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!

Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 5)

As sunrise broke out on the plain over Ger-lak, columns of steam arose from the series of hotspring pools and drifted out to wet the tall clumps of grass with a cold white frosting. The wakening travelers began to stumble along the trail to the place where Bruneau had a huge bonfire burning and a breakfast of waterbird eggs he had hard-boiled in the hottest of the mineral water pools. The people eagerly accepted the warm eggs and a sweet sauce of wild berries and honey the hermit had prepared for them. The entire clan gathered around to accept this last hospitality from Bruneau and to trade with him generous portions of mammoth meat for trinkets he had made from stones, twigs and feathers.

Turtle saw Rama eating breakfast with her young daughter, but neither he nor Rama acknowledged the presence of the other. Two boys about two years younger than Turtle came running by where Turtle was standing and Turtle heard one shout back, “Hey, Turtle, did you get your lizard skinned last night?”

Turtle was enraged at the remark, so he ran after them in an attempt to take revenge for their crudeness. He was unable to catch up with them, or even recognize who they were in the excitement.

Some of the group began preparing to load up their possessions and burden baskets full of provisions to resume the remainder of their journey to Pyramid Lake. Turtle’s cousin, Yori, had a fine young pup he was training to carry a small burden basket. He threw some sticks for the dog to fetch while waiting for the other people to prepare their loads. Without thinking, Yori threw the stick into the hottest pool where Bruneau had just boiled the eggs. The dog yapped frantically for a few seconds, but was scalded to death almost instantly. Yori ran toward the bank of the pond to help the poor dog, but Bruneau grabbed the young man just in time to keep him from jumping into the boiling water after the pup.

Everyone gathered around to console Yori about the horrible loss of his dog. Bruneau felt especially bad, and immediately gave Yori one of his own puppies his bitch had borne just a few weeks ago. Bruneau apologized profusely for the accident and told the people there had been instances where people were badly burned entering this pond, not knowing it was where the scalding water first comes up from the Great Fire Spirit under the earth. From this pond, it flows off into the other pools where it cools enough for people to bathe and swim. Yori thanked the old hermit for the puppy, and cradled it under his arm as he shouldered his burden basket for the journey ahead. As the travelers formed a long, single file procession toward the south, Yori whispered to the tiny pup, “Be brave, little one, I will call you ‘Drifter,’ since we spend our entire lives drifting from place to place. Though you are tiny, I predict that one day you will have a brave and courageous spirit.”
For two more days the troop marched on across a desert trail that had now departed from the shores of the vast system of lakes and marshes. Their burdens were heavy, but the trail was smooth and not too steep, although it did pass through some low mountains and high meadows. The people were becoming anxious to reach Pyramid Lake and visit with the old friends they knew would greet them there. The group made camp in a small canyon with a grassy meadow just short of the ridge that overlooked the lake.

Supper was prepared quite quickly and the people gathered close together to set up their bedrolls for the night. Everyone knew that the next day would bring them to the camp of the Pyramid Lake people by mid afternoon. Turtle was unusually tired, so he retired early for the evening. Sometime in the early morning, Turtle at last had a dream he thought had some kind of spiritual significance. It was a strange sort of dream where people he did not know were asking him to walk with them out into the darkness of the desert. He had often heard that in order to become a shaman, one must have dreams that give spiritual guidance. At last he was having a dream, but he was not sure how to act upon it.

Knowing he would always wonder what would have happened if he did not act, Turtle decided to follow his dream and walk out into the desert as the dream had suggested. The desert is a spooky, mystical place at night, especially for a people whose entire life is guided by spirits, magic and superstition. It had to take a strong spirit and courage for the young man to venture out that night, alone in the darkness. There was an eerie wind blowing through the greasewood and sagebrush, making an uncanny, ghostly sound. The cool weather had brought an end to the song of the evening crickets, but the mournful sounds of coyotes yapping in the distance and the occasional “hoo-hoo” of an owl kept Turtle company as he ventured out toward the ridge overlooking the great lake. After a short stop to urinate, he walked on to a place where he could just see the glistening water of Pyramid Lake in the distance. A huge owl swooped down toward Turtle, just missing his head as it flew by and screeched at him.

Staring off into the distance at the beautiful sight of the Lake, Turtle nearly tripped on some clumps of sagebrush, then came around a large boulder and fell back, gasping in amazement at a ghastly sight. There lying before him, half buried in the sand, was the skeleton of some ancient animal, the likes of which Turtle had never seen before. The bones had become bleached white by the desert sun and the minerals in the bones emitted a phosphorescence in the dim moonlight that made the creature glow as if it were coming to life. Turtle was terrified by the sight of the large, strange-looking animal seeming to smile at him with bright, glowing teeth and huge, black eye sockets.

Turtle bolted from the skeleton site and ran back to the encampment, where he awakened Mauwee from a sound sleep. “Quickly, Grandfather, I need you!” cried the frightened young man. “I have found some evil spirit out in the desert, or perhaps a ghost. I need you to come along with me to help me to understand what I have found.”

Reluctantly, old Mauwee pulled himself from his bedroll and agreed to follow Turtle to the mysterious vision he had seen. On the way, Turtle told Mauwee about the dream he had and the compelling need he had to follow the urgings of the dream. When they arrived at the location, even Mauwee gasped at the ghostly sight of the white skeleton grinning at them in the moonlight. Phosphorus in the bones had absorbed the rays of the sun, causing a luminescence, or a glow-in-the-dark effect.

“Turtle, you have indeed uncovered a very strong spirit. Your dream took you to something very special, and I will try to tell you about this creature.” The pair sat down on a flat rock near the glowing skeleton and Mauwee began to tell his tale of the mysterious creature.

