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.