Cedarville Days and another account of Massacre Lake

Above Fandango Pass in Modoc National Forest in the Warner Mountains.


Have spent this long holiday weekend at a friend’s family’s second home in Cedarville, California. It is near and dear to my heart and a place that Renee and I tend to spend a good bit of time exploring around. It has been a really fantastic weekend spending time with friends new and old and coming even closer to this special place. I know that John C.  Frémont was the first Anglo to write about this place and so did a little research in which I randomly found another, quite varied account of the events that happened at Massacre Lake that I wrote about previously:

One of a large party of California-bound emigrants passing through Nevada near the present California State line found what he thought was gold bearing quartz. This being about the time of the great California gold rush when men’s thoughts were permeated with dreams of the fabulous wealth of Western hills, groups of the emigrants straggled while searching for further evidence of the precious metal. Paiute Indians attacked the disorganized party in force and in a fight of several days duration; forty- men were killed, besides a number of women and children. Less than two-thirds of this big party got through, minus most of their livestock and personal possessions. Massacre Lake in this section owes its name to this running fight with the Indians and to the lives lost in other surprise Indian attacks in the same vicinity.

The northern Warner Mountains, looking toward Oregon.

Rhyolite 1907, Where Are We Now?

This sculpture, in Rhyolite, Nevada, represents very well for me the tension between presence and absence that happens in Western ghost towns.

On our drive south for Christmas, Renee and I stopped at Rhyolite, a ghost town nearby Beatty right off the main highway to Death Valley. Despite going by many times I’d never been there before and it was a stunning ethereal experience of standing in what had clearly been an important place for many people now tumbled into ruins among vivid colored cliffs, only tempered by a threatening overcast extending all the way along the line of Nevada. We stopped and parked along the old railway station and walked down the entrance road, which had most likely been the main street, now just tortured facades reminiscent of photos of bombed buildings. The emptied building dominates the skyline.

Ruin dominates the skyline. Other than the mountains, of course, which always dominate the real skyline in most Western cities.

It’s an idea that has interested me for a while. We are, well, future dwellers, at least it has always been a persistent feeling I’ve had—and the pace of human development, of the development of human population and technology leads to the idea of our being on the crest of a wave. But being in a place like Rhyolite begs you to consider that, in the midst of all of this population growth and networks of communication, culture, industry, et al., why do those of us who want to explore out in the reaches of the West find ourselves in a much less  populated planet than anyone would have experienced at the turn of the century? Where there were thousands of people there is now no one.

The old train depot, sadly, was swathed in chain link.

Rhyolite existed more or less from 1904 to 1909 (if you’re interested in details of the history, based on my fairly cursory research and just based on the quality, read the wikipedia article on Rhyolite, in addition to telling you all you want to know about the town, it is, in my opinion, a really great example of a Wikipedia entry). In those five years of existence it came to boast a train station, a bank with Italian marble and stained glass, two railroads, a building made of emptied bottles, thousands of people, a school and then another school, concrete sidewalks, maybe some more pools (based on this ghost towns’ site, by the way the as far as I could see uncited, but clearly  best text on this site’s entry begins “one of the most interesting stories”).

Thinking about Rhyolite and how it represents the conundrum of the West in modernity, where even with the explosion of outdoor recreation we are still just a shadow of past use, I got curious about ghost town. Its specific naming seems pretty obvious, but I wondered, when did that term come into use? It had to have been in some way cultural, there had to have been a moment when “empty” or “abandoned” town became “ghost town” and based on my quick search, the date is 1931. The term seems to have been in use before this, based on a footnote appearing in Western Places, American Mythology: How We Think about the West by Gary Hausladen (which I found randomly, and is published by the UNP, and is now on my must-read list!), but based on a search of “ghost town” and 1931, that date is most likely the result of photographer Paul Strand and his striking photos. I don’t know anything beyond this, nor even if this is correct etymology, but it is really striking to come from 1931, when the West went for the first time from untapped area for exploration, to closed, to Dust Bowl and “nowhere.”

The famous bottle house. With a miniature bottle replica of the town. 

After walking the main street, we stopped at the Goldwell Open Air Art Museum, where Belgian artist Albert Szukalski created The Last Supper and, even more pertinently for me, the Ghost Biker. They capture really perfectly the idea of absence in presence that overwhelms me in Western ghost towns.

What’s in a Name?