“Many years ago, there were vast numbers of creatures of great size roaming this land. You and I know of the mammoth we killed. There were many more of his kind, and even others of different sizes that lived here. There were giant buffalo, twice the height of those we see here today. There were long legged animals with humped backs that wandered the grassy slopes, and they were known as camels. The animal you see here is all that remains of a very special animal we called a horse. When my own grandfather was a boy, there were still a few horses running wild on the slopes and in the dry valleys where I was born. They are all gone now, but the spirits of some horses still live on, to glow in the night, just to let you know they still exist. It is a funny thing about spirits; they sometimes reveal themselves in strange ways in order to get you to understand them, and learn from them. The spirit of this horse is mighty strong. Without his strong spirit revealing him to you, we would never have learned of his existence. He was put here for us to find one day, and to learn about him. Much can be learned from the bones of an ancient creature, or even a man, especially if those creatures do not even exist anymore. Sometimes a wise, old spirit will do things like that, I mean, leave things lying about, waiting for people in the future to discover them.

“Let me tell you the story my own grandfather told me when I was a small boy. He told me that when he was a child, his family came upon a herd of horses when they still existed on the north edge of the Black Island Marsh. The hunters of the family killed one of the horses for food, but they also captured a young foal alive and took it home with them to eat later. My grandfather, named Jakfrink, began to tame the animal and taught it to be led with a woven sagebrush halter and rope. The family was in their winter camp, so the boy had time to build a small corral and work to tame the spirited, wild animal.

“One day, as Jakfrink led the horse out of the corral for a walk, the animal suddenly grabbed a big mouthful of Jakfrink’s hair and began to actually lift the boy off the ground by his scalp. Up and down, to and fro, up and down, the boy was tossed by the horse, screaming, arms and legs flailing. Suddenly, the entire hair and scalp was pulled from the top of the boy’s head. The scalped boy was tossed into the sagebrush, while the tall, big-boned horse bolted and ran to the nearby hills. He was last seen trailing the long stream of Jakfrink’s black trusses over his shoulder as he ran.

“The boy eventually recovered and grew to old age, but the bald scar atop his head was a constant reminder that his spirit was not quite strong enough to tame the wild horse. The spirit of the ancient horses was too strong for any man to tame. Most old shamans believe that perhaps one day, the horses may return to our land. Perhaps other men with stronger spirits may succeed in conquering the invincible spirit of horses. What a wonderful thing it would be for men to be able to ride like the wind, upon the back of a horse. For now, it is not to be. For now, all we have to tell us about these ancient wild horses are the bones his wise spirit has left here for us to discover.”

The two men bid farewell to the Spirit of the Ancient Horse and returned to camp, where they went to bed for the remainder of the early morning hours. Turtle snuggled in his rabbit skin blanket and dreamed of the glowing horse and the things Mauwee had told him until awakened by the sunrise.

Buy Legends of Spirit Cave! Now available in ebook and paperback formats.

Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 4)

The story continued: “First in small numbers, then in a great panic-stricken migration, my people fled in all directions. This is how we came to be here in the marsh country. Gradually, some of us were assimilated by lesser tribes; others continue searching for a suitable homeland to this day. Only I remain here to tell you this tale. I have not heard from my people in all these years since they abandoned me here in this place. With each passing generation, memories of the verdant north country diminish. The great fear we have of Tsawhawbitts, the evil spirit, remains constant as it is told and retold. It must be known that the lush hunting area of Jarbidge and the Bruneau river must be avoided as if there were a plague. Our tribal memory of this evil spirit will be handed down for many generations.”

Turtle-Who-Fights was enthralled by the story. He was intensely interested in legends and spiritual stories. He wanted to commit as many of these myths and legends to memory as he could.

With the end of the story telling session, it came time for the people to retire for the evening so they could resume their burdensome journey in the morning. Most everyone had enjoyed a soothing bath in the hotspring pools, and some, including Turtle, returned for a hot evening swim under the moonlit sky. Most of those in the pool were the youngsters of the group enjoying a playful session of splashing hot water on one another and dunking each other in the pool. Rama, the woman who was working on tanning Turtle’s medicine bag, and her daughter came down to bathe in the pool. The daughter was a wisp of a girl about nine years old.

Rama came over to Turtle sitting on the bank of the pool and sat beside him while she watched the young girl bathing in the pool. Rama said, “The medicine bag will not be completed until the group is camped in one place long enough to let the hides soak in the tanning solution.”

“That’s fine. I knew it would be a long while before the pouch was ready. Any medicine I have to put in the bag can wait until it is finished. I have all I can do right now trying to learn the ways of a shaman before I have need for a medicine bag.”

Turtle was startled when the woman reached over and clasped his hand and pulled herself close to him. “I admire you, Turtle, for wanting to learn the ways of a shaman. I am attracted to a man, regardless of his age, if he has ambitions of greatness. I think you have ambitions of greatness, Turtle-Who-Fights. I am sure that one day you will be a great and respected shaman.”

With that said, Rama called her daughter from the pool and left to retire for the evening. Turtle was flattered that the woman showed an interest in him. He was not sure what all that meant, but he too decided to fetch his bedroll and find a place among the tall clumps of meadow grass to make a place to sleep. The grass formed a thick, soft carpet between huge clumps of taller, plumed, wild ryegrass. Turtle rolled out his matting of woven tules on the grassy carpet, then reclined on the mat and pulled a blanket of woven rabbit skins over himself to keep warm.

The sky was brilliant with stars that seemed so thick as to touch each other in the unpolluted atmosphere. A half moon hung in the sky giving just enough light to see the outline of the surrounding hills. A family of coyotes yapped incessantly in the distance as Turtle reclined on his back staring into the heavens. He yearned to dream as he has been told all shamans dream to receive guidance from the spiritual world. Perhaps, if he really concentrated, a dream would come to him this evening to reveal some spirit, or some truth for him to act upon. The incredible stories told by Bruneau at the campfire kept creeping into Turtle’s thoughts. He tried to imagine which parts of the stories might be true, and which parts were probably just myth or entertainment. Eventually, the young man began to doze off to sleep, his mind filled with a multitude of topics for thought.

