About Dennis Cassinelli

Dennis Cassinelli, avid outdoorsman, history buff and archaeology enthusiast, is the author of four books about the Great Basin region. Raised in Sparks, Nevada, Cassinelli developed an interest in Indian artifacts as a young boy working on his family’s ranch. In the early 1990s, he painstakingly identified hundreds of projectile points to create the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection, now located at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, Nevada.

Mammoth hunting in Nevada

I hope the title of my article does not prompt some local nimrods to apply to the Nevada Department of Wildlife for a mammoth tag. On the other hand, I can tell you with some authority that at one time, mammoth and other giant animals left over from the Pleistocene Age were hunted and eaten by some of the earliest hunters to enter the areas around the Great Basin.

Mammoth Tooth

This mammoth tooth is on permanent display at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, Nevada, as part of the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection.

In my younger years, I was an avid hunter of deer, antelope and upland game found in the deserts and mountains of the Great Basin. In those days, a hunting license cost $5, and a deer tag could be purchased over the counter for $7.50. Those days are long gone, but I still enjoy getting out in the hills and letting the elusive Chukar partridge make a complete fool of me.

I honestly can say that I have hunted one native Nevada animal that most hunters never even knew existed here. It may come as a shock to some people living in or visiting our fair state to learn that in years past, the slopes of the mountains and valleys of Nevada were grazed by herds of elephants, more properly known as mammoths. Imagine, if you can, driving across the desert hills near Winnemucca and spotting a family of elephants browsing along the banks of the Humboldt River. My first encounter of this beast was in the early 1960s when I was a field engineer for the Nevada Highway Department. I was working in the Winnemucca District Office when Jerry Fitch, the local resident engineer, invited me to go with him to the Rose Creek Gravel Pit about 10 miles west of town where an equipment operator had just uncovered a huge tusk in the floor of the pit. The blade of the scraper had skimmed the tusk, revealing the distinctive, nearly full curl of a mature mammoth tusk fossil.

Fitch notified Donald Tuohy at the Nevada State Museum of the discovery. Tuohy came out and spent several days hand-excavating the tusk and encasing it in a plaster-of-Paris cast so it could be transported without breaking. The tusk was taken to the museum storage facility in Carson City. I recently asked archaeologist Eugene Hatouri whatever became of the tusk. He told me it was still in storage and never had been removed from the plaster cast. I have seen other museum displays where such tusks were cleaned and polished so visitors could see, touch and feel the warmth and grain of the beautiful fossilized ivory. It almost gives a person a connection to the original animal to be able to touch and feel this polished ivory.

The Nevada State Museum has a display of a huge Imperial Mammoth skeleton that was found in the Black Rock Desert. The display is made of plastic castings of the original bones, as the originals are so heavy. I would challenge the staff at the museum to clean and polish one of the original ivory tusks for people to see and touch. The experience is unforgettable. Many mammoth sites have been discovered in the Black Rock Desert. Some of the sites had Clovis points nearby, indicating early hunters may have hunted or killed the animals. Clovis points are the stone lance tips that were used by early man for hunting mammoth before the creatures went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

It is well-known that Early Man entered the Great Basin more than 10,000 years ago. These people were hunter-gatherers who roamed the region in search of food. It’s also known that a few mammoths still roamed the region at the same time. Many mammoth remains from that time period have been uncovered. Many human hunting camps have been found from that same time. Clovis points have been found at some of these hunting camps. In other areas, Clovis points were used exclusively for mammoth hunting. By simple logic, we can conclude that the hunters were engaged in hunting the few remaining pachyderms.

My next encounter with a mammoth was a few years later when I was the one who made a discovery of mammoth remains. I was taking soil samples under the West Winnemucca Interstate-80 interchange when I noticed some fossilized material in the recently excavated roadway fill. I gathered up the fossils and put them in a canvas sample bag. I called Amy Dansie, fondly known at the Nevada State Museum as “The Bone Lady.” When I told her I had found some fossilized bones, she was skeptical and said I probably had just found some old cow bones. When I took them in to the museum for her to see, she looked in the bag and exclaimed, “Wow! These are Pleistocenes!”

