Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Embedded in the "Battle of the Lakes": A Report from the Textual Frontlines of the 1833 Humboldt Sink Massacre

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Embedded in the "Battle of the Lakes": A Report from the Textual Frontlines of the 1833 Humboldt Sink Massacre

Article excerpt

The first battle between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in what is today Nevada occurred in 1833 when a party of forty or fifty beaver trappers led by Joseph Walker killed more than twenty-five Paiute Indians near the Humboldt Sink. (1) This battle, where the Humboldt River pools up and sinks into the desert, was known by contemporaries as "The Battle of the Lakes" and is significant in Nevada history as it commenced a pattern of violence between northern Nevada's indigenous peoples and Euro-American travelers and settlers that would erupt in the Pyramid Lake War in 1860 and in local skirmishes throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

This first battle is described in what appears to be the first published work set in Nevada, a best-selling book, published in 1837 in both England and America, known today by the title The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. The author was none other than Washington Irving. Although Irving never visited Nevada, he appears to be the first published author to describe the area. (Beaver trappers Jedediah Smith and Peter Ogden both kept journals of their explorations in the West, including Nevada, but neither journal was discovered and published until the twentieth century.) Irving's book is based on the journal of Captain Benjamin Bonneville, who also had not stepped foot in Nevada. Although Bonneville dispatched Joseph Walker, who did cross Nevada, Bonneville himself spent the year in the Idaho area, not meeting up with Walker again until the following summer at Bear River. It is premonitory that Nevada's first chronicler never actually saw Nevada, nor did his informant. From the very beginning to the present day, Nevada's national image has been a figment of the imagination.

As we shall see, there are a half-dozen different primary accounts of the infamous Battle of the Lakes. While the basic story remains fairly consistent among the accounts, views conflict on what motivated the battle, what its meaning is, and how native peoples, trappers, and the region are represented. Furthermore, the twenty or more historians who have written about this battle show just as much disagreement among themselves as do the participants. Reading these accounts in one sitting is like witnessing a war, a print war over how the battle shall be construed. Writing about the accounts, as I shall do, makes one an embedded journalist, reporting from the textual frontlines. Although the Battle of the Lakes occurred in 1833, the battle of words over the representation of this skirmish is still being waged today.

I shall explore this contested terrain by analyzing the major primary and secondary accounts of the battle, noting significant differences and attempting to explain them. Works will be discussed in the order that they entered the fray of historical discourse--the year that they became widely known and cited--which, in some cases, is more than a half-century after they were originally recorded or published. As I cover this print war, I will pay less attention to minor factual discrepancies--although they will be noted--than to significant shifts in point of view, interpretation, and language. In these areas, we will observe an evolution in the historiography of this battle.

Most early accounts tend to present the native peoples of the Humboldt River area as degraded Diggers and despicable savages; later accounts begin using the ethnological designations Shoshone and Paiutes; while the most recent accounts refer to these people by their own traditional terms--Newe and Numa--respecting their culture and defending their ongoing claims. Conversely, most early accounts portray the trappers as fearless adventurers and bold sentinels of civilization, while later histories are more apt to describe them as intruders, strangers, and even murderers. Northern Nevada appears in the early accounts as a poor region--a barren waste--whereas later histories, written from an Indian point of view, portray the land as a place of beauty and abundance, that is, until the white man arrived and began abusing the land and ransacking its resources. …

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