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Where was the Massacre?

"Massacre" is a place name attached to a constellation of features in Northern Washoe county: Massacre Valley, Massacre Canyon, Massacre lakes, and Massacre Rim.  Place Name guide books to Nevada typically attribute the origin of the place name “Massacre” to an attack of a wagon train in the High Rock Canyon area by Native Americans along the Applegate-Lassen Trail in 1850.  These guide books describe the “massacre” of forty men who were buried in a mass grave along the trail. Most sources of this information reference the Federal Writers’ Project publication Origin of Palace Names: Nevada, 1941.  That source references Effie Mona Mack’s book Nevada: A History of the State from the Earliest Times through the Civil War, published in 1936. And Mack credits a 1931 article featured in the Sacramento Bee, written by William S. Brown as the source. Brown presents no source for his story, only saying that there is little record of the tragedy.   

The problem is, there is not a single mention of the supposed “massacre” associated with this portion of the Applegate-Lassen Trail appears in any publication, government record, or emigrant journal entry from the 1849 through the 1860s.  The death of 40 emigrants would have been important news across the country. There are also no traditional stories of this altercation in the Northern Nevada Native Communities.  Two rock structures near Massacre Ranch dating either from the Ranch period (1880-1950) from 1849-1852 have been identified as a mass grave site. If the rock structures date from the emigrant period, they are most likely remnants of a cache of emigrant goods abandoned along the trail when draft animals were so emaciated that they could no longer haul a fully loaded wagon over the rough country.  This cache making  process was written about and described by Dr. Joseph Middleton while he was camped along the Applegate-Lassen trail near the future Massacre Ranch on October 5th, 1849. These caches of goods were usually constructed with an elaborate rock cairn, so the owners could easily come back and recover their good. Most likely these caches were looted by subsequent travelers, which would have left a conspicuous pile of rocks. These rock piles would have been mystery to the cowboys who worked the range 30 years later, with no context for the trail and the cache processes. They may have been interpreted a large, mass graves. By the 1880s, the story of the emigrant “massacre” becomes firmly established and the place names associated with this “massacre” begin to appear on maps.  Most likely, the “massacre” was a myth that took root in a pile of stone created by looted emigrant caches.  

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Photo by Scott Moore

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