The Northern Paiute people made their life in present day northwest Nevada over thousands of years. They lived off the land and moved regularly following the animals or the ripening season of the plants. Due to the rugged and spare environment, their culture was one of hospitality and limited possessions. Archaeological sites near present day Lovelock, Nevada indicate the Paiute’s ancestors lived there back to 2,500 BC. However, the arrival of the Americans and competition with them for scarce resources would change their way of life.
Through Paiute folklore, we also know that there were other indigenous people in the area as well. Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins in her book, Life Among The Piutes, tells a traditional Paiute story about a tribe of cannibals that lived near the Northern Paiutes and spoke the same language. The Paiutes had tried to bring the tribe to peace, but could not get them to give up their cannibalism, so this tribe of red-haired people were exterminated by the Paiutes in a great cave fire. Winnemucca Hopkins claimed to have a traditional dress that was trimmed with the red hair.1
From the early 1820s, maybe earlier, a few whites had explored the Great Basin area. Fur trappers had made their way down from the Snake River valley in the north. Fremont’s expedition had traveled through and mapped the area in 1844. There were hostilities with some of the white parties, but the volume of contact remained low for decades. However, from the 1840s, the real threat to the Paiute way of life came from the immigrant trails through their homeland. At first, the Paiute and the transient settlers managed to co-exist, but as the gold and silver rushes engulfed the area around Virginia City, whites began to settle and spread out into the Paiute heartland. The core problem was not merely a question of personal space, but a more basic conflict over culture and the use of scarce natural resources in modern or traditional ways. This made the opportunities for conflict much more numerous.
You can find out more about the Northern Paiute in my book on The Paiute War of 1860.
You can also use my Battlefield Biker Ride Guide to the Paiute War of 1860 to visit the sites associated with the war.
1 pp. 73-75 Hopkins, Sarah Winnemucca. Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Reno, Nev: University of Nevada Press, 1994.
Image credit: Public Domain. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.