The Pyramid Lake Indian Wars, Part 1: Williams Station Massacre

Silver was discovered on the Comstock Lode in 1859. This immediately started a rush to the area unprecedented in the history of the region. Immediately, there was a great strain placed upon the meager resources of this desert region. Hundreds, then thousands of people converged on the Comstock seeking their fortunes as best they could. To make matters worse, the winter of 1859/60 was exceptionally severe and the resources of food, building materials and land became dangerously scarce. The native Indians who had survived quite well for thousands of years by living off the land were suddenly faced with competition for the food, timber and hunting grounds they had depended upon for their survival for millennia.

A few prospectors and settlers did not pose much of a problem for the Indians. When the massive influx of fortune seekers flooded into the area in 1859 and 1860, however, the native population realized they could no longer maintain the hunter/gatherer lifestyle they had enjoyed. White settlers began to build ranches and farms along the Carson River where the best hunting grounds had been. Miners, speculators and entrepreneurs took claim over vast tracts of grazing land, cut down hundreds of acres of the pinion forests and ruined the chances for a pine nut harvest which the Indians depended upon for survival.

To make matters worse, the one Paiute Indian respected by the white settlers, Old Chief Winnemucca, died in the severe winter of 1859. For years, he had been able to keep a fragile peace with the white settlers. With his loss, there was no one to speak for the Indians and negotiate mitigation of their grievances. Desperate for food supplies, hundreds of Paiute Indians from different bands congregated at Pyramid Lake in the spring of 1860 to await the annual spring fish run.

Many of the leaders of the Pyramid Lake Indian community began to fear that war was inevitable, considering the increased resentment of the white “invaders.” In April of 1860, a council of tribal leaders was held at the Pyramid Lake settlement to debate whether or not to wage full-out war with the whites. Among all those tribal leaders, there was only one who foresaw the evils that would result to his people should they wage such a war. This was an eloquent warrior named Numaga. He was not the War Chief of the Paiutes, but the chosen leader of the people living on the Pyramid Lake Reservation.

In addition to the local Paiute Indians, the council included members of the Shoshone tribe. For several days, participants, including chiefs from all around the Great Basin, recounted one event after another, expressing their grievances about treatment by the whites. Numaga alone spoke out against the demands for war. He declared, “Your enemies are like the sands in the bed of your rivers; when taken away, they only give place for more to come and settle there.”

On May 6, 1860, word reached the council that nine renegade braves led by “Captain Soo” had attacked and burned Williams Station along the Carson River and killed four whites. It was said the attack was in retaliation for some of the white men residing at the station who were reported to have raped and molested two Indian girls.

Williams Station was a stagecoach stop with a saloon and general store along the Overland Road owned by James O. Williams. It was located about eight miles northeast of Bucklands’ ranch. This area is now covered by the waters of Lake Lahontan. James Williams was away from the station at the time, but his two brothers, Oscar and David, were among those killed.

When the messenger brought word of the attack to the Council at Pyramid Lake, Numaga gazed off in the direction of Williams Station and replied, “There is no longer any use for council; we must prepare for war, for the soldiers will now come here to fight us.”

Apparently, J.O. Williams returned the next day and discovered the still smoldering ruins and the bodies of his murdered brothers. He quickly made his way to Virginia City and reported the incident and the news caused a general panic throughout the region. Within a few days, a militia was formed to retaliate against the attack. A militia of about 105 mostly untrained volunteers was formed to apprehend those who had raided Williams Station. The group included men from Virginia City, Silver City, Dayton, Carson City and Genoa.

The poorly equipped and unorganized army of volunteers under the command of Major William Ormsby of Dayton set out on their mission of vengeance. My next article in the series will relate the tragic result of this campaign.

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About Dennis Cassinelli

Dennis Cassinelli is a Nevada author, historian and outdoorsman. He’s written extensively about American Indian culture and Comstock history. His book, Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians, contains up-close photographs and detailed pen-and-ink drawings of American Indian stone artifacts. It also contains a fold-out chronology chart showing projectile points across a 12,000-year time scale. The book is a must-have for every enthusiast of Great Basin archaeology. Dennis’s website is