No sooner had Turtle entered a deep sleep, he was awakened by a strange presence, as if someone were standing over him. He felt as if someone were watching him. Peering out from beneath the rabbit skin blanket, Turtle stared up into the starlit sky. Sure enough, there was a figure of a person, only a silhouette, looming above him in the moonlight. The young man was so startled, it seemed his heart jumped up into his throat. He quickly sat up to see who, or what, it was that was standing over him.

“It is I,” whispered Rama, as she knelt down beside the bedroll. “I would like to share your bed with you tonight.”

Without waiting for a reply, the woman pulled the blanket aside and slid her naked body in alongside the astonished young man. She pulled the blanket back over them and snuggled against the man’s warm body to break the chill of standing out in the cold October air. For a few moments, neither of them spoke, they just cuddled and embraced and enjoyed the feeling of being held in each other’s arms.

At last, Turtle spoke. “You startled me. I was so frightened, I thought I must be dreaming that some great spirit had come to visit me.”

“A great spirit has come to visit you, my friend. I have a great spirit, and it wants to be with you.”

Turtle laughed, and said, “You know what I mean. You are making fun of me. I must say, though, I am very pleased you are here. I have admired you from a distance, never having the courage to speak to you, and always afraid of what others may say because of our age difference.”

“Shhhh,” Rama hushed Turtle’s words. “Do not worry what others may say. Tonight is just about you and me. It is our special time together. I have been without a man for four years. There are no available men of our group unrelated to me, for me to have as a mate. I find you sexually attractive, not as a mate, but as a special friend with which to share this intimate moment.”

The couple began to snuggle and explore each other’s bodies with their arms, legs and hands. Rama brought her leg up over Turtle’s thighs and he could feel the warmth of her soft beaver against his skin. He became aroused as he had never been before. He caressed her and buried his face in the long black tresses of hair against her neck and shoulders. He could smell the smoke from the campfire in her hair and the sweet woman smell of her skin. Turtle could feel her soft, warm breasts against his chest. As he slid down to kiss her hard, brown nipples, she began to fondle him and slide her warm fingers up and down his shaft, and he became more and more aroused.

In all of Turtle’s young life, he had never even come close to having a sexual encounter. Naked and partially clothed men and women were an accepted way of life among the marsh people. Merely seeing a woman’s unclothed body never aroused more in his mind than healthy curiosity. He suddenly found that mere visual contact and actual touching and feeling were quite different things, indeed.

Rama, on the other hand, was vastly more experienced and knew exactly what she wanted. She knew from past experience the pleasures to be had from intimacy and lovemaking, and she was determined to share this pleasure with her new lover that evening.

For several minutes, the couple continued their mutual caressing and fondling, until both were panting with desire for each other. Rama finally reclined and pulled Turtle up close to her and engulfed him. She squeezed and contracted as he entered her, a groan of delight escaping from her lips. As they locked into a tight embrace, he was pulsating and almost uncontrollably starting a slow, thrusting rhythm, breathing in short gasps of air.

As quickly as it began, it was over. Rama could feel the young man melting inside her. She knew he had finished long before she was even fully aroused. The woman pulled away from the spent Turtle, as he lay back sweating and panting. Rama, disappointed in the performance of the inexperienced young man, became angry and started to scold Turtle-Who-Fights. “Don’t tell me it’s over already! I cannot believe you have no knowledge of the needs of a woman. I really expected more from you after seeing what a strong, brave young hunter you are. When I had a man of my own, he would pace himself so both of us could enjoy the ecstasy of our love making. Your mother named you wrong. She should have named you ‘Rabbit-Who-Squeals,’ not ‘Turtle-Who-Fights.”’

Turtle was devastated. He tried to explain. “I am sorry. I have never been with a woman before. This was my very first time. I became so excited, it was over before I knew what was happening.” Nothing he could say would console the angry, humiliated woman. His first sexual encounter had ended in disaster.

Rama rose to leave and strode off through the moonlight. Turtle called after her “Please do not be angry with me. Won’t you still be my friend?”

As the woman disappeared in the darkness, Turtle heard the sounds of some youngsters giggling in their beds from the ruckus they had just heard. Another lesson learned for the future shaman.

Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 5)

Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 3)

Yellow Eyes said, “As you know, young friend, I have been a shaman with our people for many years. I have traveled to many faraway lands to study the ways of different people. I have watched you grow to the man you are today and I have an understanding of the ways of people and the spirit world. I know that old Mauwee has great trust and confidence in you and your abilities. He is anxious to have a new shaman of his blood to help guide his people through the difficult times that sometimes plague us. I must warn you, however, that learning to become a shaman is a lifelong endeavor. It will take many years of training and an absorption of many of life’s experiences. I suppose what I am trying to say, young friend, is that you are far from becoming a shaman. I am willing to help you learn, but please be aware, it will be several years before you will have earned the name shaman.”

Turtle was somewhat taken aback by the frankness of the words Yellow Eyes had spoken. He had not really thought it would take any great effort on his part to become a shaman, and to be accepted by his people as some sort of spiritual leader, freed from many of the burdens of the hunting and gathering lifestyle. After a few brief moments of contemplation, Turtle blurted out, “Well, what kind of experience do I need? Can you and others just tell me some things that would help me to become the type of shaman I would become?”

Yellow Eyes’ hunch had been correct. Turtle had vastly underestimated the effort required to become a shaman for the group. The old shaman, being the wise person he was, knew Mauwee was pushing Turtle along too fast on the road to greatness. He put his hand on the shoulder of the young man and gave him some of his words of wisdom, “Before you become a shaman, my friend, you will learn that old age and treachery will usually win out over youth and enthusiasm. I want you to be patient in your pursuit of your goals. It will not happen for several years to come. Let me tell you a story that may help to clarify what I mean.

