Pony Bob and the Pyramid Lake War

Williams Station was located in the middle of the desolate wasteland that was 1860s Nevada. It may or may not have been a Pony Express stop; little is known about it except for the role it played in triggering an incident known as the Pyramid Lake Indian War.

James O.Williams lived at Williams Station with his two brothers. On the early morning of May 8, 1860, he arrived home to find the station burned to the ground, the livestock gone, and both his brothers and another man lying on the ground dead.

In terror, he rode hysterically through the desert toward Buckland’s Station, ten miles to the west. He paused there only to sound the alarm before galloping further west to Virginia City, stopping en route to warn the occupants of Dayton and Silver Spring that the Paiutes, friendly up to now, had gone on the warpath. By the next morning, greatly-exaggerated reports had reached Carson City, whose citizens were told that a thousand savages were headed their way, bent on destruction.

A mob of vigilantes was quickly recruited from among the local miners and ranchers and the patrons of the local saloons. No investigation of the events at Williams Station was attempted.

According to one early journalist, the attack on Williams Station was provoked when someone at the station abducted several young Indian women, keeping them hostage in a cellar. The husband of one of the women attempted unsuccessfully to rescue her, then went for help. Eight of his comrades followed him to the ranch, killed its occupants, and burned the place. They then headed north to a Paiute encampment at Pyramid Lake, passing by at least one ranch without incident. In other words, they were not on the warpath, but instead were merely exacting specific revenge for a specific outrage.

In any case, the mob at Carson City did not stop to ask questions. The 105 vigilantes, many of them drunk, left town in a festive mood, eager to head up to the lake and shoot some Indians. After stopping at Williams Station to bury the three bodies, they continued on the two-day ride north to Pyramid Lake. With no leadership and no military discipline, the mob quickly fell into a Paiute ambush; at least seventy-six of them were killed, and many of the rest wounded. The survivors scattered. With 83 percent losses, the battle ranks near Custer’s Last Stand in terms of casualties.

Three Paiute were also wounded in the battle.

When news of the disaster reached Virginia City, pandemonium broke out. Settlers and miners fled; others barricaded themselves inside buildings. One miner, hoping to escape attack, lowered himself fifty feet down a mine shaft; his partner panicked and fled, and the man spent three days down there before someone rescued him.

Against the background of these events emerged a figure known to history as Pony Bob. Robert Haslam was a twenty-year-old Pony Express rider, assigned to the stretch that lay between Buckland’s Station and Friday’s Station (present-day Lake Tahoe). On May 9, unaware of the events that had transpired, he left Friday’s Station, riding east with the mail. By the time he reached Carson City, the ill-fated expeditionary force had already left, taking with them all the fresh horses in town.

He fed and watered his horse and continued east to Buckland’s Station. There he found the station keeper in a state of panic, and the relief rider refusing to take his route. So Pony Bob continued east to Sand Springs Station, where he changed horses, and then continued on to Cold Springs and then to Smith’s Creek. He had ridden 190 miles without a rest, between two and three times the normal route of a Pony Express rider.

At Smith’s Creek Station, he slept for eight hours, and then picked up the westbound mochila and headed back to Cold Springs. There he found the station keeper murdered, the station burned, and the stock run off. There were no fresh horses, but there was fresh water, so he watered his horse and kept riding.

At Sand Springs Station, the lone stock tender was unaware of the war that was circling around him. Pony Bob told him what he had seen and heard, and persuaded the man to accompany him west, probably saving his life.

When the two reached Carson Sink Station on May 13, they found fifteen terrified survivors of the Pyramid Lake disaster barricaded inside the station house. Leaving the stock tender there, Pony Bob took a fresh horse and rode on to Buckland’s Station, where the first relief rider had refused to ride. Legend tells us he arrived only three and a half hours off schedule.

After resting for an hour and a half, he continued riding west toward Carson City and back to his starting point at Friday’s Station. He had ridden 380 miles in thirty-six hours.

No account mentioned that he saw a single Indian.

(Corbett 63-79)

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