I replied that I did not know what they were, but that there sure weren’t any live ones running around. Amy told me the fossils I had found were the teeth and jawbone of a young mammoth. She sent a paleontologist out to investigate further, but no more remains were found. She put the bag of mammoth teeth into storage with other such samples — except for one tooth, which I kept. I coated the crumbling fossil with resin to protect it and donated it to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center, where it is on display with a collection of Indian artifacts I had given to them. In Douglas County, there have been some excavations of mastodon bones in the Pine Nut Mountains. The Bureau of Land Management is limiting off-road vehicular travel into the Ruhenstroth area to protect the fossils in this region.

If you would like to read about how Early Man hunted and processed mammoth meat 10,000 years ago, I suggest you get a copy of a book I have written titled Legends of Spirit Cave. It is available at the Gold Hill Hotel bookstore near Virginia City. The book is a prehistoric novel that shows how people lived in this area near the end of the Pleistocene Age about 10,000 years ago, including how they hunted and killed the last mammoth. (The first chapter of the book, titled “The Last Mammoth,” can be read in its entirety right here.) Although the book is fiction, the way the people lived, the foods they ate, the medicines they used and the ways they interacted with one another all is researched and factual information. It is a fun book to read, and it really takes you back to the time when ancient hunters of Nevada pursued the mighty mammoth with nothing more than sharpened sticks and stones.

The Comstock’s first New Year’s Eve dance

Comstock New Year's Eve Dance

Gold was first discovered in 1849 by Abner Blackburn and several other placer miners at the mouth of Gold Canyon where it empties into the Carson River at Dayton. Shortly after the discovery, an influx of prospectors, miners and opportunists began working its way up Gold Canyon in pursuit of the elusive yellow dust. It would be another 10 years before silver would be identified as the most amazing mineral discovery of the century at the upper end of Gold Canyon.

Enterprising Spafford Hall saw an opportunity to make his fortune catering to the needs of the local miners and travelers passing through to the “real” gold fields in California. Hall constructed a substantial log store to become known as Hall’s Station. This was the first business established in what later would become known as Dayton, and Hall was the first permanent settler.

To provide entertainment to the miners, ranchers and employees at the station, Hall decided to throw Nevada’s first New Year’s Eve dance at the station on Dec. 31, l853. He invited a total of about 150 men from a radius of about 50 miles. Nine of the 12 women then living in this remote outpost of western Utah Territory showed up for the bash. I’m sure there was not a wallflower among them. They ranged in age from little girls to grandmothers. Miners, cowboys and ranchers waited their turn for a chance to dance with the ladies. They danced on the rough log floor to the music of a makeshift orchestra playing “Oh Suzanna,” Virginia reels and other popular ditties.

The affair lasted until the wee hours of the morning. When at last the party broke up and the revelers went out to get their horses for the long ride home, they found most of the horses were gone. It seemed that sometime during the fandango, a band of Washoe Indians drove off the horses to a place near the present site of Moundhouse. There, the Indians, who were fond of fresh horsemeat, were having their own New Year’s Eve party consisting of a horesmeat barbecue.

A search was begun by the hungover partygoers in an attempt to track down the missing animals. They set out on foot in the cold January air with headaches and a chill in their bones with a bitter contempt for the Washoe horse-nappers. It wasn’t until late the next afternoon that most of the horses were recovered. Two of the animals were never recovered and were considered eaten. Late New Year’s Day 1854, the participants of Nevada’s first recorded dance made their way home from the most memorable dance party they likely ever were to attend.

Later that year, Spafford Hall was severely injured in a hunting accident and sold the station to an employee, James McMartin. Major Ormsby bought the station sometime between 1854 and 1860. The title was still in his name when he was killed in the first battle of the Pyramid Lake Indian War. The site of Hall’s Station has been destroyed by the huge borrow pit at the mouth of Gold Canyon, which rivals in size to the pit at the upper end of the canyon at Gold Hill.