“One time, long ago, there were many more buffalo along these slopes than you see here today. They were a breed of giant bison with exceedingly long horns. The hump on their back would stand well over a man’s head. One day, two of the giant buffalo bulls were standing on a hill overlooking a vast herd of their cows. One of the bulls was young and anxious, much like you are today. The other was much older and wiser, having spent many winters in the desert. The young bull looked out over the herd and said, ‘Let’s run down there and breed one of those cows.’ The older, wiser bull, chewing his cud, replied, ‘No, son, why don’t we just walk down there and breed all those cows?’”

Turtle smiled at the story he had heard. He knew Yellow Eyes was right about the issue of training and experience. He was somewhat embarrassed that the perceptive older man was able to understand these weaknesses so much better than Turtle himself.

Yellow Eyes then told Turtle, “I want to ask you a few questions. This is a test I sometimes use for young wannabe shamans. I am sure you know how deer droppings and rabbit poop are formed in little round pellets. Buffalo dung is found in round flat chips we can burn in our fires when it is dried. Bears crap in big, round steaming blobs full of grass and berry seeds. Everyone knows these things, but do you know why these things are true?”

“No,” Turtle replied after a brief period of contemplation. “I do not know why these things are true.”

“Well, let me see if I understand your desires,” said Yellow Eyes. “It seems to me you do not know shit, yet you desire to become a shaman. I must tell you young friend, you must educate yourself in all the ways of our world before you can fulfill your desire to become a shaman. First of all, you must decide what kind of shaman you will be. Then, you must devote your entire life, yes your very spirit and being, to learn the ways of the shaman you desire to be. Do not misunderstand me, friend. I believe you will become a great shaman one day. I will help you all I can. It is one of the duties I have in life. I know you will succeed.”

As was the custom among the people who traveled along the shores of the marsh, the group planned to stop for a couple of days to visit their friends who lived at the Lake of the Pyramid.

As the people prepared to begin their journey, there was a sudden realization that they must now pack with them a huge supply of mammoth meat in addition to all the other stores they had gathered for the past eight months. Some of the women had large burden baskets made of willow and bulrushes. Others had large flat bags woven from tules and grasses. The women usually carried all the provisions while the people traveled. This was said to allow the men freedom to hunt as they made their way through the countryside. Now it became obvious that in order to reach their winter storage cave, the men must share in the burden-carrying responsibility. The fun of the hunt was over; now it was time for the men to make some burden baskets and load up on provisions for the trip. There was considerable grumbling and cursing among the men who considered this to be women’s work The elders of the group met at the campfire to decide how to transport the bounty, and it was decided that everyone who eats must carry the food. The last thing the people needed right now was anyone running around hunting for meat, when they could barely carry what they already had.

And so, the group departed the Black Island Marsh loaded down with more supplies than ever before on their way south for the winter. Men, women and children all shared in carrying the wealth. Some young boys even made small pack baskets for their dogs. The animals bounced along as if unaware of the burden. Spirits were high among the people, despite the heavy loads, for they knew that after about five days they could rest again at Pyramid Lake. Normally, the journey may have taken less time, but this year the elders allowed five days, rather than the usual three or four. After that, it was only about another five days to the Stillwater Marsh, and their winter home.

After the second day of the journey south, the heavily burdened caravan of travelers came to the familiar hot springs at the southern end of the Black Island Marsh known as Ger-lak. The hot springs were a welcome resting place for people traveling the marshes. There were shallow pools of steaming water where the people could bathe and relax after incredibly difficult trips across the deserts and along the marshes. There was an old hermit who lived there named Bruneau who looked forward to the arrival of visitors. Bruneau saw the long procession of marsh people winding their way along the trail long before the people were near the hotsprings. He came running out to meet them with waving arms, not wearing a scrap of clothing. He was a friend of Mauwee and Yellow Eyes from many years of greeting them for visits during the annual rounds of food gathering.

Bruneau walked along with the travelers chattering in his excited tongue, making sweeping, waving motions with his hands and arms, obviously stimulated by the presence of human visitors. He was a businessman of sorts, and he was always ready to trade trinkets and items he had made while living alone at his camp, for food and other things brought by the visitors. It was understood by all that it was required to give the old hermit a generous supply of foodstuffs in exchange for use of the campsite and the bathing ponds. The troupe of travelers quickly made a camp for the night and settled down around a campfire to be entertained by old Bruneau during supper.

That evening, everyone feasted on fresh antelope Bruneau had killed and barbecued over coals of mountain mahogany. Pronghorn antelope had a distinct, sweet flavor relished by the travelers. This was a welcome change from the glut of mammoth meat the people had consumed over the past several days. After the dinner, Bruneau began his usual performance of storytelling. These sessions always fascinated the people, especially the youngsters, who were mesmerized by the talented old man and his performance of traditional mythical stories.

He began by telling of the time when his people traveled into this region from a land far toward the rising sun. He was a young man then, but he was plagued by painful attacks of arthritis soon after his arrival in the marsh country. It became so severe, he could no longer walk from the terrible pain in his joints. At last, the family of poor Bruneau could no longer carry him around with them from place to place, so they decided to abandon him. The family had come from a place called Jarbidge, but they had to leave to search for a new homeland. Having found the marshland of the Black Island Marsh unsuitable for their lifestyle, they decided they must move on. They knew Bruneau would never make the journey, so they selected a comfortable place for him to live by the hotsprings.

Bruneau was able to catch a few quail and rabbits with traps from time to time, and dig enough cattail roots to eat in order to survive. Every day, he soaked in the hotspring pond and even covered himself with the hot, soothing mud along the bank. He soon got accustomed to the sulfur smell similar to that of rotten eggs, typical of the hot spring pools. Eventually, he noticed that he was feeling less and less pain as he continued to spend many hours in the hot mineral water. After the first year, he was able to walk again and do a remarkable job of hunting and providing for himself. His only problem was the hunger for human companionship and the knowledge that he was confined to living within reach of the hot water in order to stay well. Fortunately, a few hardy souls passed this way every year providing him with precious companionship.