For a while I’ve been working on a little personal project about the naming of places. It is based super loosely on my reading of Wisdom Sits in Places, I say loosely because this is just my thing. A mental construct. A “what if?” that starts with the question, “Why do we accept the names of places as they are?” They are entirely malleable, are the creation of a description that is lost on the foam extending wind-carried well beyond the wave that is the expansion of time and space in the galaxy. An atom or less, the flimsiest piece of gossamer floating out to disappear into the future. What if I make the planet into a place that carries the meaning of my life? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it seems an interesting one. So here are just a bit deeper explanations of some of my more recent #mymindmapping and #namesofmyplaces.


This place is at what I consider the Center of my existence. Wilson Place, out on the desert below the ranch. One of the original home sites out in this valley that is home, well, just really home, a home that encompasses hundreds of miles. So it’s a place I always picture myself to be, even when I’m not. In a real sense. I can close my eyes and be there. 

Meadow Appears because we spent a couple of really beautiful years living down south of here, where Casper was born and we roamed the hills all together. And riding my bike north to work, here is where all the meadow that is now a city came into view and the world separated into the present and a future. 

Thanks so much for reading this year! This will be the last one most likely of the year. I’m really happy to be writing again and sharing and I hope anyone out there reading enjoys any little bit of this. Peace and love and here’s to 2017!!!

The End of the Road at Massacre Lakes (3 of 3)

This is the 3rd installment for this post, read the first here and the second here. And now there is a fourth follow up here

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.

Down the Rabbit Hole—Massacre Lakes edition (2 of 3)

Read the first post in the series here or the third here

I love working in a library! I might bitch sometimes (who doesn’t) but the fact that I spend my days in the middle of a vast repository of knowledge, learning and scholarship is an absolute privilege.

So after writing earlier on Massacre Lakes I was able to look at the book and follow the sources (good citations are a beautiful beautiful thing) and I found this great little further explanation of what happened there in 1850. There is one more citation I hope to look at, at least, but this is such a little wonderfully evocative piece of writing:

 “little further on are the MASSACRE LAKES (R), dry sinks. In 1850, a large and well-equipped train elected to take the Applegate Cut-off into northern California. In this area, reached by way of High Rock Canyon (L), they were attacked by Indians. Rashly leaving the shelter of their wagons the immigrants charged on their foe and though they vanquished the Indians, 40 men were killed. In fearful haste the dead were gathered and interred in a common grave. Then oxen drew wagons back and forth over the spot in an attempt to disguise it and save it from desecration.”

Of course this also raises more questions, so on we go!

What Happened at Massacre Lakes? (1 of 3)

Looking east-ish from the dune tops toward Dr. Seuss’s farmstead.

One of the more striking places I’ve been lately has been Massacre Lakes in northern Washoe County with the Middle Lake’s Dr. Seuss–feeling old ranch site, obsidian strewn dunes, alabaster lake beds, and enormously moving sky. We barely even scratched the surface of the place on this first, a little fearful of rain, visit, but I can’t wait to be back.

Obsidian, obsidian, everywhere. From the top of the dune it caught sunlight and looked like broken glass strewn everywhere


Nice little obsidian rock


There is plenty of evidence of human intervention here


Another view of Dr. Seuss’s farmstead, check out @dannvdan on instagram for some more from this striking place!

But there is a thing, that name. Not exactly the kind of the name that says, “Hey, happy things happened here!” What did happen at Massacre Lakes? Well, first a little background from Wikipedia. The Massacre Lakes are a part of Long Valley, a closed, no water flows out, basin (endorheic is the technical term from Wikipedia). The lakes themselves extend into the ridge of the lava flows to the east toward the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge.

How did this striking place become Massacre Lakes? Well, you might guess. From Nevada Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary by Helen S. Carlson (Why don’t I own this book? Although this entry luckily included in the Google Books preview, page 164):

“A large and well-equipped wagon train was attacked near here in 1850 by Indians of the High Rock Canyon country. Forty men of the emigrant party were killed in the battle and interred in a common grave.”

So there you have it. Somewhere nearby there is a mass grave (I think if human history has taught us anything, one thing you can expect near a massacre site is a mass grave). But knowing more raises questions. Why was the train particularly “well-equipped”? How is it that exactly “40” “men” were killed. How many survivors were there? How many native casualties? What are the sources? (They of course are given, but the citation page isn’t in the Google Books preview so that will have to wait until I get to the library.) If it were a “massacre” then why does the source say “battle”?

Some of these things are surely just lost in the past, carried away by the persistent and prevalent wind, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to learn what we can?

* Continue reading here.