Indian arrow straightener found 
at construction site

Arrow Shaft Straightening Stone Native American stone tools

Arrow Shaft Straightening Stone, on display at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center.

Many, many years ago, I was looking at home lots being cleared in a new residential area along the Carson River southeast of Carson City. As I walked through the sagebrush across a rather steep slope, I noticed a smooth, fist-sized cobble on the ground that seemed to be out of place for the area when compared to the rough, broken natural stones that littered the hillside. Being somewhat of a rockhound and an amateur archaeologist, I picked up the stone and examined it more closely. I immediately recognized that the rock had been worked by the hands of man, and at first I thought it was a mano.

For those of you who may not know, a mano is a flat, smooth stone used by the American Indians with a larger flat or slightly concave stone for the purpose of grinding or hulling nuts, seeds or grain.

Upon closer examination, however, I determined that the stone was not the common mano, which really is quite abundant in the fields and places where prehistoric Indians were known to have lived. This stone differed from a mano in several distinct ways. These differences enabled me to identify the item as an arrow-shaft straightener rather than a common mano.

Carved or worn into the edge of the stone was a distinct groove that was highly polished. The groove was about 1/4” wide and 3” long. The stone was flat, and both sides were blackened from having been heated in a fire. During the process of making arrows, the wooden shaft must be perfectly straight in order for the arrow to fly straight and true for the desired accuracy. This was accomplished by using a heated stone to rub along the arrow shaft to work out the natural irregularities in the wood. The user held the hot stone with a piece of leather and rubbed it back and forth on the convex side until the arrow became straight. The hot stone also helped to smooth and polish the arrow shaft.

I since have seen other specimens of shaft straighteners from different areas around Carson City, Virginia City and Como almost identical to the specimen I found. The straightener obviously had been a tool that was widely used by the local Indians. This is just one example of the rescue of an unusual artifact from a construction site before it was buried by heavy equipment or hauled away during construction. I donated this specimen to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, Nevada, where it remains on display with hundreds of other Indian artifacts in the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection.

I have written a book about this and the other artifacts in the collection. The title is Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians. It is available at the Mark Twain Bookstore and the Gold Hill Hotel bookstore. There is a delightfully humorous story in the last chapter that tells how the local Indians made their arrows, including how the arrow straighteners were used. The book contains hundreds of illustrations and descriptions of arrowheads, tools and other artifacts found in western Nevada. Every spring, I do a lecture about prehistoric Nevada at the Gold Hill Hotel, where I display and discuss this and many other Great Basin Indian artifacts. I hope to see you there.

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.

American Indian Rock Art

Rock Art 1

American Indian rock art found on boulders covered with desert varnish at the Grimes Point Petroglyph site east of Fallon, Nevada.

Throughout Nevada and other places in the American West, examples of  American Indian rock art, otherwise known as petroglyphs or pictographs, can be found.

Petroglyphs are images that are carved, pecked or scratched into the surface of a suitable stone. This can be as simple as grooves etched or scraped into the rock to create a desired image, or it can be done on rock surfaces covered with a brown or black coating known as “desert varnish.” This method reveals a lighter color of rock beneath the thin coating of the rust-colored desert varnish.

Rock Art 2

Important: Please do not touch petroglyphs or pictographs, as this can cause irreversible damage. Also, be sure to stay on designated trails.

Desert varnish is a complex chemical reaction that occurs over a long period of time when moisture, dust, manganese, iron and other elements stain the surface of stones, boulders and rock cliffs in a desert climate. Most of the petroglyphs found in Nevada have been drawn on surfaces having desert varnish. Modern people have attempted to decipher or speculate on the meaning of these Rock Art 3images. Despite these efforts, the true meaning of most of these remains a mystery.

Another type of rock art is called pictographs. These are created when the artist uses stains of natural materials to paint an image on stone. These are usually found only in caves or sheltered locations where the dye or paint cannot be easily washed away.

There are several types of petroglyphs and pictographs. Those with geometric patterns of wavy lines and circles are called the curvilinear style. Rock art with straight and parallel lines in geometric patterns are called rectilinear style. Both of these can be found at the Grimes Point petroglyph site east of Fallon, Nevada. Rock art representing animals can be found at many sites in and around the Great Basin. These can show bighorn sheep, deer, lizards and other animals. They are called zoomorphic images. Any rock art showing images of human figures, shamans or imaginary human-like creatures are called anthropomorphic images.

