Friday, May 12, 2006

Numaga, Paiute Chief

May 12, 1860: A battle in the Paiute War takes place in Nevada at Big Bend in the valley of the Truckee River. Major William Ormsby's Nevada militia are attacked by Paiutes under war Chief Numaga.

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Numaga (1830-1871):

Although he counseled peace, Numaga is most remembered as the leader of the Paiute forces during the Battles of Pyramid Lake in 1860.

Numaga, also known as Young Winnemucca, is believed to have been born near Pyramid Lake in 1830. Although there is some confusion as to his relationship with Chief Winnemucca, one of the leaders of the Paiutes from about 1847 to 1882, most historians conclude that Numaga was probably the chief's son.

In 1860, white settlers began pouring into Western Nevada because of the discovery of silver in Virginia City. The newcomers began cutting down pinon-pine forests for firewood, thus eliminating an important food source, pine nuts, of the Paiutes.

Additionally, as settlers established towns and ranches, they forced the Indians off their ancestral lands. Tensions mounted in May 1860, when two Indian girls were held against their will at William Station, near the present-day site of Lahontan Reservoir.

The kidnappers were killed and the trading post burned. In response, more than 100 white volunteers marched on the Paiutes near Pyramid Lake.

Under the leadership of Numaga, who initially opposed war, the Paiute warriors defeated the ill-prepared company, killing 75 of the 105 volunteers. Hostilities ceased after a second battle in June, during which a company of 800 trained soldiers from California broke the Paiute forces.

Numaga, who survived both battles, negotiated a peace treaty on behalf of his people. He died of tuberculosis on November 5, 1871. Numaga was buried in the hills near Wadsworth, but the location of his grave site has been lost.


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The Paiutes of the Great Basin, ranging within or just beyond the borders of Nevada, consisted of two major subgroups, the Northern and the Southern Paiutes.

Both sets of peoples resented white intrusion into their territory, beginning in the 1850s with the influx of gold-seekers, and both were involved in conflicts with white troops.

The Northern Paiutes included a number of bands. The northernmost among them, ranging into Oregon and Idaho as well as Nevada, were the Walpapi and Yahuskin, also known collectively as the Snake Indians. Some of these Indians played a prominent role in the Coeur d'Alene War of 1858 and the Bannock War 20 years later. But they also were the principal players in a war to which they gave one of their own names, the Snake War of 1866-68.

During the Civil War, with most federal troops drawn from the region, the rugged Paiutes had had a relatively free hand in their raids on miners and mining camps, stagecoaches and stage stations, ranches and farms, and freight caravans, especially in the drainage areas of the Malheur, John Day, and Owyhee rivers. Oregon and Nevada volunteers proved unequal to the task of taming them; in 1865, post-Civil War regulars were assigned to Fort Boise, Idaho, and other posts in the region.

The anti-Paiute campaign began unpromisingly for the army, with warriors under chiefs Pauline and Old Weawa outmaneuvering patrols and suffering few casualities. But when Colonel George Crook took command of the operations in 1866, the tide turned.

Crook began a relentless series of small tracking patrols that kept the insurgents on the run for a year and a half, forcing them into about 40 skirmishes in which, it is estimated, some 330 Paiutes were killed and 225 taken prisoner. Chief Pauline was killed in April 1867. In June the following year, Old Weawa surrendered to Crook with about 800 followers.

The Paiutes remained in the region, drawing rations from Fort Harney. Some were later settled on the Malheur reservation in Oregon, and they became caught up in the Bannock War of 1878; others were settled on the Klamath reservation, also in Oregon.

Meanwhile, the Northern Paiutes of western Nevada had also engaged white forces in a conflict generally referred to as the Paiute War (also called the Pyramid Lake War) of 1860, the last major western Indian war before the Civil War.

Two trading posts - Williams and Buckland - were situated in the Carson Valley, a relatively hospitable stretch of the California Trail running south of Pyramid Lake, and they served as Central Overland Mail and Pony Express stations.

War broke out with the Southern Paiutes when two Indian girls were abducted and raped by traders at Williams Station. Warriors attacked and burned the station, rescuing the girls and killing five whites. Miners at Carson City, Virginia City, Gold Hill, and Genoa organized 105 Nevada volunteers under Major William M. Ormsby. In May, the force marched northward towards Pyramid Lake. Numaga, a Paiute chief, had fasted for peace but, in view of the recent occurrences, foresaw the inevitable; he set a trap at the Big Bend of the Truckee River Valley, his warriors hiding behind sagebrush on both sides of the pass. In the original ambush and panicked retreat through the Indian gauntlet, as many as 46 miners lost their lives.

Reinforcements out of California came to Carson Valley, as did a number of regulars, bringing the force to 800. A former Texas Ranger, Colonel Jack Hays, was given the command. At the beginning of June, the force encountered the Paiutes near the site of Ormsby's defeat. After an initial indecisive skirmish, Hays's men pursued the Indians to Pinnacle Mountain. Twenty-five warriors died in the fighting and survivors scattered into the hills.

That summer, the army established Fort Churchill near Buckland Station to patrol the valley and keep the trail open.

Three decades later, a Paiute by the name of Wovoka, the founder of the Ghost Dance Religion, played an indirect role in the tragedy on the Plains that brought the Wars for the West to an end at Wounded Knee.


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