Bruneau’s story made the people realize that no matter how difficult things may seem, there was always someone else having an even more difficult time making their way through life. Soon it was time for the old man to tell the story of one of the traditional legends of his people. The marsh people had their own myths and legends, but they were always fascinated to hear the stories from other cultures and tribes of people from faraway lands. When asked how he and his family came to be in the marsh country so many years before, Bruneau began his tale.

“My people were driven out of their homeland long ago by an evil spirit in human form named Tsawhawbitts. We were an ancient civilization of people living in a lush hunting grounds along the Bruneau river, from which I got my name. We were a peaceful people, living in comfort along the fertile river valley. The grass there grew tall, the trees were green, wild game abounded, and fish were plentiful in the streams. Small bands of our tribe made their homes in many of the rolling valleys, enjoying a life of plenty, but the serenity of this existence could not be maintained.

“Gradually, a tale of superstition and fear passed among the encampments concerning an evil spirit in the form of a giant man named Tsawhawbitts, a giant who stalked the hunters with the same sure cunning they in turn employed in hunting wild game.

“Tsawhawbitts was huge! In one step he could cross the turbulent Bruneau. In a few fleet strides he could climb a mountain. No one was safe! On his broad back the giant carried a basket which he filled with our hunters for his own feast. Whenever he became hungry, the giant would pull out one of the men and eat them. From his great height Tsawhawbitts could spy on lone wanderers and swoop down upon them before they could flee. Snatching them up from the river bank or a tall pine thicket, Tsawhawbitts would stuff them in his basket and then disappear into a crater named Mount Ichabod where he made his home.”

Bruneau was a remarkable storyteller. He embellished his words with an entertaining display of dancing around, making hand gestures and acting out the story as he went along. He even had the good taste to cover up his previously naked body with a costume of his tribe’s traditional dress which consisted of tanned deerskin trousers, moccasins and a beautiful feathered headdress.

Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 4)

Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 2)

Presently, the members of the distraction team came splashing around the fallen hulk to congratulate Mauwee and Turtle. The six men hugged and laughed as they celebrated among themselves the success of their stealth and the kill. Despite the accident of Mauwee falling into the hole, Turtle had saved the day and completed the kill. He was instantly recognized as the hero of the hour, and his companions would not be stingy in heaping praise upon him.

The excited, joyous shouts of the women and children of the group began to ring out as they made their way to the shore of the marsh for the celebration of the successful venture. The other hunters of the group who had not participated in this hunt came down to the marsh dressed in full hunting regalia to show support and appreciation to the successful hunting party. Turtle’s mother, Yan-Mo, and sister Tani splashed out through the water to congratulate their successful providers. Similar welcomes were in store for the distraction team as their families came out to greet them. The small children of the band climbed upon the head and tusks of the mammoth and everyone marveled at the size of this wonderful beast.

A Columbian Mammoth was truly an incredible creature. He likely stood about twelve feet tall and must have weighed ten tons. The excitement the people felt upon the taking of a mammoth was justified. A group of fifty to a hundred hunters and gatherers roaming the marsh and desert lands would not obtain as much protein in an entire year as they had taken from this single event. This included whatever they may take in the way of bird eggs, waterfowl, fish, insects, lizards, snakes, woodchucks, rabbits, rats, squirrels, deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, elk, bear and buffalo put together.

No time was wasted in beginning the processing of the kill. Even with the large number of participants, it would take two to three days to process all the meat from the mammoth kill. The women immediately began to flense blanket sized sheets of hairy hide from the carcass. Bloody stone knives flashed in the autumn sun as long strips of red meat were quickly stripped from the bones. Young girls cut the big chunks into thin strips and spread them out on large boulders to dry along the shore of the marsh. A large pouch of salt from a desert far toward the rising sun was used to sprinkle over the meat to season it and speed the cure.

The men of the hunting party cut the heart and liver from the beast. The broken lance and the intact stone point were retrieved and returned to Mauwee. Warm, steaming liver was cut into large pieces and shared among the six members of the hunting party. The men gathered around the kill and ate their fill of the warm, raw, liver. They laughed and pointed at each other as they let the blood run down their faces and drip off their chins and down their bare chests. The massive heart was roasted over the morning fire as a reward to the hunters, but there was enough to feed all members of the group.

As the butchering proceeded, Grandfather called Turtle aside to walk with him along the shore of the marsh. They walked along the very footprints left by the mammoth the day before. After awhile, they stopped and sat upon a tufa formation along the shore. Mauwee pulled the mammoth point from his bag and handed it to the young man who had swollen with pride since the hunt.

With slow, deliberate words, the old man said, “Take this blade, as it is rightfully yours now. It was used in mammoth hunts untold ages ago when the animals were common along the shores of this dying inland sea. It will be of no use for that anymore, but use it as a knife. It will serve you well. Keep it as a keepsake, for you, your father, and I have all killed mammoth with it. It has been in our family for as long as we have been in this land. One day you may want to give the blade to your own son. For now, take this blade and start your own medicine pouch. It is time for you to gather together the possessions you prize most in life, things that will help you to one day become a shaman, as I have been for many years of my life.”

The young man was overwhelmed at the instructions being given to him by his grandfather. He asked, “What items should I gather to put in a medicine bag?”

“That will depend upon exactly what type of shaman you will become. There are many kinds of shamans. I was a shaman of hunters. I studied the ways of the hunt and the spirits of the animals. My bag contains things that aid in the hunt for game. Your own mother Yan-Mo is a shaman of medicine for healing people. She knows the herbs and remedies for healing the sick and injured. Her bag has the medicines she needs for these cures. Our friend, Yellow Eyes, is a spiritual shaman. He knows the spirits of people and of all things in nature. Every person, animal, tree, rock and mountain has a spirit. Yellow Eyes has studied these spirits and knows how to call upon them to help us in many ways. His medicine bag contains the things that help him to communicate with these spirits.”

