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Early white settlement of what is now northwestern Nevada had a tremendous disruptive effect on the Northern Paiute people. The fragility of the Great Basin ecosystem magnified this disruption despite the relatively low density of white settlers. These disruptions included the felling of Single-leaf Pinyon groves (a major food source for the Paiute) for the mining industry and monopolization of water sources. In addition, settlers and Paiutes competed for grazing lands.

Several murders of whites, including famed mountain man Peter Lassen, were widely attributed to Paiutes. Murders of Paiutes by whites also occurred. The lack of effective government in the area meant that there was no formal judicial response to these incidents, leading to private retribution and a general atmosphere of fear and distrust.

The winter of 1859-1860 was particularly cold and snowy in the Great Basin, and was a great hardship to the Paiute. Old Chief Winnemucca died in the winter of 1859. He had been influential among the Paiute, widely liked by settlers, and therefore served as a go-between and keeper of an uneasy peace. Paiute bands from across the Great Basin gathered at Pyramid Lake for the spring fish run due to failure of local food supplies.