adventure.  They are under the leadership of a (former) U.S. Army Major by the name of William Ormsby.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.05.09

North America – United States of America – Nevada – Lyon County
Buckland’s Station –
~  The next day US Army Major Ormsby and this motley assemblage of volunteers arrive at Buckland’s Station.  They pick up various additional volunteers, including some from Virginia City and others from the greater Virginia City area, along the way.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.05.10

North America – United States of America – Western Nevada
Carson River / Truckee River
~  While some ride upon horses, most of this band spends three days walking, marching, and drinking their way along the trails along the Carson River to a point near William’s Station and then cross overland across 14 miles of low flat hills to arrive at the Truckee River near the site of the present day community of Wadsworth.  There they encamp.

~  The assembled party at this encampment by the Truckee now numbers one hundred and five (105) men.  __________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.05.12

*  FIRST PYRAMID LAKE INDIAN WAR
North America – United States of America – Nevada – Washoe County –
Truckee River – Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation – Fort Ormsby
(7 miles south of Nixon on Nevada Route 446)
~  On this fifth day the force of a hundred and five (105) continues downstream along the Truckee River toward Pyramid Lake, in search of Indians.  By late morning Indians are sighted at a point along the Truckee River approximately eight miles north of the site of the (Wadsworth) encampment.   With U.S. Army Captain Ormsby in the lead, the band quickly gives chase down a bluff and into a small valley along the river.

~  The revenge blinded volunteers rush into a thoughtfully planned ambush.  In the ensuing battle between fifty and seventy-five (50 – 75) of these volunteer Indian fighters are killed.  An unknown number of (perhaps none of) the Indians are killed.  U.S. Army Major Ormsby is numbered among the dead, as is a Doctor Fjaden from Virginia City.  “Dutch” Charley saves his life by jumping into the Truckee River and hiding there.  Well less than half of the force that set out on this ill-conceived expedition returns alive.

~  The Paiute warriors are led into battle by Numaga, convinced by the William’s Station Incident that peace with the mud people invaders might be difficult.

~  The site of this battle will later be named Camp Ormsby.  Camp Ormsby is located “seven miles southeast” of the community of Nixon, Nevada (on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation – Washoe County) on Nevada Route 446 (formerly Nevada Route 34).

~  This successful military operation (by the Paiute Indians) represents perhaps the biggest defeat of a U.S. Army led operation in the history of the U.S. west if measured in the number of enemy dead and enemy casualties (with the exception of the defeat of Custer).  In the case of Custer the Indians had suffered substantial losses (mostly civilian) before the deciding battle.  In the case of the Pyramid Lake Indian wars the Indian deaths and casualties were (probably) comparatively minimal.  Some authors have put the number of casualties among Ormsby’s troops as high as 250; the 50 – 75 number is the official figure used by the U.S. Army.  Modern writers place the number at 76 – without citing a reliable source, making a list of names, or identifying graves.

~  As the survivors straggle back toward the communities of Carson and Virginia word quickly spreads, with the help of the Pony Express riders, about the “Ormsby Massacre”.

~  This was the first major conflict between the new immigrants and the Indians in the vast Great Basin that occupies the space between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada’s.   News of the battle and corresponding rout caused near panic in many residents of this enormous region extending from the eastern foothills of the Sierra to the shores of Salt Lake.

~  Women and children hastily gathered in stout buildings for protection against the wholesale attack that was believed to be imminent.  Guards are posted and volunteer militia groups are organized in almost every non-native settlement, regardless of size.

~  Terrified residents of Honey Lake Valley (Susanville, California area), fearing an imminent Indian attack, build a stockade for protection and call it Fort Janesville.  (No attack ever occurs.)
__________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.05.13

North America – United States of America – California – Sierra County –
Downieville –
~  Word soon reached the nearest telegraph station, located on the other side of the Sierras in Downieville, California.  A telegram was sent from Downieville, California on May 13th  1860 to U.S. Army General Clark, commanding officer of the Pacific Coast Division of the United States Army, headquartered on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, requesting arms.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.05.15

North America – United States of America – California – San Francisco County –
San Francisco – Alcatraz Island
~  Help in the form of a US Army infantry and artillery detachment is quickly dispatched by orders from Alcatraz.   The 207 men are placed under the command of  U.S. Army Captain Joseph Stewart.  Stewart is charged with conducting the 300 mile march through the California Coast Range, across the Sacramento central valley, up and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and down along the Carson River and ultimately over to the Truckee river.   The nearly 300 mile march to the Truckee encampment site will take nearly two weeks.

~  It is not unreasonable to believe that the troops actually went as far as Sacramento by steamer or riverboat, although there is no clear and known documentation regarding the specifics of the journey.

North America – United States of America – Western Nevada
Carson City / Virginia City
~  A call also goes out for new volunteers from the region to assemble at the north bend of the Truckee River (Wadsworth) where they will “meet up” with the California detachment.

