By Richard Moreno
For more than a century, every child growing up in Carson City became familiar with the name, Ormsby. From 1861 to 1969, Nevada’s capital city was the seat of Ormsby County and from 1860 to the early 1930s, one of the city’s most prominent hotels was called the Ormsby House. Later, the Ormsby name would grace a street, an apartment complex, a rehab center and even a hotel-casino built a few blocks south of the site of the old hotel. If that child paid much attention in Nevada history class, he or she might even know those things were named after Major William Ormsby, who fought and died in the Pyramid Lake Indian War of 1860.
So, who was this Major William Ormsby?
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Born in Greenville, Pennsylvania in 1814, William Matthew Ormsby was one of 11 children (two of whom died as children) born to Matthew and Jane Ormsby. His father was Scotch-Irish, born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, while his mother hailed from Centre County, Pennsylvania, located about 90 miles to the north. After marrying in 1805, the two lived in Pittsburgh for several years, where Matthew Ormsby worked as a cabinet-maker. In 1811, the family settled on a farm in Mercer County, Pennsylvania near Greenville, where most of their children were to be born. A year later, Matthew joined the Pennsylvania militia and was dispatched to Erie to repel the threatened British invasion during the War of 1812.
While not much is known about William Ormsby’s early years, it’s apparent that sometime during his first three-and-half decades Ormsby got the itch to leave behind the farm fields of western Pennsylvania for something greater. The mid-19th century was a time when belief in Manifest Destiny, the idea among many Americans that they had a divine obligation to expand the boundaries of the country, was a prevailing philosophy. For Ormsby, Manifest Destiny appeared to be much more than a concept—it was a guiding principle. This drive to be perceived as someone important could even be said to extend to the fact that after Ormsby had earned the rank of major in the Pennsylvania militia, he proudly continued using his military title for the rest of his life.
In April 1849, Ormsby joined two of his brothers, John (a doctor) and Lemuel, as well as his brother-in-law, John K. Trumbo, to journey overland to California’s gold rush territory to make their fortunes. He left behind his young wife, Margaret and daughter, Lizzy Jane, who moved in with her parents in Kentucky. Ormsby partnered with his brother, John, and the two, soon joined by their youngest brother, Matthew, established an assay office and the first private mint for gold coinage in Sacramento.
According to Edgar Holmes Adams, who wrote “Private Gold Coinage of California, 1849-55, Its History and Its Issues” in 1913, the firm was called J.S. Ormsby & Co. and had an office on K Street near Front Street, beneath the Golden Eagle Saloon. The company hand-struck five and ten dollar coins made from the gold nuggets that seemingly tumbled out of the nearby American River.
In addition to the mint, Ormsby also partnered with James Horace Culver, who published the first book ever printed about Sacramento (“Sacramento City Directory for the Year 1851”) to speculate in real estate. His name was also associated with other ventures at the time including a livery stable and hauling business, and The Horse Market, a horse auctioning business started by Trumbo. In 1850, he began a mail and passenger stage line between Sacramento and Hangtown (Placerville) and Coloma.
Sacramento during the Gold Rush period was a place of great excitement, opportunity, and political intrigue. No doubt Ormsby saw firsthand the machinations of the various factions jostling for power as that city began to take shape. In his book, “Gold Rush Capitalists,” historian Mark A. Eifler noted that in the spring of 1849, when Sacramento’s first municipal government was formed, it was led by the city’s five largest merchants, who, quite naturally, appointed themselves to serve as a provisional government. No doubt Ormsby also took note of that fact.
In about 1852, the two older Ormsby brothers were doing well enough to travel east to retrieve their spouses as well as a sister, Annabelle. Trumbo also returned to Kentucky for his wife but she had no interest in moving to California and they divorced. Later, he would marry Mary Reese, sister of John Reese, one of the founders of Genoa, and the two would have eight children.
In 1853, Ormsby established a stage line between Sacramento and Marysville (for which Matthew, was a driver). Still eager to strike it rich, and apparently not achieving that goal with his previous endeavors, he moved on to prospecting in the promising gold fields of the Grass Valley-Nevada City area, even acquiring shares in a promising gold mine.