The question always arises of how old the rock art images might be. This has been one of the most difficult questions to answer with any accuracy. We do know that images showing the use of the atlatl or throwing stick are likely over 1,500 years old. Representations showing figures using the bow and arrow are more recent and are likely less than 1,500 years old. Occasionally, pictographs with organic binders in the pigments can be dated with the radiocarbon method. Relative age can sometimes be determined by the amount of desert varnish that has covered over the images since they were originally made. Recently, petroglyphs in the Winnemucca Lake area were determined to be about 14,000 years old.

For people on the Comstock, the closest rock art site for them to see is also one of the largest in the state of Nevada. Just a few miles north of Virginia City along the Lousetown Road is the Lagomarsino Canyon Petroglyph Site. This can also be reached
from Reno and Sparks from I-80 east at Lockwood and traveling south on Canyon Way.

Another popular site nearby is the Grimes Point Petroglyph site a few miles east of Fallon, Nevada just off US-50. There are petroglyphs in the Peavine Mountain area, Pyramid Lake, Winnemucca Lake and several other scattered locations around western Nevada. It is best to get a map of the area you wish to visit and follow a few basic rules of rock art preservation. I have seen many petroglyphs while on hunting trips around Nevada over a period of many years. One of the sad things about the petroglyph sites available for us to see is the damage that has been done to this valuable prehistoric resource by thieves and vandalism. Please do not even touch the petroglyph images when you visit these sites. People have damaged many of the carvings with spray paint, firearms, chalk, oily hand prints, graffiti and even careless footprints.

The Nevada Rock Art Foundation has taken up the task of helping to preserve the many rock art sites in Nevada. They have stewards who visit the sites on a regular basis and report vandalism and damage to the authorities when it occurs. Several people have been prosecuted for stealing or damaging petroglyphs found on public lands. Feel free to take all the pictures you want, and please stay on the designated trails when visiting a site. It can be an enjoyable experience seeing the amazing art created by the people who inhabited the area hundreds and thousands of years ago.

For those of you who would like to own a sample of rock art legally, I will tell you how this can be done in an upcoming post. (Hint: They’re very modern, and are made by a person with the initials D.C.)

Stay tuned for a surprise!

Learn the Secrets of Lovelock Cave

The docents of the Nevada Historical Society at 1650 North Virginia Street in Reno have invited me to present a talk about one of Nevada’s most significant archaeological discoveries, Lovelock Cave. For two years I have been volunteering as a tour guide at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City where I take tour groups through the “Under One Sky” exhibit that shows how the ancient Indian tribes lived here in the Great Basin for the past 12,000 years. Most of what we know about the prehistoric Indians is from things recovered from places such as Lovelock Cave and Hidden Cave.

Several times during my career with the Nevada Department of Transportation, I was stationed in the town of Lovelock, Nevada. Having not much else to do in my spare time, I explored much of the surrounding desert lands including Lovelock Cave, about 22 miles south of town. In 1911, a mining operation removed several hundred tons of bat guano from the cave to be sold in California as fertilizer.

Within a year, they had to stop the mining operation due to the discovery of hundreds of Indian artifacts, including baskets, tule matting, clothing items and human mummies. Archaeologist Llewellyn Loud from the University of California was sent out to conduct excavations and recover the artifacts before they were all destroyed or taken by looters. He collected 10,000 specimens from the cave that were divided between the University of California and the Nevada Historical Society.

It is known that many priceless artifacts and even some human mummies were taken from the cave by weekend curio hunters during the next several years. In an effort to stop the ransacking of the cave, Archaeologist Mark Harrington arrived at the cave in 1924 along with Mr. Loud and a crew of local Indian assistants and conducted a comprehensive excavation of the cave to recover the remaining artifacts and thoroughly document the material they collected.

Loud and Harrington wrote a book titled “Lovelock Cave” that was published in 1929. I have a reprint copy of the book which contains many photographs and drawings of the artifacts and human remains they had recovered. One of the most amazing artifacts they found was a basket of eleven duck decoys buried in one of the many storage pits inside the dry cave where they were perfectly preserved. Unfortunately for us, many of the artifacts have been taken to museums outside the area. No one knows for sure how much stuff was looted from the cave before archaeologists completed their excavations.

Early reports concerning the items found in the cave included stories of giant skeletons and mummies with red hair. Authors such as Sarah Winnemucca added to the myths by repeating some of the mythical stories. It does not seem possible that these giant skeletons and mummies with red hair were anything more than tall tales in view of the fact that not a single specimen of anything like this still survives today.