Perhaps someday, there may be a re-enactment of the events of the first dance ever recorded in what was to become Nevada. Because Hall’s Station no longer exists, it may be appropriate to hold the event at my office in Moundhouse. After all, some of the original festivities ended up in Moundhouse anyway. It seems to me that a community that holds events such as the World Championship Outhouse Races, the Camel Races, Bed Races, the Mountain Oyster Cookoff and other unusual events just might consider a celebration of Nevada’s first dance and even the horse barbecue that topped off the event.

Never mind — on second thought, I don’t think so.

How did the American Indians cope with winter weather?

Winter Weather

This column is dedicated to Angela Mann, editor of the Comstock Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving Virginia City and outlying areas. She posed to me the question of how the Indians who inhabited the Great Basin region hundreds and thousands of years ago were able to cope with the severe winters we have in Western Nevada. She wondered about the Indians of old and where they went to hunker down when these unpredictable winter storms set in.

People who live here today and complain when the Nevada Department of Transportation hasn’t plowed the road in time or when their heating bills are too high should look back in time a few hundred years to see just how winter weather affected the earliest inhabitants, the Indians.

Winter Weather 2

The first people to enter our region came here at least 12,000 years ago, just after the last Ice Age. They had no horses or other means of transportation except walking. They were hunters and gatherers who lived off whatever they were able to forage from the land. Over the years, they were able to develop a seasonal traveling lifestyle that took them to the best places to hunt and fish, and to gather berries, roots and nuts for their sustenance. As winter approached, they knew they had to have a stockpile of preserved foods and a relatively sheltered place to “hunker down” when the really severe weather set in.

Because these people lived a nomadic existence, few of them had any permanent home. They usually returned to a familiar place each winter to seek shelter. Some of the favorite places used by the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone Indians and their predecessors to spend the winter were near the many natural hot springs found throughout the region.

Most of these are located in a lower elevation than the surrounding mountains, and archaeological evidence shows that they were used extensively by the Indians. Simple shelters were set up using sagebrush, willows and stone. Food was placed in baskets and stored in grass-lined pits. Even in winter, some fresh fish, small game and waterfowl could be hunted.

Another favorite place for winter habitation was the thousands of small caves and rock shelters that could be found throughout Nevada. Whenever you see a cave or rock shelter in the nearby mountains, chances are it was used for human habitation at some time in the distant past. These caves include Lovelock Cave, Hidden Cave, Spirit Cave and hundreds of others found along the shore of ancient Winnemucca Lake and in the Grimes Point area just east of Fallon. The openings of these shelters often were covered with a wall of brush to keep the wind out. Small fires helped to break the chill, but the smoke was almost intolerable. Many of these caves have been found with well-preserved weapons, tools, artifacts, food-storage pits and even human remains in a mummified condition.

The people suffered greatly when the extreme cold weather set upon them. Frostbite was a common occurrence. Living in cramped quarters with nothing to break the chill but a smoky sagebrush fire and nothing to sleep on but a bed of branches covered with matting or hides surely made the long winter months miserable. The most severe condition happened when there was “pogonip.” The Indians called this condition the “White Death.” It occurred usually after a severe snowstorm followed by extremely low temperatures. The high humidity created an icy fog that clung to trees, sagebrush and other flora. Anyone breathing the icy crystals was exposed to a terrible respiratory ailment that sometimes caused death.

A woman having a child during the winter months had to be able to care for the child and travel with the clan when spring came. A shocking reality happened when twins were born: The woman was expected to kill one of the children in order to be able to care for the other. When the first white explorers came into the region, a common remark seen in their diaries was the fact that the Indians wore very little clothing, even in the winter. The natives had become so accustomed to the severe conditions that they simply did not need the amount of clothing their white counterparts did.

All this and more is described in detail in my book about the Spirit Cave Man, titled Legends of Spirit Cave. In this exciting prehistoric novel about the ancient Nevadans, you can get a true feeling of what life was like for these people thousands of years ago.

The Night Before (a Comstock) Christmas

Comstock Christmas Bells

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the mines,
The men heard the whistles that signaled the time.

