Some said that tribal lore about a massacre at the “Place of the Rotten Moon” in Northern Nevada was mere legend.
Now, evidence has surfaced that at Thacker Pass in 1865, Nevada cavalry volunteers murdered 31 Paiute men, women and children as they slept in shelters, including all the wounded people who had survived the initial onslaught. Two infants narrowly escaped execution when one of the militiamen took pity on them and took them away, according to the accounts.
In a filing in U.S District Court in Reno on Oct. 1, Dorece Antonio, a descendant of Ox Sam, the only adult survivor of the massacre on Sept. 12, 1865, wrote that her great-great-grandfather lost his mother, father, brothers and sisters when the soldiers attacked the sleeping village as the sun rose over the Double H Mountains.
“As far as we know, they were never buried,” she wrote in her declaration to the court. “My relatives still rest in Thacker Pass.”
Judge asked to reconsider ruling
Nevada tribes have argued in court that the Thacker Pass area, site of Nevada Lithium’s proposed open-pit mine, is sacred ground because cavalry troops massacred men, women and children at a village there in the 1860s and left their remains to rot amid the sagebrush and greasewood.
A federal judge hearing the case filed by tribal members who oppose the project, and who have urged the court to prevent a planned archeological survey of the site, ruled on Sept. 8 that the plaintiffs were “unable to show a massacre happened within the project area.”
The documents filed in the case along with Antonio’s declaration include passages from a 1929 autobiography of a labor leader and an 1865 newspaper story. Both describe the unprovoked killings of 31 Paiute people. The motion filed by tribal lawyers Oct. 1 asks the judge to reconsider her earlier refusal to block the digging of trenches at the site.
Nevada Lithium spokespersons could not immediately be reached for comment Oct. 6.
Billions in lithium deposits
The archeological survey is required before Nevada Lithium can proceed with the mine, a $1.6 billion project located about 53 miles northeast of Winnemucca. A 2018 study valued the Thacker Pass operation at $2.59 billion after taxes. Lithium is the main component for rechargeable batteries found in high-tech devices from electric cars to cell phones. It’s touted as a green-energy solution to fossil fuels, but critics say extracting the element comes at too high a cost for rural communities, endangered species and water resources, and will further poison the environment.
Attorneys for the tribes also argue that the Bureau of Land Management failed to formally consult with the tribes about the preparation of a federally-required historical properties plan when project approval was fast-tracked during the Trump administration.
Accounts of the massacre are found in a 1929 autobiography of William “Big Bill” Haywood, a prominent American labor organizer. Eyewitness accounts came from militia volunteer Jim Sackett, who participated in the slaughter, and from Ox Sam, one of the three Native American survivors.
Murdered as they slept
The volunteers, organized to retaliate against tribal people for “the many depredations committed on the part of Indians,” rode out from Fort McDermitt in search of any indigenous people they could find. They were making camp near Willow Creek on Sept. 11, 1865, when they spotted the glow of campfires in the distance.
They rode through the night toward what they assumed was a village. The troopers attacked at dawn without warning, Haywood wrote. He quoted Sackett.
“Daylight was just breaking when we came in sight of the Indian camp. All were asleep. We unslung our carbines, loosened our six-shooters, and started into that camp of savages at a gallop, shooting through their wickiups as we came. In a second, sleepy-eyed squaws and bucks and little children were darting about, dazed with the sudden onslaught, but they were shot before they came to their waking senses.”– Bill Haywood, quoting eyewitness Jim Sackett.
Sackett told Haywood that the volunteers shot the Indians “close up… From one wickiup to another we went, pouring in our bullets. Then we dismounted to make a closer examination. In one wickiup we found two little papooses still alive. One soldier said, ‘make a clean-up. Nits make lice.’”
Three villagers survived
But the two children were taken away by Charley Thacker, who raised them on his ranch, Sackett reported. Another survivor, presumably young Ox Sam, rode away “on a big grey horse” and couldn’t be caught. All wounded Indians were summarily executed, according to Sackett.
Years later Ox Sam told Haywood how he cut through the animal skin wall of the rear of his shelter when the shooting began, mounted a horse and rode to Disaster Peak. “My mother, my father, my sisters, my brothers, I see no more,” he told Haywood.
A copy of the single-page Sept. 30, 1865, edition of the Owyhee Avalanche newspaper, also filed with the court, carries the headline “Indian Fight in Queen River Valley.” The story says a Capt. Payne and Lt. Littlefield of the 1st Nevada Cavalry had camped with 19 volunteers along Willow Creek in the area near Thacker Pass and moved toward the Paiute encampment.
“A charge was ordered and each officer and man went for scalps, and fought the scattering devils over several miles of ground for three hours, in which time all were killed that could be found,” according to the story.
Death toll might have been higher
The newspaper report notes the troopers counted 31 dead Indians, but says “more must have been kill (sic) and died from their wounds, as a strict search was not made and the extent of the battlefield so great.” One trooper was wounded, the paper reported, but not severely. The story said the 31 dead Paiutes were now “permanently friendly.”
The accounts present the first hard evidence of the massacre. Tribal members who oppose the lithium mine also argue the project would destroy ancestral lands and animal habitat and pollute the environment. A protest camp at the site has been continually occupied since January 2020.
Myron Smart, a tribal elder from Fort McDermitt, is often among the participants at the camp. In an interview broadcast on First Voices Indigenous Radio, Smart said the Thatcher Pass area encompasses an obsidian deposit used by native people for thousands of years and is a source of medicinal plants. He noted that the mine would disrupt animal routes and habitats.
The ‘spirits of those who died’
There also are Indian burials in the area, he has said, and noted in many interviews that the tribal name for the area is Pee-hee-mu-huh, which translates into “Rotten Moon.” He explained that oral history holds that a massacre of women and children took place nearby while the men of the band were off hunting. (Ox Sam told Haywood that the men had gone to the Quinn River Sink to hunt ducks).
When the hunters returned to the camp, they discovered their relatives’ murdered and mutilated bodies decomposing on the desert floor.
“Elders used to talk about them and tell (children) to be careful when you are out there. They would say ‘try not to disturb anything; leave things alone and just watch. Maybe one day you’ll feel (the spirits of those who died).’”— Myron Smart, elder of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe.
That massacre was apparently left out of Nevada history books, but the evidence unearthed by the plaintiffs in the court case coincides with the horrific events Smart and other elders have always said occurred 155 years ago at Pee-hee-mu-huh, the place of the “Rotten Moon.”