I have written about Lovelock Cave in several of my books but I clearly show that the stories of redheaded Indians and giant skeletons are fictional stories unless someone can come forth with some actual specimens. In reading the archaeological information compiled by Loud and Harrington, I have never seen any reference to such items. Had they made such a discovery, it would have been written about just as the discovery of the amazing duck decoys were.

Should any of my readers like to attend the presentation I will be making at the Nevada Historical Society, it will be on June 4th between 10:00 and 11:00 am. I will be signing books and showing pictures of the cave and the things found there. I believe the docents will have some of the actual artifacts out where we can see them.

WHAT: Learn the Secrets of Lovelock Cave

WHERE: Nevada Historical Society, 1650 North Virginia Street, Reno, Nevada

WHEN: 10-11 a.m. Wednesday, June 4

The Stewart Indian School

The Pyramid Lake Indian war of 1860 marked the beginning of an extremely difficult time for the American Indian population of the Great Basin area. Until this time, the Indians and the European emigrants were able to tolerate each other with just a few exceptions.

When silver was discovered on the Comstock Lode in 1859, there was a sudden increase in the white population of Nevada Territory. With this increase in population came an increase in demand for resources including food, water, land and timber. The white emigrants took over the traditional lands where the Native Americans had hunted and gathered for their subsistence for centuries.

Farms, mines and mills took over the places where Indians had hunted and fished for food. The pine forests were cut for firewood and lumber where the Indians had once gathered pine nuts to help them survive the winters. Since the Native Americans had few skills useful in a more modern world and few could speak English, jobs were near impossible for them to find. Discrimination following the Indian Wars made matters worse. Some Indians camped on the outskirts of Virginia City, Dayton and Carson so they could scavenge for food and clothing and look for menial jobs they could do.

In 1860, California attorney William Stewart arrived in Virginia City at the time when Indian-White Relations were most volatile. In 1865, Stewart became Nevada’s first senator. He was very supportive of Indian education in order to improve their social and economic situation in the state. While in congress, Stewart worked with the Indian Service and served as chairman of the Commission on Indian Affairs. He thought that rather than relying on the reservation system, Indians would be better served with training that would help them to become self sustaining individuals and citizens.

In 1888, Stewart introduced a Senate bill to establish an Indian school in Nevada. With Stewart’s political persuasion, an Indian boarding school was established south of Carson City in 1890 with money and land dedicated by Ormsby County. Senator William Stewart helped obtain funding from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also succeeded in establishing the University of Nevada, first in Elko, then in Reno.

During the early years, the Stewart Indian school was a boarding school for elementary students learning to speak and read English, basic math and some vocational skills. It later had a high school with a graduation program and a first class athletic department. Students at Stewart were required to live on campus and were not allowed to speak their native languages. In addition to the local Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe Indians, there were tribes represented from California, Arizona and New Mexico.

The campus grew in size to about 80 buildings. There was a gymnasium, swimming pool, boarding houses, offices and residences for staff members. A railroad spur for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was built to bring passenger and freight service to the campus. The campus had a cemetery where Washoe Indian basket maker Dat So la Lee is buried.

Discipline was very strict at the school and the students were required to attend classes for about half of each day, then work in vocational training the other half. The vocational part of the training included work on the campus such as carpentry, masonry and agriculture. The students planted and harvested crops that were used to feed the student body and staff. Farm animals were raised for meat and dairy products. Girl students operated the laundry, performed sewing and dress making. Many worked in the kitchen preparing meals and doing cleanup chores.

If you visit the Stewart campus today, you can still see many of the old colorful stone buildings built by Hopi Indian stone masons from rock they gathered along the Carson River. When I was a child on our family farm in Sparks in the 1940s and 50s busloads of the Steward Indian students came out to pick potatoes each fall during harvest time. This was cheap labor for the farmers and it made extra money for the school. The workers were not paid, since the experience was considered part of their education.

The Stewart Indian School closed in 1980 after 90 years of operation. The campus was taken over by the State of Nevada as an office complex. My landscape company was hired in the 1980s to install sprinkler systems in some of the lawn areas for the State Public Works Dept. For several years, there was a small museum at the Stewart campus. I donated an interesting collection of Indian artifacts to the museum where it was displayed until the museum closed. I then repossessed the collection and re-donated it to the Carson Valley Historical Museum in Gardnerville, where it resides today.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli

The Pyramid Lake Indian Wars, Part 4: The Aftermath

In this, the last article in the series about the Pyramid Lake Indian Wars, I want to tell about the consequences of this tragic and memorable time in the history of Nevada. As with many wars that have been fought throughout our history, there were no real winners.