“Forgive me, Grandfather, but I am young and unfamiliar with the ways of a shaman. Yesterday I was merely a boy, now suddenly we talk of me becoming a shaman. Do not misunderstand me, I do want to work toward becoming a shaman, it is just that this is all new to me.”

“I understand your apprehension, grandson, but without a nudge from the nest, a bird may never learn to fly. You have proven to me that you are ready to learn many things. It is time I help you on your way to learn the ways of a shaman. Your mother and Yellow Eyes will also help you to learn. Today, I have proven to myself that my days as an effective shaman are nearing a close. The people need wise and experienced shamans to guide them along through this harsh and unforgiving land. I am becoming too old and weak to be anything other than a teacher of the things I have learned over many years of life. When I fell into the marsh during the hunt this morning, the Great Spirit was telling me that it was time to pass on my knowledge to a younger, more capable person. My mind and spirit are strong, but my body is failing me in many ways you may never know.”

The old man had obviously deliberated long over the words he was speaking. It was as if he was performing a duty or obligation that life had destined for him. He was fulfilling a promise he had made to his own dying son, that he would see to the rise of Turtle-Who-Fights to manhood. With the limited vocabulary of a Late Pleistocene hunter, the grizzled old man continued pouring his words into the open mind of the young hunter.

“Go now back to the mammoth we have killed. Cut out his testicle sack, tan it and make a medicine pouch that will last you a lifetime. I predict that you, my grandson, will always carry powerful medicine in your pouch. You will need a very large pouch for the powerful medicine you will carry. Do not be concerned at this time what will fill the pouch. When the time comes, you will know what to carry in the bag. From this day on, you need not call me ‘Grandfather.’ I, and other men of the clan will consider you as an equal to us in the ways of men. My name is Mauwee and I expect you will refer to me as such in all talk. At our next campfire, I will introduce you to the others as a capable hunter and companion. All men of our clan will be proud to hunt with Turtle-Who-Fights. Now, set about to fill your bag with powerful medicine.”

Turtle felt honored to have been called aside by Mauwee to absorb the words the old shaman had spoken. Mauwee had other, older grandsons who had never received the attention Turtle had. The young man knew at that moment that he was to be considered as a man by his elders. He also knew he would have to live up to all the expectations revealed to him.

Upon return to the mammoth kill site, Turtle immediately followed the instructions given to him by Mauwee. He used the sharp-edged Clovis point to cut the testicle sack from the mammoth. Turtle took the sack to the women who were scraping the fat and meat from the large sections of hide they had flensed from the animal. He asked them to put the testicle sack in with the batch when they tanned the leather blankets. The tanning women were happy to comply with Turtle’s request. One of them, an older widow named Rama, only a few years younger than Turtle’s mother, Yan-Mo, came over to talk to Turtle and congratulate him on the matter of the successful mammoth kill. Turtle was so shy talking to the woman that he cast his eyes down to the ground as he spoke to her.

She said, “Do not be shy, young friend. It was a brave thing you did to kill the mammoth. I have no mate, and I have a daughter to raise. The meat from the mammoth is greatly appreciated by me and the others of our group. I will see that your pouch gets tanned. Perhaps someday you can return the favor for me.”

Turtle thanked the woman and was embarrassed at his shyness in talking with her. She is an attractive woman for her age, Turtle thought, I only wish she were closer to my age so I could get to know her better. There were not any unattached, unrelated women of Turtle’s age available for him among the people of his clan.

The next few days were spent along the shore of the marsh processing the bounty from the mammoth kill and preparing the people to face the coming winter. Practically all the meat was stripped from the bones of the animal, which was either eaten or cured for future use. The butcher site was a scene of chaos. Everyone participated in the work at hand. Even the small children chased away magpies, seagulls, and other scavengers wanting a taste of the bounty. The pet dogs of the group became so stuffed with scraps of mammoth meat, they sometimes puked it up, but usually they lie about with their distended bellies swollen in agony. At night, it was all the dogs could do to perform one of their required chores: to keep the coyotes and other predators at bay.

Some of the larger bones were smashed with rocks to recover the bone marrow. This rich, highly nutritious material was given to the young children to fatten them up for the winter. Some of it, and there was plenty, was mixed with ground seeds to make a rich, nutritious cake that could be carried while traveling. It was a special treat for the entire clan. Everyone in the group gained weight from the feast that the mammoth kill provided. Fortunately, they had already stored away considerable stores of non-meat provisions. With the protein provided by the mammoth kill, they would have no trouble getting through the winter.

Plenty of food and provisions to sustain the group through the winter was one thing. Having a place to serve as shelter for all to get in out of the bitter cold of the coming winter was another. The winters along the Black Island Marsh were especially severe. The region offered few caves where the people could seek shelter, but the abundant tules, cattails and other marsh grasses could always be used to construct a temporary shelter. The Great Ice Age had come to an end in the Great Basin. A few remnants of glaciers still covered the slopes of the higher mountains in the region. The marshes all froze over in the winter, making fishing and hunting of waterfowl difficult. It was nearly impossible for the women to gather the tender tule roots or marsh grasses when everything was packed in ice as hard as granite.

The traditional winter habitation site for the group was a journey of about ten days to the south. This was the area near the Stillwater Marsh, where there were many caves and rock shelters for the people to find refuge from the elements. There was also a large cave with a narrow opening, called Hidden Cave, where the people could store their provisions gathered during their spring, summer and fall seasons of foraging through the desert hills and along the massive system of marshes. With the completed processing of the mammoth kill, it was now time for the hunters and their families to gather their belongings and resume the journey to the Stillwater area.

