Fort Churchill, Nevada

Fort Churchill State Historic Park

Fort Churchill, Nevada, is considered the state’s first, largest, and most elaborate military outpost. The fort, about 20 miles east of modern-day Dayton, existed from July 1860 through 1869. The soldiers protected mining camps in California and emigrants and other travelers from the Washoe, Paiute, and Shoshone Indians in the area. The silver and gold mining led to increased settlement in the area, which could only have the result of a conflict.

In the late Spring of 1859, small incidents began to occur with Indians. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Indians killed some prospectors near Black Rock. Two were killed and another escaped to tell about the incident. During the summer of 1859 several immigrant parties were attacked and about a dozen men killed.

Then, the winter of 1859 were very severe. The Indians suffered from hunger and cold. White people helped build fires and offered bread and other provisions, but sometimes the Indians refused the food, fearing it was poisoned. The Indians attributed the harsh winter to the whites, believing they had angered the gods by their misuse of the land. They Indians were driven by fear and desperation. In 1860 a rancher was found dead and the Indians were blamed. The Indians refused to give up the guilty party. Local officials asked the Army to provide a company to protect them from the Indians. At first their request was denied because soldiers could not get across the Sierra Mountains and, anyway, there were none to spare.

Then came the Battle of Pyramid Lake in 1860. The event that triggered the battle, was when three men were killed at the Williams Pony Express station. Major Ormsby and 105 volunteers chased the Indians. But the Indians were well prepared and knew the terrain much better. The soldiers lost 76 men.

The army finally agreed that a military post was necessary. Captain Joseph Stewart was tasked to find a suitable location. He picked a spot on the Carson River about 25 miles east of Virginia City. There was already a pony express station house there built by Sam Buckland at which he sold supplies, hot meals, and whiskey. The fort would be named in honor of General Sylvester Churchill. The total cost of the fort was approximately $180,000.

Of this entire area of the fort was 1,384 acres on the north bank of the Carson River. The first soldiers arrived on July 23, 1860. They started building the fort immediately. They first built a blacksmith shop, dragoon and quartermaster stables, and other buildings made out of adobe. The army hired 40 civilians for laying foundation and hauling stone and other materials. Good progress on construction was handicapped by a lack of labor. The army often had to rely on passing emigrants to help them. There was also a shortage of material and it was a long haul for anything to be brought to the fort. Mules brought lumber from the Sierra, hardware and windows, etc., had to be freighted from Virginia City, Carson City, and sometimes Sacramento.

Construction continued through the Spring and Summer of 1861. This fort never had a surrounding wall like most forts. It had 21 white-washed adobe buildings. There was a hospital building in the southeast corner, with a three-room kitchen and a small cellar. The hospital could house twelve patients. A guardhouse was built in 1861 to house prisoners of war and soldiers who misbehaved. There were several food storehouses as well as an ordnance storehouse. Four laundresses operated a laundry. In August, the post hired a sutler (civilian trader) to operate store a within the post. The post was placed on the regular mail line and a telegraph was installed.

In 1861, the men planted gardens since fruit and vegetables were always in short supply. They were able to get hay from Virginia City. Beef and barley came from California. Somehow the sutler always seems to have a large variety of goods to including, flannel shirts, gloves, canned goods, honey, and olives. Despite their location on the Carson River, they did have a problem with fresh water. Unfortunately the water was very polluted by upriver mining in which salt, copper sulfate, and other chemicals were dumped into the river. The soldiers dug wells but they weren’t a lot better.

It was a very isolated post and many men got bored and some deserted. It was desert all around the fort and hard to survive. If they got into town they would be recognized as soldiers and turned in. The only recreation they had was fishing on the river and drinking and card playing at the sutler store. There was very little variation in routine. One time there was a traveling minstrel group, which inspired the men to form their own amateur theater group. They even built a small theater and entertained each Saturday. The men played both male and female parts. Officers did get a little more free time and were able to visit Virginia City in their free time.

For awhile the fort was the easternmost telegraph from the west coast. When it would receive telegraphs from the east by pony express it would then send the telegraph further west. The lines were frequently down though, so this could be a challenge at times.

When the fort received word on January 6, 1861, about the start of the Civil War there were many men who resigned to join one side or the other. The fort was strengthened with an additional 93 men from California because there seemed to be strong Southern sentiment at the fort that they felt could cause problems. On March 2, 1861, the area became part of Nevada territory and new officers were installed. Additional men and ammunition came from California to keep the peace. But on November 29, a man from Carson City was murdered by secessionist Bill Mayfield. The fort had to send troops to the jail to protect the murderer from being either lynched by the northern sympathizers or turned loose by the southern secessionists.

During the year, emigrant trains continued to arrive. Some of them were nearly destitute and the fort had to give them supplies. Sometimes troops rode out to rescue stranded emigrants. One train had been attacked and robbed by Indians and Officer Blake sent 11 men to rescue them. Twenty of the original 54 emigrants had been killed. These troubles resulted in 1862, to increasing the fort to 200 soldiers.

The citizens of Virginia City and Carson City were still worried about secessionist problems. There were a few people who were arrested for making what was felt to be treasonable statements. P.H. Clayton was one such man and he was confined at Fort Churchill for three weeks as punishment. In 1863, the Civil War was continuing and more troops were being withdrawn from the West to go east. When the government recruited members for the war department, the Nevada volunteers met at Fort Churchill.

There was additional conflict with the Indians over the cutting of pine trees for building. The pine trees were the source of pinyon nuts, essential for the Indian diet. Fortunately catastrophe was averted most times with negotiation and giving of gifts. In 1864, there was a complaint from Unionville that Paiutes were stealing horses and cattle. Thirty men left the fort to negotiate with the Indians. They never did find any Indians.

In 1864, soldiers from the fort were sent to Virginia City because citizens were worried about the southern sympathizers there. There was also a disturbance in Dayton when a man was lynched, but by the time troops arrived all was quiet. During the summer, there was a problem with the local miner’s union when mine owners reduced the daily wage. Fearful of riots, the troops were once again called in to keep the peace.

To be continued…