Who was Major William Ormsby?

For more than a century, every child growing up in Carson City knew the name Ormsby. From 1861 to 1969, Nevada’s capital city was the seat of Ormsby County and from 1860 to the early 1930s, one of the city’s most prominent hotels was called the Ormsby House.

Later, the Ormsby name graced a street, an apartment complex, a rehab center and even a hotel-casino built a few blocks south of the site of the old hotel.

If that child paid much attention in Nevada history class, he or she might even know those things were named after some guy named Maj. William Ormsby, who died in the Pyramid Lake Indian War of 1860.

So, who was Maj. William Ormsby?


Born in Greenville, Pennsylvania in 1814, William Matthew Ormsby was one of 11 children born to Matthew and Jane Ormsby.

While not much is known about his early years, it’s apparent that sometime during his first three-and-a-half decades, Ormsby got the itch to leave behind the farm fields of western Pennsylvania for something greater.

The mid-19th century was a time when belief in Manifest Destiny, the idea among many Americans that they had a divine obligation to expand the boundaries of the country, was a prevailing national philosophy.

For Ormsby, Manifest Destiny appeared to be much more than a concept — it was a guiding principle. This drive to be perceived as someone important could even be said to extend to the fact that after Ormsby had earned the rank of major in the Pennsylvania militia, he proudly continued using his military title for the rest of his life.

In April 1849, Ormsby joined two of his brothers, John (a doctor) and Lemuel, as well as his brother-in-law, John K. Trumbo, to journey overland to California’s gold rush territory to make their fortunes.

He left behind his young wife, Margaret, and daughter, Lizzy Jane, who moved in with her parents in Kentucky. Ormsby partnered with his brother, John, and the two, soon joined by their youngest brother, Matthew, established an assay office and the first private mint for gold coinage in Sacramento.

His name also was associated with other ventures at the time including a livery stable and hauling business, and the Horse Market, a horse auctioning business started by Trumbo. In 1850, he began a mail and passenger stage line between Sacramento and Hangtown (Placerville) and Coloma.

In 1853, Ormsby established a stage line between Sacramento and Marysville (for which Matthew was a driver). Still eager to strike it rich, and apparently not achieving that goal with his previous endeavors, he moved on to prospecting in the promising gold fields of the Grass Valley-Nevada City area, even acquiring shares in a gold mine.

But Ormsby wasn’t satisfied.

Two years later, he found a cause that seemed to hold even more promise in bringing him the fame and riches he coveted. While in Sacramento, he befriended a Tennessean who shared his enthusiasm for grand ideas named William Walker.

Walker, who has been described as being of below average height and weighing about 100 pounds with blonde hair and almost white eyebrows, had boundless energy, a hunger to achieve something great and a big plan — traits that seemed to endear him to Ormsby.

Walker wanted to gather an army of expansion-minded Americans to help him conquer countries throughout Latin America. After installing himself as the leader of these countries, he planned to convert them into pro-slavery states that would be annexed to the slave-holding southern states in the United States.

In November 1853, Walker and a small army of about 50 armed followers, mostly from Tennessee and Kentucky, invaded Sonora, Mexico and Baja, Calif., and declared an independent country, which he named “the Republic of Lower California.”

Walker’s quick conquest of Northern Mexico was shortlived. By May 1854, with his troops in disarray due to food shortages, constant attacks by bandits, and low morale, Walker surrendered to U.S. authorities at the border.

Amazingly, Walker was acquitted by a San Francisco jury and by 1855 was making plans for a new invasion, this time of Nicaragua. Sometime in 1856, Ormsby joined Walker on his Nicaragua campaign.

While the conquest of Nicaragua ultimately failed — Walker was executed in Honduras in September 1860 after a second failed attempt to conquer Nicaragua — the fires of Ormsby’s personal ambition still continued to burn brightly. He returned to Northern California and started planning for a new adventure in a place that would be called Nevada.

(Part two next week.)

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.


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