In terms of the number of combatants killed or wounded, the totally unprepared militiamen of the first battle who marched against the Indians following the Williams Station incident suffered the greatest number of casualties. 76 of them were killed and many more were wounded. Three more were killed in the massacre at Williams Station. There were reports that the Indians were justified in the killings at Williams Station due to the white men at the station having kidnapped and molested two Paiute girls.

Casualties suffered by the Indians were much lighter in terms of numbers killed and wounded. It has been difficult for historians to quantify the actual numbers of Indian casualties. Often the Indians were seen taking dead or wounded warriors away from the battlefields and no one is sure how many there were. Eyewitness accounts are widely varied. The real casualty of the war to the Indians was the loss of their way of life being destroyed by the sudden influx of whites into the territory following the discovery of silver in the Comstock. They had the foresight to send their women and children off to seek refuge in the Black Rock Desert country when the threat of war became eminent.

When the much larger force of military men came after the Indians following the first battle, the Indians were wise in making a retreat to the north to minimize their casualties. The second battle proved inconclusive, since there was no real defeat of the Indians. The real defeat to them was the loss of their lifestyle and the freedom to pursue the hunter-gatherer way of life that had sustained them for the past ten thousand years. Undoubtedly many of these people may have starved or were forced to move away from the area to find refuge among other tribes.

Back in Virginia City and other places on the Comstock, there was a major panic after the Massacre at Williams Station and especially after the First Battle at Pyramid Lake in which the Indians clearly defeated the militiamen. People were spooked at all sorts of rumors about Indians seen coming up Gold Canyon after them and threatening to kill everyone. In their panic, some miners built a large cannon out of wood banded together with iron and set it up on the rocks at Devil’s Gate near Silver City. Fortunately, they never had to use it because when it was finally set off some time later, it exploded into smithereens.

The federal forces quickly built a small fort at the south end of Pyramid Lake in case any threat of hostile Indians surfaced. Several skirmishes continued for a few months, but were not of any consequence. The small fort near Pyramid Lake was abandoned in 1861 when Fort Churchill was built further south along the banks of the Carson River. This was located on the route of the Overland Trail and the Pony Express for protection of people traveling west to the Comstock and California. During the time of the Indian hostilities, there were actually some delays in mail service due to ambushes at some of the pony express stations.

A number of the Indians who had fought in the Pyramid Lake Indian Wars went on the participate in the Bannock Indian battles in Oregon and Idaho. Like the Pyramid Lake battles, these were fought due to the loss of food and other resources brought on by the influx of white settlers taking possession of former Indian lands.

In August of 1860, an informal cease fire between the whites and Numaga was reached in the area north of Pyramid Lake. By 1861, many of the Indians began returning to the reservation at Pyramid Lake. With the limited resources then available to them, they made a determined effort to assimilate somewhat to the life enjoyed by the white settlers. Some of the men found work on the farms and ranches of the region. Women began to seek jobs as domestic workers in various capacities.

Some enterprising Indians found a market in Virginia City for the salmon-like cutthroat trout and Cui-ui fish they caught at Pyramid Lake. Wagon loads of the fresh catch were brought to the Comstock to provide fresh fish for the restaurants and markets. A cannery was set up in Wadsworth during the 1880’s to process the fish being caught at Pyramid Lake and nearby Winnemucca Lake.

Eventually, a small colony of Indians set up camps of sorts near Virginia City, Dayton, Reno, Carson City and other western Nevada towns to be near where they could find work among the thriving white population. It took time for the whites to get over their fear of the Indians and the Indians had an uphill battle finding work in a population filled with distrust and prejudice. Those who chose to stay on the reservations were provided with housing and a food allowance by the federal government. It was many years before the Pinion forests returned following the Comstock Boom so the Indians could once again gather the pine nuts they once used for survival. And thus ended one of the more painful stories in the history of Nevada.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli

The Pyramid Lake Indian Wars, Part 3: The Second Battle

In my previous article, I told about the ill-prepared attempt by the quickly formed Comstock militiamen to retaliate for the massacre at Williams Station. This group of 105 untrained volunteers was gathered from the farms, mines and businesses around the Comstock region. Not expecting the resolve of the 700 Paiutes gathered for a council at Pyramid Lake, these inexperienced militiamen were quickly defeated. 76 of them, including Major Ormsby, were killed in the brutal first battle. The survivors, many of them wounded, limped back to Virginia City to regroup.