From the bowels of the earth, they were pulled to the top,
Up out of the shaft, then they came to a stop.

From the Chollar and Yellowjacket they came,
From the Savage and Belcher, and some with no name.

With lanterns in hand and dirt on their faces,
They started their hike to their favorite places.

The frozen snow sang as they walked or they rode,
Up the hill to the bars of the old Comstock Lode.

They went to the Delta or the Boston for action,
Others to the Bucket of Blood for their satisfaction.

Saloons and bars were their gathering places,
When drinking and gambling and hoping for aces.

Some men ordered whiskey, some ordered wine,
Cold beer was a favorite — soon all men felt fine.

The big shots showed up and bought a few rounds,
While girls of the evening came out on the town.

At midnight, the whistle of the Lyon heard clear,
Across the Divide announced Christmas was here.

The bells of Saint Mary and Saint Paul’s soon did ring,
Calling the faithful to worship their King.

The miners raised their glasses to toast and to cheer,
And to remember the fellows who no longer were there.

In the east, the clouds parted to reveal a star bright,
The men went out to see in the cold, winter night.

And when they returned, they raised up a cheer,
“Merry Christmas to all, and a Happy New Year!”

Rock art for your yard

IMITATION ROCK ART FOR SALE: $40-$50, depending on size, complexity and quality of design. Local delivery within 30 miles of Carson City, Nevada, for additional $10. Small rocks also available.

IMITATION ROCK ART FOR SALE: $40-$50, depending on size, complexity and quality of design. Local delivery within 30 miles of Carson City, Nevada, for additional $10. Small rocks also available.

For many years, I was a construction inspector for the Nevada Department of Transportation and for several consulting engineering companies providing inspection services on highway construction projects. This vocation took me to nearly every town in Nevada and to the surrounding states as well. Sometimes, out of boredom while waiting for the next load of pavement to arrive, I would gather a few of the chocolate-colored boulders covered with desert varnish that could be found alongside the highway.

With a sharp rock or even a hammer and chisel, I would carve petroglyph designs on the boulders by cutting away the thin layer of desert varnish. This resulted in a sharp image of lighter color just as one would see on a genuine Indian petroglyph. I would leave these works of art in the back of my pickup truck until one or more of the workers on the crew spotted them. The question usually asked was, “Where did you find those petroglyphs?”

Rock Art 1

Rock Art 3

The designs were convincing enough, I could have fooled some of the people they were genuine petroglyphs. I always fessed up that they were of my own creation and more often than not, the guys I showed them to offered to buy them from me. The attraction of owning one of these creations is to set it in a strategic location in your yard where visitors might Rock Art 2think they were the genuine article.

I estimate I have made and sold hundreds of these imitation petroglyphs and given many others to friends and relatives. I never had a craft show, garage sale or yard sale where I did not sell out my entire inventory of rock art.

I have searched the various petroglyph sites to find interesting designs of petroglyphs from many sites around the American West. Some of the designs by the early native Indians were truly works of art. Some may seem crude by modern standards but they reflect the imagination and talents of hunters and craftsmen from hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Rock Art 4In a previous article, I told about the various types of petroglyphs that can be found in the few remaining places where we can still go to see them. In addition to the unexplained images of spirals, parallel lines, zig-zags and curved lines, there are hundreds of other more recognizable images. Some of my favorite subjects are human images of warriors, shamans, and ghost-like semi-human creatures. Rock Art 5Others seem to depict galaxies and even space craft-like conveyances. What inspired the creators of these type of images is anyone’s guess.

Animal figures drawn by the ancient hunters are always interesting topics. I have seen hundreds of images of deer, elk, bison, bears, lizards, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and other creatures drawn by the ancient hunters. It seems they liked to display the animals they hunted either as a wish for a successful hunt or as a way of displaying something they had actually taken.

I have considered going into the business of selling my petroglyph art work on a large scale to people who would appreciate an interesting depiction of art from our prehistoric past. A limiting factor to this venture is the logistics and cost of shipping a heavy boulder and still keeping the price within reason. If prehistoric rock art is of interest to you, please contact me using the form below.