Two years later, however, Ormsby found a cause that seemed to hold even more promise in bringing him the fame and riches he coveted. While in Sacramento, he befriended a Tennessean with grand ideas named William Walker. Born in Nashville, Walker, who was ten years younger than Ormsby, was a true prodigy, graduating summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at the age of 14 and earning a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at 19. With a few years, Walker had also become a practicing lawyer in Philadelphia before co-owning and operating a newspaper in New Orleans. And he accomplished this all by the time he was 25 years old.
The wiry Walker, who has been described as being of below average height and weighing about 100 pounds with blonde hair and almost white eyebrows, however, had boundless energy, a hunger to achieve something great and a big plan—traits that would surely endear him to Ormsby. Walker wanted to gather an army of expansion-minded Americans to help him conquer countries throughout Latin America. After installing himself as the leader of these countries, he planned to convert them into pro-slavery states that would be annexed to the slave-holding southern states in the United States. In the mid-19th century, this practice of unauthorized foreign adventurers attempting to stir up insurrections in other regions or countries in the hope of bringing them into the American fold became known as filibustering or freebooting.
While Walker wasn’t the only American to engage in filibustering, he certainly was one of the most persistent. In November 1853, Walker and a small army of about 50 armed followers, mostly from Tennessee and Kentucky, invaded Sonora, Mexico and Baja, California and declared an independent country, which he named “The Republic of Lower California.” Walker’s quick conquest of Northern Mexico was short-lived. By May 1854, with his troops in disarray due to food shortages, constant attacks by bandits, and low morale, Walker surrendered to U.S. authorities at the border.
Amazingly, Walker was acquitted by a San Francisco jury and by 1855 was making plans for a new invasion, this time of Nicaragua. Sometime in 1856, Ormsby decided to join Walker on his Nicaragua campaign.
Again, much isn’t known about Ormsby’s time with Walker but in her book, “Devils Will Reign: How Nevada Began,” historian Sally Zanjani described the major’s relationship to Walker like this: “In 1856 he [Ormsby] reportedly joined the Walker expedition to Nicaragua. The vainglorious William Walker, mad with ambition and attracting like-minded men, intended to make himself an emperor, seize lands in Nicaragua, sell them to his followers, and ultimately admit several South American countries to the Union as slave states.”
While the Nicaragua excursion ultimately failed—Walker was executed in Honduras in September 1860 after a second failed attempt to conquer Nicaragua—the fires of Ormsby’s personal ambition continued to burn brightly. He returned to Northern California and in 1857 became a partner in the Pioneer Stage Company, which operated a stage line between Genoa and Placerville. In April of that year, he, his wife and daughter, and his brother-in-law, J.K. Trumbo, relocated to the newly-established settlement of Genoa in the far western Utah Territory. No doubt it was a perfect place for a man with his aspirational goals.
According to author Michael J. Makley, who wrote about early Genoa is his book, “The Hanging of Lucky Bill,” Ormsby initially operated a trading post in space rented from a successful local businessman, William “Lucky Bill” Thorington. A short time later, he and Trumbo purchased property in Genoa and operated a store.
Shortly after arriving in Genoa, Ormsby and his wife agreed to take two Paiute girls into their home. The two were the daughters of Chief Winnemucca, the leader of the northern Nevada Paiute people, with whom the Ormsbys apparently had become friendly. For several months, Margaret Ormsby taught the girls English in exchange for their help with household chores. One of the girls, Sarah Winnemucca, would later become an important bridge between the Paiutes and the white community, and a strong advocate for Native American rights. In 1882, she published “Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” which was the first book ever published in English by a Native American woman.
The self-assured Ormsby quickly became active in local politics. A friend, James M. Crane, arrived in Genoa three months later and the two would soon take prominent roles in fomenting for the creation of a separate territory from the Utah Territory. Crane, who was born in Richmond, Virginia, was a former newspaper publisher who supported himself as a lecturer and occasional correspondent for other papers.
Ormsby’s reason for supporting such a plan reflected his belief that Salt Lake City, the seat of the territory, was too far away to effectively govern the growing and increasingly more lawless western Utah area. Additionally, Ormsby, like many disgruntled new residents of the region, was not a member of the Mormon religion and resented the church’s power and influence, which, they believed unfairly favored members of the faith. Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact the creation of a new territory offered opportunity for someone with Ormsby’s healthy ambitions to become a leader in establishing a new American state.