Since the first attempt to defeat the threat of violence from the Indians had miserably failed, the local settlers and the mining interests on the Comstock decided to seek help from nearby California. Former Texas Ranger, Colonel John C. Hays happened to be in Virginia City at the time on business and promptly organized a regiment of about 500 volunteers which he called the “Washoe Regiment.” Placerville, Sacramento and Nevada City contributed another 160 volunteers to the effort. Hays and the Washoe Regiment quickly marched out to Williams Station and had a brief skirmish with about 150 Paiutes. The Indians retreated back home to Pyramid Lake and sent all their women and children to hide out in the Black Rock Desert, knowing a major battle was eminent.

Meanwhile, Captain Joseph Stewart, Commander of Fort Alcatraz in San Francisco, took command of a regiment of 200 regular army soldiers called the “Carson Valley Expedition.” Stewart’s forces joined up with those of Colonel Hays near where Wadsworth is now located on June 1, 1860. Colonel Hays took command of the combined forces and the expedition headed north along the Truckee River to engage the enemy on June 2, 1860.

Colonel Hayes sent an advance party of two companies downriver where they soon found the scattered remains of many of those volunteers killed in the first battle nearly a month earlier. The main force moved slowly and cautiously at some distance behind and made a stand in a mile-wide canyon flanked on the west by the steep Virginia Range and on the east by the Truckee River. This was done to prevent being out-flanked by the Indians. Near the middle of the battle field there was a rocky butte with gullies running down the sides where troops could find cover for making a stand.

The advance party encountered the Indians rapidly coming toward them in a wedge shaped formation. The advance party quickly retreated back toward the main force. The Paiutes advanced so quickly, they took possession of the rocky butte and formed a skirmish line that extended from the Truckee River to the mountains on the west. Captain Stewart’s Regulars formed the skirmish line along the west side and the volunteers formed to the east along the river. Captain Edward Farris Storey commanding the volunteers from Virginia City and Captain J.B. Van Hagen from California each led their companies to make a charge on the rocky butte and succeeded in taking it back from the Indians.

The Paiutes were slowly driven back along the skirmish line on the west side near the mountains by Captain Stewart’s forces and along the river by those of Colonel Hays.
The battle line was nearly a mile long. For three hours the fighting continued until at last, the Paiute forces retreated back along the Truckee River toward Pyramid Lake.

On June 4, Captain Stewart’s forces followed the path of the retreating Indians and found their village at Pyramid Lake to be abandoned. Colonel Hays sent a group of scouts in pursuit of the Indians through a canyon northeast of the lake on June 5. The scouts were ambushed and Private William Allen was killed. He was the last casualty of the Pyramid Lake Indian War. Also killed was Captain Edward Farris Storey. He has been honored for his service and sacrifice by the people of the Comstock by having Storey County named for him. Major William Ormsby, killed in the first battle, has been honored by naming Ormsby County, (now Carson City) after him.

Following the battle, Captain Stewart and his men built several earthen fortifications in the event the hostile Indians returned to the area to resume the fight. These were later abandoned when Stewart was assigned to construct a more permanent fort along the banks of the Carson River near Bucklands ranch. This became Fort Churchill.

In this, the second battle, there were 3 whites killed and 5 wounded. There are conflicting reports on how many Indians were killed since they carried many of their dead away with them as they retreated. In all, 750 volunteers and army regulars participated in the campaign. It is estimated there were 300 Paiute braves involved in the battle. An estimated 25 of them were killed and perhaps 20 more were wounded.

In my next and final article in this series, I will tell about the aftermath of this tragic time in our history.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli

The Pyramid Lake Indian Wars, Part 2: The First Battle

In my previous article, I told about the raid and destruction of Williams Station along the Carson River by a band of renegade Paiute Indians from the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation on May 6, 1860. The Comstock Lode had just recently been discovered and the hundreds of people pouring into the area to participate in Nevada’s new silver rush were terrified of the thought of a hostile Indian presence so near.

Once word of the attack reached Dayton, Silver City, Carson City and Virginia City, a major panic set in among the white population. Each community assembled a group of inexperienced volunteers to to mount a swift and bloody retaliation for the massacre. Unfortunately, the groups of volunteers numbering over 100 consisted mainly of untrained miners, storekeepers and even teenagers. They were poorly armed and ill equipped to mount any successful campaign against the much larger army of Paiute, Shoshone and Bannock Indians numbering over 700 warriors assembled at Pyramid Lake.

On May 9th 1860, the Comstock volunteers led by Major William Ormsby of Carson City, Thomas F. Condon Jr. of Genoa, Richard Watkins of Silver City and Archie McDonald of Virginia City set out on their campaign against the hostile Indians. Very few of the members had any military experience and there was no clear chain of command and no commanding officer was ever formally appointed.