When Turtle began to help his mother and sister gather their belongings and pack everything in baskets and bags for the journey, Yellow Eyes came by their shelter to congratulate Turtle on the successful hunt and the confidence shown to Turtle by Mauwee. Turtle was honored that the spiritual shaman for the group had come to pay him a visit. Yellow Eyes took the young man aside and sat with him along the shore to talk.

“Your grandfather has told me he has great pride and confidence in you, Turtle-Who-Fights,” spoke the wise old shaman.

Turtle, swelling with ego replied, “Yes, he and I talked about many things. Since I helped him to kill the mammoth, he believes I am ready to be a hunter and to learn to become a shaman, perhaps one such as you.”

Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 3)

Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 1)

An excerpt from Dennis Cassinelli’s exciting prehistoric novel, Legends of Spirit Cave, now available in ebook and paperback formats.

CHAPTER ONE: The Last Mammoth

Grandfather stood like an eagle on the steep bank overlooking the giant, shaggy mammoth. The beast snorted and thrashed its head and tusks about as it struggled for freedom from the thick, gooey muck that held its legs as tree trunks rooted to the bottom of the marsh. In all his sixteen years, the boy known fondly by his family as Turtle-Who-Fights, had never seen such a magnificent animal. This was the first mammoth the band of hunters had encountered since the time before Turtle’s birth. His father had been killed by such a mammoth during a hunt far to the north along the shores of this same marsh.

Legends of Spirit Cave

Legends of Spirit Cave

The troop of fifteen hunters, together with their women, children, and an odd assortment of dogs and belongings tracked the beast for several days along the shores of the Black Island Marsh (in more arid times, to become known as the Black Rock Desert). Finally, they had forced it into the thick mud where it was hopelessly stuck. Elders of the group claimed this old rogue was the last mammoth left in the region, perhaps the last member of his species in existence.

Excitement began to fill the hearts of the people as they gathered along the shore to decide what to do with the prize now that it seemed they may actually have a chance to kill the animal and share the wealth a mammoth could provide. As a hunting group, they were ill prepared to tackle an animal of such size and strength. Shamans of the group marveled at the strength of the mammoth’s spirit. The mere size of such a beast called for all the courage their bravest hunters could muster. Their sharpened wooden sticks and pouches full of selected rocks for throwing at small game were no match for a mammoth.

As darkness began to fall, it became more and more evident that the animal had weakened and seemed to struggle less each hour to become free of the mud. The front legs and feet of the beast had cut a steep vertical bank in the soft soil at the edge of the marsh, making it impossible for him to step out of the hole he was in. Every movement the mammoth made seemed to sink him deeper into his trap. Grandfather posted a guard at the bank by the beast and called the remainder of the people together by the campfire to discuss the final attack on the shaggy monster. All the hunters agreed they must kill the animal rather than allow it to die of starvation in the muddy grave. It would be too much of an indignity to allow the spirit of the animal to die trapped in such a manner without a fight to the death.

There were other reasons expounded for killing the creature rather than letting it die naturally. Some of the hunters believed the meat of an animal turned bad if it died a natural death, without the blood draining effect of spears or darts. Grandfather had his own reason for wanting to kill the beast. He proclaimed his belief that this mammoth trapped here was the son of the very mammoth that killed his own son, Ouray, the father of Turtle-Who-Fights, so many years before.

Turtle’s grandfather was named Mauwee. He was one of the most respected shamans of the group. He gathered the hunting party close around the fire and spoke to the tired hunters. They had great respect for the wise old man, and they listened intently to his words. He said, “You are about to witness a very special event in the story of our people. For many years we have hunted the buffalo, the bighorn sheep and the antelope. Occasionally, we have had the good fortune to kill a mammoth. Any year we can kill a mammoth is a good year. Our survival of the winter is assured if we are lucky enough to kill a mammoth. For many years, we have seen no mammoth. Suddenly, we discover this one as we make our way south toward our winter resting area. It is a good omen. You must know, however, that this will likely be the last mammoth you will ever see. When we kill this mammoth tomorrow, there will never be another mammoth kill. Remember this hunt well. You will talk of it for years to come with your sons and grandsons. Your women will ask you to repeat the story of the last mammoth. Part of the spirit of this great beast will be with all of us for as long as we live. I call you here to ask you to respect the spirit of the mammoth. Even though we must take him for our winter survival, we must always respect his spirit. Remember, too, that it would be a waste for us not to take him. He cannot reproduce, since there are no others of his kind. He would just wander around until he died anyway. Tomorrow we will have our mammoth.”

With those things said to his fellow hunters, Mauwee began preparing for the kill. He called for his pouch, which contained many prized possessions, reminders of his many adventures. There was powerful medicine in some of the things he carried with him. He reached in and pulled out a large, curious looking blade, or point, made of a beautifully colored and polished stone. The blade was as long and somewhat wider than a person’s thumb. It had a deep groove about halfway up from the base along each side. It was sharpened like a knife down each edge. Mauwee called it his mammoth blade.

The old man was small of stature, and he had a deformed spine, but he worked quickly and deliberately to construct the weapon for the kill. Despite two previously broken fingers on his right hand, he was able to craft a lance using the Clovis point and a fire hardened stick of greasewood he had selected from a bundle the hunters always carried with them. He used a stone grooving tool to carve a notch in the stick and carefully shaped the notch to receive the fluted stone point. The exactness of the carving and shaping finally allowed the stone point to match up perfectly with the sturdy spear handle. The fire hardened wood of the shaft slid neatly into the grooves of the fluted sides of the blade. This allowed the point to be reinforced from breaking as it was thrust into the thick hide of a mammoth.

