In 1857, Maj. William Ormsby, who had returned to Northern California after a failed campaign to conquer the country of Nicaragua, became a partner in the Pioneer Stage Co., which operated a stage line between Genoa and Placerville.
In April of that year, he, his wife and daughter, and his brother-in-law, J.K. Trumbo, relocated to the newly-established settlement of Genoa in the far western Utah Territory and began operating a trading post.
Additionally, shortly after arriving in Genoa, Ormsby and his wife agreed to take two Paiute girls into their home. The two were the daughters of Chief Winnemucca, the leader of the Northern Nevada Paiute people with whom the Ormsbys apparently had become friendly.
For several months, Margaret Ormsby taught the girls English in exchange for their help with household chores. One of the girls, Sarah Winnemucca, would later become an important bridge between the Paiutes and the white community and a strong advocate for Native American rights. In 1882, she published “Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” which was the first book ever published in English by a Native American woman.
Ormsby quickly became active in local politics. He befriended James M. Crane, who had arrived in Genoa three months after him, and the two took on prominent roles in fomenting for the creation of a separate territory from the Utah Territory.
Ormsby’s reason for supporting such a plan reflected his belief that Salt Lake City, the seat of the territory, was too far away to effectively govern the growing and increasingly more lawless western Utah area.
Ormsby, like many disgruntled new residents of the region, also was not a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints religion and resented the church’s power and influence, which, they believed, unfairly favored members of the faith.
Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact the creation of a new territory offered opportunity for someone with Ormsby’s ambition to become a leader in establishing a newly-created state.
In August 1857, Ormsby and Crane became the de facto leaders of a committee that had formed in Genoa to petition the U.S. Congress for the creation of a new territory (Genoa founder John Reese was elected president of the group but Ormsby soon assumed the role of chair of the meetings).
The committee agreed to send Crane to Washington to advocate for territorial status. Meanwhile, Ormsby, according to historian Sally Zanjani, “remained on the eastern slope, immersing himself in local politics and accumulating landholdings in Gold Canyon, where he anticipated more mining; Eagle Valley, a likely spot for a future state capital; and other sites.”
In December 1857, Ormsby and his supporters issued several statements denouncing Utah’s authority over the region and stating its intentions not to acknowledge the authority of any officials, including judges, appointed by Salt Lake City.
Compounding the situation was the sudden departure of most of the Mormons residents of western Utah Territory in 1857. Tensions between the U.S. government and church officials sparked fears of a conflict — the so-called “Mormon War” — and Brigham Young, leader of the church, recalled his followers to Salt Lake City to defend the church’s seat of authority.
The resulting power vacuum increased local anxieties as well as incidents of lawlessness. Uneasy relations between the settlers — many of whom felt even more strongly in favor of the need for independence from remote government officials in Utah — and the territorial government continued until 1859, when the discovery of fabulously rich silver reserves in Virginia City changed the entire situation.
(More next week in part 3.)
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.