On May 10th, the group arrived at Williams Station and buried three of the victims of the recent massacre. After seeing first-hand the ruins of Williams Station and the gruesome seriousness of the situation, a vote was taken to determine whether to pursue the enemy or return home. All the members agreed to continue the campaign.

On May 11th, the small army arrived at the Truckee River where Wadsworth is now located. At a log cabin on the bank of the river, they found five survivors of an earlier attack by the Paiutes. The Indians had claimed the men were hunting on tribal land. Three of their companions had been killed in the attack and the remaining five had found refuge and had been besieged in the log cabin. These five joined forces with the volunteers from the Comstock bringing the total number to 105.

On May 12th, the untrained volunteer militia continued on toward Pyramid Lake in an ill advised effort retaliate for the Williams Station incident. The trail followed the Truckee River north to where the Indians were known to be holding a council to determine a course of action for grievances they had against the white settlers ravaging tribal lands.

The various groups comprising the campaign were poorly armed and lacked discipline. They thought attacking the Indians would be a cake walk. A number of the participants were urged on by feelings of heroism, patriotism, glory and martyrdom.

As the militia approached Pyramid Lake, the trail entered a long, narrow gorge where the Truckee river flowed between increasingly widening steep slopes and cliffs on either side. Further on, it formed a long meadow with a forest of Fremont Cottonwoods and other vegetation lining the river. As the whites passed into this lowland for about one and one half miles, they noticed a band of about one hundred Indians up on the rim of the narrow canyon ahead and to the right of them.

Major Ormsby sensed there was a battle eminent and gave the command for the troop to stop and cinch up their saddles. The Indians were still out of gunshot range, but one of the group named A.K. Elliott took several shots at them with a long range globe-sighted rifle with no apparent success.

The company mounted up and someone gave the order to charge up a narrow wash just east of the assembled line of Indian warriors and mount an attack. About thirty of the group dashed up the wash in pursuit of the enemy. When they reached the top of the plateau where the Indians had been spotted, they found no one in sight. It was as if the savages had melted from view.

Confused and disoriented, the militia soon saw another line of mounted Indians ahead of them just out of rifle range. By that time, the group realized they had made a grave mistake. Whether by design or by accident, they found they had been lured into a trap from which there was no escape. As the mounted Indians ahead of them approached, suddenly there appeared from every sagebrush and rock around the militiamen a swarm of enemy combatants.

Suddenly, the air was filled with bullets and the hissing sound of arrows. The whoops and yells of the warriors and the screams of the terrified whites signaled the battle was hopelessly lost. Those not killed outright tried desperately to calm frightened horses and make a quick retreat back down the wash to the cover of the vegetation along the river. The seventy or more members of the militia who had remained behind, seeing what was happening on the ridge above, made a quick retreat to the river and toward the southwest.

The escapees soon learned there was not to be an easy retreat. Chiquito Winnemucca and a sizable band of followers were soon joined by Numaga and his band to stop many of the whites from escaping the battlefield alive. Numaga briefly attempted to stand between the Winnemucca group and the whites to obtain a parley. Winnemucca and his yelling horde ignored the request and pressed on, determined to kill as many of the whites as possible before they escaped toward the south.

Occasionally, a few of the retreating whites formed again to make a stand against the advancing Indians. One member stood out as exceptionally valiant and was called by the Indians the “White Brave.” This was William Headly, who despite his valor, was ultimately killed. One by one the retreating militiamen were slain as they dashed through the sagebrush and among the cottonwoods lining the river. A last stand of sorts was made where the trail rose up a steep bank exiting the meadows. The retreat became a wild, panic stricken stampede.

The pursuing Indians soon learned it was much easier to kill the horses of the escapees, then attack the men who no longer had a means to escape. The individual stories of each of the escaping militiamen killed that day were too numerous and tragic to tell with any detail in this article. The death of Major Ormsby is probably typical of many of those who lost their lives that day.

In his attempt to escape the horde of Indians driving the whites from the narrow valley, Major Ormsby was riding a mule that had been shot through the flank and spurted blood with every step. The Major had been shot in the mouth and wounded in both arms, yet he rode on. Others of the group wanted to rally another attack, but the Major warned they should do what they could to save themselves.

As Ormsby was half way up the steep grade leaving the narrow valley, his saddle turned and threw him to the ground. The Major then walked to the top of the grade and turned around to face the pursuers. He recognized some who he had met before and desperately tried to seek mercy from them based on the past friendship he had with them. This proved of no use and he was killed with arrows to the stomach and in the face.