In August 1857, Ormsby and Crane became the de facto leaders of a committee that had formed in Genoa to petition the U.S. Congress for the creation of a new territory (Genoa founder John Reese was elected president of the group but Ormsby soon assumed the role of chair of the meetings). The committee agreed to send Crane to Washington to advocate for territorial status. Meanwhile Ormsby, according to Zanjani, “remained on the eastern slope, immersing himself in local politics and accumulating landholdings in Gold Canyon, where he anticipated more mining; Eagle Valley, a likely spot for a future state capital; and other sites.”
Along the way, Ormsby also apparently became a rival and enemy of “Lucky Bill” Thorington, who had acquired considerable landholdings in Genoa and the Carson Valley, and was the head of a faction of more established, pioneer settlers who had learned to co-exist with the Mormons and resented Ormsby’s growing ambitions. Ormsby and another man, Richard Sides, headed up a group known as the vigilance committee, which sought to not only pull away from Utah but also dispense justice similar to San Francisco’s Committee of Vigilance, a citizen vigilante group that had formed in the 1850s in response to rampant crime and corruption in that city.
Thorington is considered a controversial figure because he was not only a good businessman but he was also a professional gambler—hence his nickname—and reportedly had two wives, although he was not a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. According to Makley, Thorington’s first wife and son, Maria and Jerome, lived in a home he built for them in Genoa while his second wife (or mistress, according to some sources), Martha Lamb, lived on his ranch in Fredericksburg (south of Genoa) and later on one of his ranches in Eagle Valley.
Thorington also had a reputation for helping people in need—there are numerous stories about him helping out his neighbors as well as destitute travelers trying to get to California. He was not, however, always the best judge of character and sometimes associated with less savory individuals, such as William Coombs Edwards, who had murdered a man in California and escaped to the eastern Sierra to avoid answering for his crime. Thorington accepted Edwards claim that he had killed the man in self-defense and agreed to safeguard a sack of money for Edwards.
In April 1858, Edwards, now living at Honey Lake under an alias, and an associate, killed a local rancher, Henry Gordier, and took his cattle herd. Their deed was uncovered a month later and Edwards headed back to the Carson Valley to hide out and seek Thorington’s help. The latter apparently believed Edwards when he swore he was not involved in Gordier’s murder.
Meanwhile, a posse from Honey Lake received word that Edwards was with Thorington in Carson Valley and rode there to capture Edwards. The group, joined by Ormsby and some of the members of his vigilance committee, confronted Thorington and took him into custody. They pressured Thorington into having his 17-year-old son bring Edwards to them and, following a quick (and some would later say, too quick) trial, sentenced him to die by hanging.
Following Thorington’s hanging, Ormsby’s efforts to pull away from the Utah Territory accelerated. In December 1857, Ormsby’s vigilance committee issued several statements denouncing Utah’s authority over the region and stating its intentions not to acknowledge the authority of any officials, including judges, appointed by Salt Lake City. Compounding the situation was the sudden departure of most of the Mormons residents of western Utah Territory in 1857. Tensions between the U.S. government and church officials sparked fears of a conflict—the so-called “Mormon War”—and Brigham Young, leader of the church, recalled his followers to Salt Lake City to defend the church’s seat of authority. The resulting power vacuum increased local anxieties as well as incidents of lawlessness. Uneasy relations between the settlers—many of whom felt even more strongly in favor of the need for independence from remote government officials in Utah—and the territorial government continued until 1859, when the discovery of fabulously rich silver reserves in Virginia City changed the equation for both sides.
In the intervening year-and-a-half, Ormsby—no doubt recalling lessons learned in the founding of Sacramento—developed his real estate holdings, particularly in Carson City, where he wholeheartedly embraced city founder Abraham Curry’s vision of the community as the seat of a new state capital. In 1858, he opened a general store in Carson City—said to be the first commercial business in the city—and a year later constructed a two-story adobe hotel at the corner of Second and Carson Streets. Called the Ormsby House, it was the city’s first substantial lodging house and not coincidentally was located across the street from Curry’s plaza, which the latter hoped would one day become the site of a state capitol building.
