The Mysterious Death of Peter Lassen — Part 2

Peter Lassen (or Larsen, since his father’s name was Lars) was born near Copenhagen in 1800.  He became a blacksmith. In 1830 he applied to the king for permission to immigrate, probably because the depressed European economy made it hard to find sufficient work. Or maybe he was just restless.

He arrived in Boston, and later moved to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1839 he joined an emigrant party to Oregon. From Oregon he took ship down the coast and got off at Bodega Bay and traveled overland to Sutter’s settlement, where he easily found work as a blacksmith.

So by the time of his death in 1859 he had been in California nearly 20 years and was well-known and respected. For now I’ll skip over his subsequent peripatetic career in California. By the late 1850s he had lost his Rancho Bosquejo (at Vina) and had relocated to Honey Lake Valley near Susanville. (See my Ever Been to Nataqua? post for more information.)

In the winter of 1858 Lassen and friends heard about a silver strike in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, which at that time was part of the Utah Territory. It was a region that Lassen was familiar with from the days when he guided emigrants along the Lassen Cutoff of the California Trail. Peter Lassen, Edward Clapper, and Lamericus Wyatt* set out to do some prospecting on April 19, 1859. The plan was to rendezvous with another group of prospectors at Black Rock Springs. When Lassen’s group got there, they didn’t meet the other group, so they set up camp to wait.


This photo, from the Black Rock Explorers Society website, shows the canyon where the deaths took place.

Just at daylight on April 26th gunshots rang out and Wyatt and Lassen sprang to their feet. Going to rouse Clapper, Wyatt found him already dead, shot through the temple. According to Wyatt, who was the only survivor, Lassen said he would stand lookout while Wyatt gathered up their things and got the horses. A moment later, Lassen was shot and fell, gasping, “They have killed me.”**

Taking nothing but his rifle, Wyatt sprang onto his horse and rode without food or rest for 48 hours (so he claimed) until he arrived back at Susanville and reported the deaths. Twenty men immediately set out for the camp to recover any horses and property, and to assess the situation.

Wyatt blamed the ambush on Paiute Indians. He claimed that a Paiute had come to the camp the evening before, asking for ammunition for his muzzle-loading rifle. Over the objections of Wyatt and Clapper, Peter Lassen gave the man bullets and powder, remarking that he had always been friendly with the Paiutes, they knew old Uncle Pete, and no harm would come of it.

If that really happened, then it made it easy for Wyatt to pin the blame on Indians, and by extension, Peter Lassen himself, who had so foolishly supplied the Indian with the ammo to kill him the next day. But other people questioned this scenario. If Indians did the deed, why did they not loot the camp, as they typically did? When the posse arrived, nothing had been taken from the camp.


Site of the camp, again from the Black Rock Explorers Society website. Note the historical marker on the left.

So if not Paiute Indians, then who? Let’s explore that in the next episode.

*Wyatt’s first name also shows up as Americus, LaMarcus, and similar variations.

** As reported in the Downieville Mountain Messenger, and quoted in History of Lassen County. See Ken Johnston, Legendary Truths: Peter Lassen and His Gold Rush Trail in Fact and Fable, p. 287, which is the source of most of my information.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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