The Indian Campaigns

Part One: It's All About Silver and Cattle

Thursday, August 21 2008 18:29   The Indian Campaigns

As men began choosing sides and preparing to fight in America's Civil War, men in the West also were preparing to fight for their lands and their way of life: The warriors of America's Indian tribes.

The Indian Wars of 1861-1865 are a little-recognized facet of America's Civil War, but it was a struggle that both Union and Confederate troops faced west of the Mississippi River.


Caught in the middle were the pioneers, emigrants and frontier settlers, the men, women and children who lost homes, animals and in many cases, their lives to Indian attacks. Also caught in the middle were the Indian women and children, many of whom died in the fighting, some at what we now call massacres.

The fighting was all over the West: California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Minnesota, Idaho, Utah, Montana and the Dakotas. The tribes were many: Apache, Navajo, Paiute, Ute, Sioux, Shoshone, Dakota and Cheyenne.

While the conflict may have been inevitable, the Civil War created a power vacuum that changed the dynamics all over the frontier.

"What happened in the West was sort of a three-step scenario," said Bob Spude, National Park Service historian in the agency's Intermountain Regional Office in New Mexico. "First, a large percentage of the frontier Army posts were closed as federal troops were withdrawn and concentrated in the east.

"Second, there was a large defection of Union Army officers to the Confederacy, especially in the West," he continued. "Third, the American Indians at the time saw the Army leaving, and they thought they'd won. So there was a major increase in raids, especially by the Apache. It just all came together."

There was one other factor, Spude said.

"As the regular Army was withdrawn to fight in the east, volunteers and local militia were called up to try and fill the vacuum," he said. "Being local, they often had a different view of the Indians from the regular Army. The local militia that had no qualms about killing."


In many cases, fighting was a result of years of racial conflict and land disputes between white settlers and Indian tribes. The lure of gold and silver brought thousands of emigrants into the West. Since miners need supplies and news from home, following close behind were cattle ranchers, trading posts and the Pony Express.

Two examples of local-and bloody-wars between whites and Indians took place in Nevada and California.

Nevada's Pyramid Lake War

In strict terms, the Pyramid Lake War began before the Civil War broke out, but the heart of the conflict-the area's vast deposits of silver and gold-would force the Union Army to become involved. The strategic importance of this backwater region of the West would even reach into Congress and national politics.

In 1859 word leaked out that prospectors had discovered the Comstock Lode in northern Nevada (back then it was simply called Washoe country, a part of Utah Territory) and the rush was on. Almost overnight the boomtown of Virginia City was established and emigrants poured in, hoping to find their fortunes in silver.

Being pushed aside were the Washoe and Paiute Indians. White men cut down groves of pinyon trees from which the Indians gathered food, and prospectors took over water resources that had been critical to the Indians. Even the Pony Express built stations encroaching on watering holes.


In 1860, things came to a head when two white men kidnapped two Indian girls, molested them and then hid them away. When members of a Paiute tribe heard the news, it was too much to suffer. A group of Paiute warriors went to their rescue, killing five white men and burning Williams Station, a stagecoach stop on the Carson River.

When news reached the miners and settlers at the Comstock settlements about the killings, the cry went out that the Indians had to be taught a lesson. It was the start of what would be the biggest confrontation between whites and Indians in Nevada's history.

The first victory went to the Paiutes. In May of 1860, the Indians drew the vigilante force of about 100 men into a trap near the Truckee River southeast of Pyramid Lake. Before night fell, more than 70 white men had been killed.

Panic spread and all of the mines around Virginia City shut down. An appeal for help went out and volunteer troops and regular Army forces (totaling about 750 men) came to the rescue. On June 2, 1860, a second battle took place near the site of the first one, and after three hours of intense fighting, the forces separated after basically coming to a draw, with few white losses, but anywhere between perhaps 60 and 160 Paiutes being killed. No one knows an exact figure.


But the fighting, and fears of more Indian attacks, was enough to force the federal government to firmly place the Comstock region under military control, and in July 1860 work began on Fort Churchill (see sidebar), an Army post created to protect the Pony Express route (the war actually forced deliveries to be halted for awhile), other mail routes, and of course the silver and gold shipments that later would help pay for the fight against the Confederacy.

Above all, the Comstock wealth had to be protected. Millions of dollars in gold and silver were taken from the mines, what some say would be billions in today's terms.

In fact, the Comstock was so important that not only was territorial status rushed through Congress in 1861, but so was Nevada statehood in 1864. To this day the state flag carries the history in bold black letters as part of the emblem: Battle Born.

With the military presence, the Paiutes were never again able to mount a treat.

California's Owens Valley Indian War

For hundreds of years, the Paiute Indians had made their home in the Owens Valley, an area of California's eastern Sierra Nevada range that became an important route for white settlers between Southern California and the mining districts of northern Nevada.

As cattle ranching began to move into the Owens Valley (to feed the hungry Comstock Lode miners), pressures began to mount on the Paiute tribes in the area. As with the Pyramid Lake war, it was a small incident that set things off.

One of the most severe winters the Owens Valley had ever experienced hit in 1861-62, and the Paiutes were brutally impacted by it. So were area ranchers. Cattle soon began feeding on Paiute wild hyacinth and yellow nutgrass fields, because the cattle didn't have much of anything else to eat.

The Indians figured if a steer was eating from their field, they had a right to use it. Ranchers didn't see it that way, and a cowboy killed a Paiute he found butchering a steer. The tribe struck back, killing a white man.


In January 1862, both sides tried to find peace, and it worked for a little while. But things quickly heated up again, and in March 1862 white settlers raided an Indian camp, killing 11 Indians and destroying a large quantity of the tribe's food.

Fighting continued throughout the spring, with deaths on both sides. More and more volunteers and militia were gathered or called up (what was left of the regular Army in northern California was guarding San Francisco), but by June the Indians controlled the valley.

On July 4, 1862, the military established a camp on Oak Creek and named it Camp Independence. (The camp, later a fort, is long gone; the town of Independence is all that is left, along with the Fort Independence Indian Reservation which operates a campground for tourists.) Soon after, things calmed down, and a peace treaty was established later in the month.

Things remained relatively quiet in the valley until March 1863, when fighting again broke out after a settler reported a band of Indians had been killing cattle. In a skirmish between the Indians and Army troops, 35 Indians were killed against the loss of one trooper.

In April, more California volunteer troops arrived, and a focused effort began to destroy Indian food stocks. By May, the Indians said they no longer wanted to fight, and a permanent peace came to the valley.

In all, about 200 Indians had been killed, versus about 60 white men being killed. Defeated and starving, about 900 Paiutes were escorted south to Fort Tejon (see sidebar) by Army troops and held at the San Sebastian Indian Reservation where conditions weren't much better.


Related Articles