The only known image of Ormsby from this period depicts a dark-haired man with a long nose, youthful face and serious eyes. He has a neatly-trimmed beard and mustache, with longish, wavy hair that covers the top of his ears, which lay tight against his head. It is the face of a confident man.
But, according to Zanjani, Ormsby did not become a major player in the fabulous mining boom underway in nearby Virginia City, although he bought several mining claims. Seeing millionaires cropping up seemingly overnight in his own backyard must have alarmed Ormsby, who perhaps feared these nouveau riche mining barons would surpass him in terms of political influence.
In the spring of 1860, however, tragic circumstances presented Ormsby with a chance to climb back into the spotlight just as the movement to create a new territory was gaining momentum in Washington. In early May, two young Paiute girls (said to have been 9 and 12) were discovered imprisoned at a trading post along the Carson River that was called Williams Station. Once word spread, a group of Paiute warriors attacked the station to free the girls. The group killed Oscar and Edwin Williams, who owned the post with their brother, James, as well as three guests, and burned the station. James Williams managed to escape and quickly alerted others of the attack. Soon, white settlers throughout the eastern slope were in a panic about impending Indian attacks. Local militias quickly formed in Genoa, the Virginia City area and Carson City to protect residents and, on May 7, the groups agreed to join together to take the fight to the Native Americans clustered at Pyramid Lake.
An expeditionary force of 105 men set out from Virginia City to seek revenge against the so-called “red devils.” In his book, “History of the Comstock Lode,” published in 1883, mining historian Elliott Lord described the citizen militia as a “motley company mustered from the mining towns and settlements in the valley, poorly mounted and armed as a rule with wretched muskets and shot-guns . . . it was a heterogeneous mixture of independent elements, poorly armed, without discipline, and they did not believe that the Indians would fight.”
The army included the Carson City Rangers, a group of about two-dozen volunteers and local soldiers from the future Capital City area led by none other than Major William Ormsby. Joining him were the Genoa Rangers, under the command of Thomas F. Condon, Jr., with seven men, and the Silver City Guards, led by Captain R.G. Watkins, who, like Ormsby, was a veteran of the Walker filibustering expedition to Nicaragua. Watkins, in fact, had lost a leg during those battles and had to be strapped to his saddle and placed atop his horse to make the journey. The group was rounded out by a large contingency of men from Virginia City, headed by Archie McDonald.
While Ormsby attempted to organize the group by having the men designate a leader, his attempts were rebuffed—no doubt because most believed any skirmish would certainly be short, with the Native Americans surrendering or scattering into the desert. Elliott said many started the expedition “with the watchword of ‘An Indian for breakfast and a pony to ride,’ meaning they would kill a few of the warriors and return with the spoils of war such as horses.
On May 9, 1860, the company set off for Williams Station, arriving a day later. Upon arriving at the scene of the burned structures, they stopped to bury the dead. According to Myron Angel, writing in Thompson and West’s “History of Nevada,” published in 1881, the militia then voted unanimously to continue on to Pyramid Lake to avenge the attack. They spent the next night near the present-day community of Wadsworth before heading north along the Truckee River to the lake. About three-and-a-half miles south of the lake, the trail dropped down a steep incline into a broad meadow, bordered by a mountain to the west and a higher plateau to the east, with clusters of cottonwoods growing along the river.
Shortly after riding into the meadow, the militia encountered a group of Native American warriors standing “on an elevated point to their right front, just out of gunshot range.” Ormsby is said to have given the order for the company to dismount and tighten their saddle straps in preparation for an assault. One of the party, A.K. Elliott, who had a long-range rifle, fired off a couple of shots at the Indians but they remained too far away.
The militia members climbed back onto their horses and the order was given to charge at the distant warriors. A group of some 30 rode up onto the plateau but discovered the Indians seemed to have disappeared into the landscape. However, another group of Indians appeared on a rise that was again just out of range. As the confused riders began to ride out to confront them once again, Paiute warriors armed with rifles and bows suddenly cropped up from behind the sagebrush in front and to the flanks of the militia members and started firing at the citizen soldiers.
“The battle was lost to the whites in the next five minutes by a failure to promptly continue the aggressive, and thus give hope of success with which to occupy the mind, instead of a gradually growing fear and horror of falling wounded or otherwise into the hands of the Indians,” Angel wrote.
