Origin of the Paiute War

Nevada historians agree that the events at Williams Station on May 7 were the trigger for the so-called Pyramid Lake Indian War, which is variously called the Paiute Indian War, the Pyramid Lake Uprising, or the Washoe Indian War. The early Nevada historian Myron T. Angel, writing in 1881, makes no explanation as to why the Indians would descend on Williams Station and slaughter its occupants. The next history of Nevada, published in 1904, makes no attempt, either. But subsequent versions of territorial history fill in the blanks. . . .

The killings and burning of Williams Station were the result of what DeQuille decorously describes as an incident when someone at Williams Station took several Indian women hostage and kept them in a cave for several days. DeQuille, an associate of Mark Twain’s on the Territorial Enterprise, was the source of much of this information about the Paiute Indian War was living in the territory at the time; his knowledge of early Nevada was encyclopedic.

An attempt by one of the Indian women’s husbands to rescue them was unsuccessful. This Indian went for help, and his comrades killed the occupants of Williams Station and burned it down. The presumption here must be that the women were raped and the Paiutes—who had suffered a bad winter, were short on food, and were tiring of the increasing presence of whites in their country—had reached their limit. Later versions claim that the Indian women were mere girls who had been out gathering pinion nuts (a food staple for the Paiutes) when they were abducted and held in a root cellar under a barn at Williams Station. . . .

Major Frederick Dodge, Indian agent for the Paiutes, left no doubt in the matter, reporting to the government that “to intruders on the reserve and their gross outrages on Indian women lie one great cause of the present trouble.”

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The questions of guilt, observed Tennessee, had not been conclusively established. But there were theories that the correspondent of the Herald noted. One rumor making the rounds, according to Tennessee, was that “a well-known but disreputable and worthless fellow named ‘Yank,’ with perhaps one or two of his equally worthless companions, went to Williams’ and engaged in gambling-a pastime that seems to be much in vogue at that place. This fellow, it is related, lost all his money, and afterwards his animals, playing with those at the house.”

Tennessee reported the rumor that Yank thought he had been cheated and committed the murders to recover his money, then set

the fire to cover his tracks. Tennessee also introduced the theory that James O. Williams was away on the evening in question consorting with “a certain Spanish woman” and thus escaped the fate of his brothers.

Tennessee’s dispatches in the San Francisco Herald argued forcefully that the events leading up to the Pyramid Lake Indian War had little or nothing to do with Indians. It was really the work of grogshop rascals and the hysteria of mob rule. “How humiliating to look back over the work of the past five days, and see what disaster to business, what disgrace to our national character, what widespread prejudice to our interests and honor, if not danger to our citizens, are sure to ensue when timid, untruthful and inexperienced men get control of, and give direction to public affairs!”