In Winnemucca yesterday, Renee and I stopped at the Humboldt County Library. It is a pretty special place in my memory and it’s always a pleasure to visit there, both for nostalgia and to see artist, and friend, Megan Berner’s show from her Black Rock Desert Artist in Residency (but more on that later …) There was another purpose to this stop, however, it was to visit the library’s Nevada Room, where I guessed that I would find Effie Mona Mack’s 1936 book Nevada: A History of the State from Earliest Times through the Civil War, which contains another account of the events at Massacre Lake.
Mack was said to be, according to Wikipedia, “the only person to receive a Doctorate in the history of Nevada,” which seems pretty unlikely, but she was a professor at UNR and the precursor to UNLV. Among other books, she wrote The Indian Massacre of 1911 about “The last Indian battle of the West,” the murder of Basque stock men in Little High Rock Canyon by a Native American extended family led by the man most famously known as Shoshone Mike, and their pursuit and eventual (mostly) deaths at the hands of a Winnemucca posse (See Frank Bergon’s excellent novel Shoshone Mike on this). Mack’s Shoshone Mike book (I think the first) was very pro-posse and anti–Native American, so I didn’t really expect a balanced account of the Massacre Lakes events, but still its the last source to track down and I was curious to see her take. Here is Mack’s:
Massacre Lake was named for a fearful slaughter of emigrants which took place near there in the summer of 1850, a tragedy concerning which little is known. It seems, however, that this train was a particularly large one composed of several companies. The party had been bothered by the Indians on the Humboldt Trail, and several red men had been killed. Finally the party decided to make a united drive against the Indians, a fatal mistake. Although the Indians were driven back of the train and the white forces returned to their main encampment, the natives were not beaten. Almost at once, they gained on the white train, and attacked the camp when it was not prepared to defend itself. The men of the train finally gained the victory, but not until forty of them had been killed in defense of their wives and children. They were all buried in a common and unmarked grave. Every precaution was taken to obliterate its location lest the Indians disinter and desecrate the bodies.
Despite its biased language, there is an interesting detail in this this telling—first, direct provocation, the party “bothered” by Indians, had killed “several red men.” I don’t really think that her account here of the natives attacking the train is necessarily that likely. A train “composed” of several parties, and with well more than 40 men and the firepower that that entailed, would probably have been a pretty formidable force for less well-equipped natives to attack. Also, if the wagon train was attacked, then why would only “men” have died. All of the accounts stress this, and I would think in confused battle at the train, some women and children would have been at the very least caught in the crossfire, which doesn’t seem to be the case.
I think the account I shared in my last post is more likely. A force of men probably thought they would drive off the natives, attacked, and then, too late or too overextended, were overrun. The remainder of the party, barricaded in the wagon train, then would have emerged after the battle to bury the dead in their unmarked mass grave.
All of the sources I’ve examined, of course, have been written by the “victors,” and I would love to be able to look at the same story told from the other side. But (although if anyone reading this knows of anything else, please let me know) it is likely that not much else exists and it’s time for me to close this chapter anyway.
What is clear is that the Massacre Lakes name carries the weight of tragedy. These places that I find so idyllic, beautiful, peaceful are often illusions that hide stories of pain, suffering, violent death on all sides. (Although in the long run, and in contrast to this story, more for the Native Americans.) I am happy to focus on beauty and harmony, but it’s also important to acknowledge all that has gone on before and to try, even if only in the memory and the imagination, to honor it.