As the militia members attempted to retreat, they encountered additional warriors, who continued the attack. One of the leaders of the Paiute forces, Numaga, who had originally opposed confronting the whites, attempted to restrain his forces in order to conduct a parlay with Ormsby and the other militia leaders, but he was ignored.
As the battle turned into a rout, Ormsby, who, according to Angel, had been wounded in both arms and in his mouth, tried to rally the surviving members of his group to retreat via the steep trail that had led them into the meadow. However, they were quickly surrounded by the Native American fighters who maintained their furious assault. Riding on a mule that had been shot through its flank, Ormsby tried to ride out of the meadow but his saddle turned and he was thrown to the ground.
“The Major got up and walked to the top of the steep grade; when looking back he recognized one of the Indians nearest to him in the pursuit, and instantly turned and started to meet him,” Angel wrote. “He evidently supposed there was hope of his being spared, because of the friendly relations that heretofore had existed between him and Pah-Ute that now confronted him.”
According to Angel, Ormsby waved to the oncoming warrior, called out to him by name, and reminded him that he was his friend. He promised to speak to the white leaders to make peace. The unnamed Paiute reportedly replied that it was too late for talk. He notched an arrow that he sent flying into Ormsby’s stomach, followed by a second one to the major’s face. Ormsby fell to the ground and rolled down the ridge into a gully where he died. He was 45 years old.
In the end, some 76 members of the militia died in the battle (and, according to reports, only three Paiutes perished). The survivors straggled into Dayton and other settlements to spread the word of the disastrous encounter. Within days, news of the massacre had spread throughout northern Nevada and California. In Virginia City, women and children were herded into a stone building for safety and sentinels were posted around the community. In late May, a more well-armed, experienced and supervised force of more than 200 U.S. Army troops and about 550 volunteers from Northern California and Northern Nevada came together to march on Pyramid Lake for a second battle. This time, the result was a draw with the Native American forces, said to number about 300, ultimately retreating and dispersing following a fierce three-hour battle.
Following the June 2 battle, Ormsby’s body, which had been temporarily buried on the battlefield, was taken to Carson City, where he was interred in the Pioneer section of what is now the Lone Mountain Cemetery. However, according to Chris W. Bayer, author of “Profits, Plots, and Lynching: The Creation of the Nevada Territory,” Ormsby’s daughter had his remains removed from Carson City in the 1880s and reburied in Northern California (some sources claim Oakland, California). Bayer said Ormsby’s body was cremated in 1908 and reburied at an unknown location, although some say his ashes were taken to New York.
Margaret Ormsby, who built an elegant home at 302 South Minnesota Street in Carson City two years after her husband’s death, remained active for a time in the Carson City community and managed the family assets, which included considerable real estate and some mining claims. She remarried in 1863, to a doctor, John H. Wayman (the marriage ceremony was performed by Acting Territorial Governor Orion Clemens, brother of writer Mark Twain). The couple relocated to California and she died three years later in San Francisco at the age of 48.
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On March 2, 1861, the Nevada Territory was created by an act of Congress. As part of the act, the territory contained nine counties, including Ormsby County, named to honor the brave, fallen Major William Ormsby. Carson City was designated seat of the new county.
In 1969, however, the Ormsby name was discarded when a combined city-county government, simply named Carson City, was created. The original Ormsby House, owned by Margaret Ormsby for several years after her husband’s death, remained a popular lodging house into the late 1800s. But by the early 20th century, the property, now called the Park Hotel, was in decline. When it was purchased in 1932 by the Laxalt family, the old Ormsby was, according to at least one historian, little more than flophouse, and was torn down. A newer, grander Ormsby House Hotel and Casino, built at Fifth and Carson streets by the Laxalt family in 1972, thrived for several decades before it closed in 2000. In spite of a decade-and-a-half-long renovation project initiated by later owners, the property remains closed and is for sale.
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Had Major William Ormsby not been killed on the muddy, bloody and chaotic battlefield near Pyramid Lake, he probably would have returned to Carson City a hero for simply surviving the skirmish. His fine hotel would have made him the toast of the future capital city. No doubt, he would have continued to expand his financial holdings to become an extremely important and prominent member of the community and the state. He might even have been elected to public office—perhaps serving as governor or U.S. Senator.