The final step in the manufacture of the weapon was to secure the blade and shaft together with strips of deer sinew. To keep the sinew from becoming wet and allowing the point to become loose, Mauwee took a lump of pine pitch from his pouch full of wonderful and magical things, and heated it over the fire to apply to the sinew bindings. He explained that if this were not done, the blood from the wound would quickly wet and stretch the sinew and allow the point to come off.

Fatigue from the efforts of the hunt, and weakness from skimpy rations for several days, caused the hunters to retire early for a much needed rest. Despite the fatigue, sleep was restless that night due to anticipation of the events to come and the occasional snorts and groaning of the entrapped pachyderm.

Turtle-Who-Fights was enthralled by the discussions at the campfire. He tried to imagine the thoughts that must be going through the mind of his grandfather. Was he being motivated by revenge for the death of Turtle’s father? Was he more concerned about the bounty the taking of the mammoth would bring to the people? Was he unsure of his ability to lead the group through a successful attack against the animal after his own son had been killed in a similar attempt? Turtle was also deeply moved by the admonition Mauwee had given the group to always remember the spirit of the mammoth. All these things were of interest to Turtle. He was trying to learn all he could from the old shaman. Turtle’s ambition in life was to become a shaman as his grandfather had done.

Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, Turtle’s cousin, Yori, summoned Turtle to relieve him to guard the mammoth from predators and to warn of any increased efforts by the animal to escape. The boy took his post on the steep bank above the mammoth. The beast remained fairly calm during Turtle’s watch. He could see the glow of the polished ivory tusks forming a full curl on either side of the massive head in the pale moonlight. The animal had a peculiar musky smell Turtle had never experienced before on any other animal. Occasionally, the beast became restless, and the intense, beady eyes stared at Turtle through the darkness, while off in the distance the mournful yapping of a coyote broke the silence. Turtle-Who-Fights felt a sense of sorrow at the thought of the beast being killed, and that this was the last specimen of his species in existence. The young man’s sorrow faded when he was reminded of the horrible death his father had suffered under the feet of another mammoth just days before Turtle-Who-Fights was born.

As dawn began to break over the Great Basin, the sounds of the awakening clan could be heard preparing for the busy day ahead. The evening fire was rekindled and a healthy ration of dried rabbit meat and berry cakes was passed out to everyone to strengthen their bodies for the task to come.

Mauwee, being the shaman of hunting the larger animals for the group, selected a party of six hunters to attack and kill the mammoth. Turtle had thought that due to his youth and relative inexperience, he would never be selected for such an important mission. He was both pleased and surprised when Grandfather appointed him to assist in the attack and to carry the weapon of death for him.

The plan of attack was simple. Four hunters including two uncles of Turtle-Who-Fights and their sons would attack one side of the mammoth as a distraction. Grandfather and Turtle would then approach the other side and deliver the killing wound. Grandfather had thought this out carefully to avoid the mistakes made before. Turtle’s father was crushed to death beneath the feet of a similar mammoth as he had attempted to spear it. The hunters wanted no casualties on this hunt.

In the orange light of the sunrise, the distraction team approached the mammoth. Suddenly, a huge flock of trumpeter swans burst forth from their evening roost in the tules, and their sonorous cries echoed up and down the banks of the marsh. This commotion brought forth a massive uplifting of waterfowl of all kinds, frightened from their resting places by the warning cries of the swans. As the clatter of the birds began to diminish, the hunters slid down the steep bank to the shore of the marsh and approached the rudely awakened mammoth while wading waist deep in the chilly water. The beast raised its massive head and hairy trunk, snorting and struggling against the mud that held its legs. The distracters moved toward the back of the animal so it had to turn its head far to the side to watch as they jabbed their spears into the side of his rib cage. The sharpened and fire hardened wooden sticks were useless to puncture the thick, hairy hide. Nonetheless, the distraction worked as planned. The mammoth used all his remaining energy to trumpet and scold his tormentors.

Grandfather and Turtle quickly and silently slid into the waist deep water and approached the opposite side of their quarry. With the head turned and a leg slightly uplifted, the exposed rib cage nearest the heart was exposed. While the animal scolded the distraction team, the proud young hunter named Turtle-Who-Fights handed his grandfather the prepared lance with the sharpened mammoth point.

The sinewy old man took the lance and made his final approach to kill the beast. Grandfather took the last few steps toward the animal with the lance raised high, poised for action. In an instant the best, most carefully thought out plans were rendered useless, when the old hunter stepped into one of the deep holes in the mud created by the feet of the mammoth, while it floundered at the shore of the marsh. Mauwee lost his footing and sank into the hole, dropping the lance in his desperate attempt to keep his balance.

Young Turtle instantly sprang into action, sensing the hopelessness of the situation. He lunged out through the muddy water and retrieved the floating lance while Mauwee struggled to pull himself from the muddy hole. It was Turtle who then thrust the lance deep into the heart of the mammoth with all his weight behind the lunge. Turtle quickly grabbed his grandfather’s arm and pulled him from the muddy hole just as the enormous shaggy head and tusks spun around to their side. The shaft of the lance was broken off as if it were a dried bulrush stem.

There was just one final outburst of energy, then the mighty animal shuddered and began to slump in a quivering death pose. At that instant, the Pleistocene had truly come to an end in the Great Basin with the demise of this creature, its most recognized symbol.

Grandfather and Turtle fell back in the cold, muddy water. They sat there momentarily as the animal died. A pulsating stream of blood from the wound around the broken shaft revealed the thrust at the heart had been accurate. One would think that only a person who had previously cut the heart from a mammoth could have made such a precise kill. As the two men sat in the reddening water, Grandfather and Turtle embraced and the old man whispered to him, “Now the death of your father is avenged. For better or for worse, we have removed these animals from our land, and from our earth, forever. Your spirit was stronger than the spirit of the mammoth. You have proven to me that your spirit is stronger than even my own. I want you, my grandson, to assume the spirit of the mammoth and the bravery of Ouray, your fallen father.”

Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 2)

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!