Like most villains, Sam Brown was a coward. Brown liked to kill, but only when he was empowered by alcohol and his victim was unarmed.
In the disastrous May 1860 battle against the Paiutes near Pyramid Lake, Brown had mustered in with Maj. William Ormsby’s Carson City Rangers. When fierce Paiute warriors routed the outgunned regiments, Brown’s horse was shot out from under him. At the same time, fellow Ranger Joseph Baldwin was hit by rifle fire and thrown from his mule.
The drunken bravado he displayed so frequently against innocent citizens was replaced in battle with blatant fear and cowardice.
Although woozy from his wounds, Baldwin managed to climb back up onto his mount. But before he could go far, Brown leaped on to the overloaded animal and spurred it on. When Baldwin became too dizzy to hang on, Brown threw him into the sagebrush and fled for his life. Instead of standing to face the enemy, Brown used his great strength to spur the poor mule across 100 miles of desert. He was the second man to arrive back from the battlefield.
While some of the young militiamen bravely sacrificed themselves to try and save their comrades, Brown had deserted his company as soon as the Paiutes returned fire. The drunken bravado he displayed so frequently against innocent citizens was replaced in battle with blatant fear and cowardice.
Pierced by arrows, Brown’s commander Maj. Ormsby had fallen from his mule seriously wounded. Paiute fighters would soon finish him off, but Brown was already fleeing back to the safety of Virginia City, Nev. The flawed Pyramid Lake campaign, where 76 of 105 militiamen died, was followed by a second battle a week later that chased the Paiutes into the desert. An uneasy peace was secured; Fort Churchill was built on the Carson River and Indian reservations were established at Pyramid and Walker lakes.
Brown was the son of an Ohio tavern keeper; when he swaggered down the street, he was given wide berth. Of medium height, he weighed a solid 200 pounds. His face had a florid complexion, topped by coarse red hair and long whiskers. He was always armed with a Bowie knife tucked into his belt and a large revolver. When Brown selected his “man for breakfast,” it was always someone without close friends who might seek revenge.
Brown arrived in Nevada sometime in the late1850s. His brutish reputation had preceded him. The official record indicates that Brown killed three men, but he was certainly guilty of other murders. His first victim was a man in Texas when Brown was just a teenager, and in 1853 Brown stabbed a Mr. Lyons to death in Mariposa. Brown usually got off with a self-defense plea. His murderous behavior forced him to keep moving. In 1854, while living in the Sierra Nevada gold diggings, he killed three men from Chile, for which he was later sentenced to two years at San Quentin Prison.
On his release, Brown moved to western Nevada where he promptly killed a local miscreant known as “one-eyed Gray.” In 1859, Nevada was still part of Utah Territory and had no effective government or real law enforcement. Nor did vigilante committees make any move to punish Brown, because the men he had killed so far were considered desperados by the community.
Brown spent the harsh winter of 1859-60 holed up at the small hamlet of Genoa in the Carson Valley. It was that spring that he had participated in the Pyramid Lake War. Over the next year he moved between Genoa and Virginia City, drinking heavily in saloons and intimidating residents.
On his birthday on July 7, 1861, Brown was celebrating with local tough Alexander Henderson at the Ormsby House Saloon in Carson City. On the way back to Genoa, Brown picked a quarrel with Mr. Webster, the owner of a roadside hotel. Webster was armed so Brown backed down. Same thing happened in Genoa where resident Robert Lockridge also brandished a revolver and called Brown’s bluff. At this point Brown and Henderson were really spoiling for a fight.
Three miles down the road at the base of the Geiger Grade wagon road was a toll station and hotel owned by Henry Van Sickle, a New Jersey-born rancher and an old resident of the valley. Van Sickle had a reputation for being quiet and easygoing. Brown had a grudge against Van Sickle because the innkeeper had loaned a gun to a man who wanted to kill Brown. When Van Sickle saw Brown dismount from his horse, he asked if he wanted his horse stabled, but the drunken ruffian pulled out a loaded revolver and chased Van Sickle into the hotel’s crowded dining room. Van Sickle escaped in the melee so Brown and Henderson once again climbed into their saddles and moved on.
But Van Sickle decided enough was enough. He wasn’t going to wait around for Brown to threaten him again. He grabbed his double-barreled shotgun and saddled his fastest horse.
The normally mild-mannered hotel operator soon caught up with the two cutthroats. He yelled for Henderson to get out of the way and charged Brown and pulled the trigger. Van Sickle normally used the shotgun for duck hunting so it was loaded with fine shot. The blast knocked Brown from his saddle but failed to seriously hurt him. Brown remounted his horse and took off.
Like an avenging angel, Van Sickle recklessly chased after Brown waving his empty gun. Several hotel guests had followed Van Sickle, providing more ammunition and moral support. Van Sickle took another shot at Brown at a nearby farm, but again he missed and his quarry escaped under cover of darkness.
Van Sickle continued his pursuit, riding on to Luther Old’s Hotel, expecting to find Brown there. But he had not arrived yet, so he waited outside in the dark. It wasn’t long before he heard the jingle of Brown’s spurs and he caught Brown at point blank range as he paused for his horse to drink water at the trough. Van Sickle yelled, “Sam, I’ve got you now!”
Caught by surprise, Brown was riveted with mortal fear. His horrible scream was cut short when two charges of buckshot tore into his chest.
Brown was killed on his 30th birthday in 1861; an inquest was held two days later. Instead of a prison sentence, however, the coroner’s jury felt that Van Sickle deserved a reward. Judge Richard Allen’s final verdict was that Brown had come to his death from “a just dispensation of an all-wise Providence.”