~  In light of Brigham Young’s rebellion, the group tries to make it clear that they are not in any way connected with “Utah, or Utah Territory” and select the name “Nevada Volunteers” to distinguish their growing assemblage of area men.  These new volunteers, realizing the problems created by the failure of the first expedition to secure experienced leadership, choose U.S. Army Colonel Jack Hays, an experienced “Indian fighter”, as their commander.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.05.30

North America – United States of America – Nevada – Lyon County – Big Bend of the Carson River –
William’s Station
~  U.S. Army Captain Rowe, Samuel Buckland and two companies of regulars and a company of volunteers meet at the site of William’s Station.  They then move to the Truckee River and camp just “below or east” of Wadsworth.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.05.31

North America – United States of America – Nevada – Lyon County –
Wadsworth
~  By May 31, 1860 the number of volunteers assembled along the Truckee River (at Wadsworth) has grown to
approximately 530 men.  They are organized into “eight companies of infantry and six companies of cavalry” comprising about 40 men to each company.

~  On this same date the main body of the detachment of 207 men led by U.S. Army Captain Joseph Stewart finally reaches the Truckee River assembly area.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.06.01

North America – United States of America – Nevada – Washoe County –
Truckee River
~  The combined force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery; numbering more than 700 men, begins the march toward the Pyramid Lake Indian settlements.

North America – United States of America – Nevada – Washoe County –
Truckee River – Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation – Fort Storey
(4 miles south of Nixon on Nevada Route 446)
~  The combined force moves down the river (north) twelve (12) miles and camps.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.06.02

*  SECOND PYRAMID LAKE INDIAN WAR
North America – United States of America – Nevada – Washoe County –
Truckee River – Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation – Fort Storey
(4 miles south of Nixon on Nevada Route 446)
~  U.S. Army Captain E.F. Storey strikes camp and leads a group further down the Truckee River and “finds” the Indians; a force of between two and three hundred disciplined braves mounted on horseback (Paiute cavalry).
They chase him back to camp.  At the camp a fight ensues in which U.S. Army Captain E.F. Storey is killed and several others (3 – 7) die, one from friendly fire.  The record states that, “At least one scalp is taken” (who scalps who is not known, U.S. soldiers and civilians sometimes scalped Indians).

~  Various “triumphal” stories are later told that give rise to the claim that in this battle over half of the attacking Indians (160) are killed.

~  The site of this battle will become known as Fort Storey, located “twelve miles north” of Wadsworth – on old Nevada Route 34; now Nevada Route 446.  A monument dedicated to Captain Storey is located in the Masonic Cemetery at the north end of town, to the east, in Virginia City, Storey County, Nevada.

~  Captain Stewart insists on waiting until the next day to pursue the Indians, so they escape toward Pyramid Lake.
(Note:  Captain Stewart’s behavior strongly suggests that his combined force did not kill the 65% of the enemy that some have attributed to him.)
__________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.06.03

*  SECOND PYRAMID LAKE INDIAN WAR
North America – United States of America – Nevada – Washoe County –
Truckee River – Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation – Fort Storey
(4 miles south of Nixon on Nevada Route 446)
~  The party pursues the Indians to the mouth of the river and then over to Mud Lake (now called Winnemucca Lake).  “About noon” the Indians are discovered to have gone up into a “deep canyon” toward the hills (possibly in the Warrior Peak area).

~  Robert Lyon, Ben Webster, Bill Allen (of Silver City, Nevada) and Samuel Buckland “scout” up the canyon (Sam Buckland smokes his pipe).  They find the Indians (and the Indians find them).  The Indians open fire and Bill Allen is killed – shot in the mouth.  The surviving three flee down the canyon, Samuel Buckland is hit in the leg by a spent bullet.  The party returns that night to Williams Station (apparently on horseback).
__________________________________________________________________________________________________
1860.06.04

North America – United States of America – Nevada – Ormsby County –
Carson City –
~  On June 4th the Sam Buckland and part of the Carson City group returns to Carson City.

North America – United States of America – Nevada – Storey County –
Virginia City –
~  On June 4th U.S. Army Colonel Jack Hays and the first of the Nevada Volunteers returns to Virginia with exaggerated and triumphant stories of “fighting Indians”.  After years of suffering these ever growing stories Sam Buckland writes his story down.

North America – United States of America – Nevada – Washoe County –
Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation – Fort Haven
(6 miles northwest of Nixon on Nevada Route 447)
~  On June 4th U.S. Army Captain Joseph Stewart is not convinced that he has achieved an overwhelming victory over the Paiute Indians and fears the possibility of further conflict with these Pyramid Lake Indians.  He orders his troops to dig temporary earthworks at a site that is approximately two miles north and west of where the Truckee River empties into Pyramid Lake.  He sees it as a place of rest and relaxation from the long march and sudden battle, it is referred to as Fort Haven.

Thus ends the two most significant battles of what came to be called the “Paiute War of 1860”, the “Pyramid Lake Wars”, or the “Pyramid Lake Indian Wars”.

This Teppline is continued in posts found in July of 1860.

[Post originally written:  2010.03.24 / Fort Churchill – William’s Station and the Pyramid Lake Wars]