History & Culture

Fort Ruby

Protecting the Overland Stage - Fort Ruby, 1862 -1869

Setting the Stage - The Nevada Frontier in the 1860s

Map of Nevada showing the Fort Ruby locationDuring the 1860s, the Overland Stage and Mail Service carried both passengers and mail to the Western Frontier. The route passed through Ruby Valley, Nevada, where it was plagued by frequent attacks and robberies. The decade also saw increasing numbers of emigrants traveling through the region which caused further conflicts with Native Americans. Military presence proved to be effective for protecting travelers and property along the stage route, and Fort Ruby was established on September 4, 1862. The Fort was the site of the signing of the Treaty of Ruby Valley which was negotiated with the Western Shoshone and signed by 12 tribal representatives, the Indian Commissioner, and the Territorial Governor of Nevada in October 1863. Ratified in 1866, the treaty included provisions for mineral exploration, settlement, and safe passage for the Overland Stage and emigrants as well as the establishment of a reservation and monetary payments for the loss of land and food resources.



In 1862, Colonel Conner, who stayed in Ruby Valley for only one month, reported “understand Photopgraph of Fort Ruby site on the Southern end of Ruby Valley looking to the Northwest Ruby Valley is a bleak, inhospitable place – no forage, nor lumber to build with, and as far as the Indians are concerned, entirely unnecessary to keep troops there” (Hart 1963:94). The men were unhappy with the rough conditions and isolated post and offered to have their pay withheld if they could move back to fight in the Civil War.

Cadstral survey notes refer to Fort Ruby “situated in the NW 1/4 of Section 11 and NE 1/4 of Section 10, the line between Sections 10 and 11 running through the parade ground”. Today, lands to the west of the section line are administered by the Forest Service, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and the lands to the east are administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Two old photographs showing the buildings at Fort RubyThere were three types of building styles represented at Fort Ruby: the earliest was the vertical log (palisade) style; followed by the hewn square log; and finally the log with sawn lumber gable ends. Most of the buildings had exterior chimneys of adobe with brick caps. The commanding officer’s house was the only building with a porch.

Officers’ housing at Fort Ruby, 1868 (Photograph by T. O’Sullivan – Courtesy Special collections, University of Reno-Nevada Library #1510B).

Fort Ruby - Rise and Fall of a Desert Outpost

Fort Ruby was administered by the California Military Department, whose headquarters were at the Presidio in San Francisco. The first men stationed at the fort were under the command of Major Patrick A. Gallagher, 3rd California Infantry. Fort Ruby was established by a formal military unit, the 3rd Infantry from California and manned the first two years by Companies C and F Infantry and Company K of the 2nd California Cavalry. In 1864 Company B, 1st Infantry of Nevada Territory Volunteers was stationed at the post. And, in 1865, Company J, 9th U.S. Infantry replaced the volunteers.

The initial buildings were constructed quickly in the fall of 1862, as winter was settling in. Summers were spent on patrol between stage stations – several soldiers were killed during attacks. A total of 21 people died at the post, several from disease including a commanding officer.

In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed making the stage route immediately obsolete. With the stage route abandoned there was no need for a fort in the southern valley and the men were moved to Fort Halleck closer to the railroad route.

Exploring Fort Ruby’s Legacy

Black and white photograph of one of the long buildings at Fort RubyFort Ruby was officially closed in April 1869 and the buildings were sold to local ranchers who moved them off the site. Settlement in the southern end of the valley did not occur until the 1890s when a ranch was established and operated for about 100 years. In the 1970s to 1990s a fishing resort with a trailer park occupied the site.

Privately owned until 2002 when the ranch transferred to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this significant archaeological site sustained extensive disturbance during its long history of post-fort development.

Federal acquisition offered the first opportunity to conduct a clean up and archaeological study of the fort site. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U. S. Forest Service have established a joint venture to explore Fort Ruby’s frontier legacy.

Passport In Time Project – August 2005

Passport In Time is a Forest Service program that gives volunteers an opportunity to participate in heritage preservation projects working alongside professional archaeologists. The Fort Ruby Project included six Passport in Time volunteers, the refuge’s Youth Conservation Corps crew, and several volunteers from the local community.

Photograph of a group of people participating in a Passport In Time Project at Fort RubyThe primary goal of this test excavation project was to identify the location of the Officers’ row and to find material culture that would provide insight into the lives of the Officers and their families living at Fort Ruby as well as their interactions with the local Native Americans who camped nearby. Pre-field research indicated that we should focus our efforts on the west side of the Fort, in the area least disturbed by post-fort activities.


Summary of Results

During the five- day project we excavated 27 1 x 1 m units for a total of 7.725m3 of cultural fill and Photograph showing three of the projectile points found during the Fort Ruby Passport In Timecollected more than 4,000 artifacts. Nearly half of the artifacts relate to the long-history of use of the site by Native Americans. Eight diagnostic projectile points were recovered suggesting use of the area began 4500 years ago, while several pieces of Western Shoshone brownware ceramics indicate historic occupation. The Western Shoshone and soldiers interacted to some extent – Fort records note that they camped outside the Fort during the winter months and the soldiers provided them with blankets and food. At most forts the division between military personnel and Native Americans was restricted by a palisade wall or fence. Yet, photographs of Fort Ruby show no encircling barrier.

Evidence of the Officers’ row included the discovery of a privy, a line of posts, several charcoal-stained pit features and many artifacts relating to the Fort-era of occupation. Machine cut nails and window glass were found in abundance with the upright posts. Palisade-style architecture is associated with the earliest building phase at the Fort. The privy location suggests that we are looking in the right area.

Photograph of porcelain doll's head recovered at Fort RubyFort records indicate that women were present in 1864 with the Nevada Volunteer Infantry garrisoned at Fort Ruby. The 1868 photograph by O’Sullivan depicts a woman in a black dress sitting on the porch of the Commanding Officer’s house. We recovered a porcelain doll’s head, a woman’s black dress button, etched glass tableware, white earthenware and ironstone tableware (soup tureen lid), suggesting higher status occupants were living in this area.

Modern intrusions and use of the site as a ranch poses challenges to deciphering the Fort-related landscape. Yet, the artifacts we recovered are consistent with the 1860s period including percussion caps, Minie balls, plain white earthenware and ironstone, mold-blown bottles, panel patent medicine bottles, the Victorianstyle doll’s head, and machine cut nails. The archaeological expression of thePhotograph of Passport In Time participants at one of the dig sites
Officers’ housing is subtle, but holds promise for future investigations.

While we haven’t yet answered all the research questions, the preliminary results are encouraging. The exact location of buildings is uncertain but the material culture indicates we are in the right area and future plans are to continue searching for the Fort and interpreting the results to the public.

Prepared by: Lou Ann Speulda and Karen Kumiega, December 2005.