The remaining escapees continued on toward where Wadsworth now stands until it became too dark for the Indians to see them any longer. In all, there were 76 militiamen killed that day in the most disastrous conflict to the whites ever waged in what is now the State of Nevada. Most of the survivors were wounded but the Indians suffered no loss of life and just a few wounded braves. In my next article, I will relate the story of the Second Battle of Pyramid Lake which had a much different outcome from that just described.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli

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.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli

Starting next week: The Pyramid Lake Indian Wars

Ever since I began writing the “History of the Comstock” column for the Comstock Chronicle, I have wanted to tell the story of the Pyramid Lake Indian Wars. The problem with this venture has been the length of the story being more than a weekly article could possibly handle. I have written several books about the history of the Great Basin Indians and I have decided the best way to relate the amazing story of the Pyramid Lake Indian Wars is to do it in a series of articles. I estimate the complexity of the story will require at least four or five articles to tell just the basic essence of this complex story intimately entwined with the History of the Comstock.

Check back in next week for part one of this series, “The Pyramid Lake Indian Wars: Williams Station Massacre.”

Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians

My first attempt at serious writing was when I self-published “Gathering Traces of the Great Basin Indians” in 1996. Within the next ten years, this title completely sold out, so in 2006, I made some improvements and changed the title to “Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians.” The word “gathering” made it sound like I was encouraging looting archaeological sites, so I changed the wording to “preserving.”

Of the four books I have written, this has always been the best seller. It is the story about a collection of Indian artifacts that family members and I have collected over the years, mostly from our own family farm in Sparks and other farms and ranches in Nevada. Collecting Indian artifacts on public and Indian lands has been prohibited by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Picking up projectile points, arrowheads, knives, scrapers and other stone tools can still be taken from private property with the permission of the owner.

Human remains and grave goods are protected wherever they are found in respect to the Native American Indians. Caves and known archaeological sites are off limits to artifact hunting.

The collection described in the book is now located at the Carson Valley Historical Museum in Gardnerville. It contains over 1,000 items that I have identified and dated with a method used by archaeologists known as the Thomas Key Method. Some of the stone points can be dated in excess of 10,000 years. There are many drawings of the various types of points and photographs of knives, scrapers and household items used by the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone Indians throughout Nevada.

Archaeologists have been reluctant to write about or do any further research on a mysterious set of mummified remains found in a cave east of Fallon, Nevada known as the Spirit Cave Man. I have written about this discovery in my book and I describe some of the research done on this person before the ban on further studies happened.

All indictions are that this person lived nearly 10,000 years ago and was placed in a dry cave in the Grimes Point area complete with fur clothing, moccasins and woven matting coverings. When a forensic study of his skull and facial measurements was made, it was determined he was not related to any modern Indian tribe, but had skull measurements of a Caucasian person.

A group of Native Americans requested that no DNA testing be done out of respect for the dead. The BLM and the Nevada State Museum have honored this request and none of the grave goods found with this individual will be displayed. I have always disagreed with the ban on study of this individual, since I consider it to be one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries ever made in the United States. Allowing study of this individual could change all theories about how and when the north and south American continents became populated.

“Preserving Traces” contains copies of the Nevada State laws relating to artifact collecting and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. There is an interesting fold-out chronology chart in the back of the book that shows on a time scale what types of projectile points have been used in the Great Basin for the past 12,000 years. There is a chapter that is a humorous fictional account that tells how the Indians were able to make arrows from the sticks and stones they found in their natural environment.

I once had a call from the Folsom College in Folsom California for 24 copies of the book. When I asked why they wanted so many, they said the professor had seen the book and wanted it to be the text book for his class on Great Basin Anthropology. I had never considered it would be used as a college text, but stranger things have happened.

Unfortunately, the Mark Twain Book Store and the Gold Hill Hotel Book Store are no longer active, so my books are not available on the Comstock. If you would like copies of any of my books, please write to me using the contact form. The books also are available via

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli

The mysterious Great Basin crescents

Great Basin Crescents Native American stone tools

Great Basin Crescents

On a Father’s Day outing to Fort Churchill about 15 years ago, I happened to discover one of the most interesting Indian artifacts I ever found in my many years of searching the Nevada deserts.

The finely chipped artifact was made of shiny black obsidian just over 2” long. This material commonly was used to make arrowheads, scrapers and other tools by the Great Basin Indians. The shape of the item completely baffled me. It was as if someone had fused together two large arrowheads. It also bore a striking resemblance to a butterfly or the tail of a fish, such as a trout.

Fort Churchill is situated along the Carson River about 30 miles east of Virginia City. It was built in the 1860s to protect the people of the Comstock from Indian raids following the Pyramid Lake Indian Wars. The area where I found the artifact was on a privately owned ranch across the river from the ruins of the fort. It is illegal to pick up artifacts from state or federal lands such as a state park or BLM land.

Out of curiosity, I took the artifact to an archaeologist friend of mine at the Nevada Department of Transportation, Joe Moore. He was able to identify the curious piece as a “Great Basin crescent.” Joe told me they were extremely rare and are found only where the water level of ancient Lake Lahontan was between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago. He said they probably were used for something to do with the abundant marshes that existed around the lake at that time. They are so old and so unusual that no one today is sure exactly how they were used.

I studied a map of the Great Basin that showed where the shorelines of Ancient Lake Lahontan had been. Sure enough, the lakeshore touched the exact place where I had found the crescent. In fact, I was surprised to learn the lake extended as far west as Dayton, including all of Dayton Valley. I was able to confirm this recently when I discovered chunks of tufa in Dayton Valley. Tufa is the white “popcorn” rock like the ones you can see around Pyramid Lake. It’s always formed only when rocks are submerged underwater for a long period of time.

I contacted Donald Tuohy at the Nevada State Museum to see if he could tell me anything else about the crescents. I learned there were three basic shapes, including a crescent moon, a half moon and the butterfly shape, which is the type I had found. Don confirmed that the crescents were very old and that archaeologists do not know for sure how they were used. He said they may have been hafted as some type of projectile point or perhaps as a throwing stick. At that time, there were no crescents on display at the museum. I asked if a display could be created so the public could see these interesting artifacts. The museum now has constructed such a display.

Many crescents were found years ago at certain places around the perimeter of the Black Rock Desert. It is illegal to look for artifacts there anymore due to the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. This is BLM land, and there probably is nothing to be found there after so many years of being picked over. At the time the crescents were made, the Black Rock Desert was a lake with marshes and abundant wildlife along the shore. The crescents likely were used for some hunting or gathering function along the marshlands. Crescents are an artifact confined to the Great Basin. No similar artifacts ever have been found in any other areas.

When I prepared the collection of Indian artifacts I donated to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, I included several crescents and some theories about how they may have been used.

If you would like to see the crescents, including the one I found near Fort Churchill, you can visit the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. You also can see a slideshow of the collection, here.

This article originally appeared in The Comstock Chronicle

The Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection


In the early 1990s, Northern Nevada author and historian Dennis Cassinelli inherited a collection of Great Basin Indian artifacts from his aunt, Clare Perino. By using a projectile-point identification system developed by David Hurst Thomas called the Thomas Key, Cassinelli was able to type and date nearly every piece in the collection. He then decided to donate the artifacts to a suitable museum where they could be enjoyed by anybody interested in early Great Basin culture and history.

The Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection

In his book Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians, Dennis discusses the process of putting the collection together and includes detailed descriptions of the artifacts, as well as up-close photographs and stunning pen-and-ink drawings. The book also includes a fold-out chronology chart showing the projectile points across a 12,000-year time scale.

The collection contains hundreds of Great Basin projectile points laid over a beautifully painted display board. Items include:

  • A Topaz Lake point
  • Surprise Valley Split Stem
  • Steamboat points
  • Round and Turtleback scrapers
  • Rosegate Series
  • Resharpened Steamboat
  • Pinto Series
  • Petrified-wood points
  • Personal adornment items
  • A mocassin last
  • Knives
  • A mammoth tooth
  • Martis Stemmed
  • Martis Side Notched
  • Martis Leaf Shaped
  • Martis Contracting Stem
  • Humboldt Concave Base A
  • Humboldt Concave Base B
  • Martis Corner Notched
  • Gravers
  • Great Basin Crescents
  • Elko Corner Notched
  • Elko Contracting Stem
  • Drills
  • Early Pre-Mazama Points
  • Desert Side Notched
  • Daphne Creek Side Notched
  • Daphne Creek Eared
  • Chopping and Cutting Tools
  • Cottonwood Leaf Shaped
  • Cottonwood Triangular
  • Cutting Tools
  • Crescents
  • Bone Awl
  • Arrow-Shaft Straightening Stone
  • “Lopsided” points
  • Various “Untyped” points

The Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection is on permanent display at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center at 1477 U.S. Hwy. 395 in Gardnerville, Nevada. Be sure to drop in when you get a chance to see the artifacts, as well as the museum’s many other fascinating exhibits!