Dispatches from Thacker Pass – The History of Thacker Pass

Image - Max Wilbert

Forty days ago, my friend Will Falk and I launched a protest camp here at Thacker Pass. 

Situated between the Montana Mountains and Double H Mountains in northern Nevada, Thacker Pass is part of the “sagebrush ocean.” Big sagebrush plants, the keystone species here, roll away to the south and east of the camp. Stars light up the night sky. Often, the only sound we can hear is the wind, the chirping of birds, the yips of coyotes.

The seasons are unfolding. When we arrived, the mountains were auburn in the evening sun. Now, they shimmer bright white after winter storms. Cliffs and sagebrush protrude through the snow and provide habitat for wildlife: bobcats, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, sage-grouse, pygmy rabbits, burrowing owls, and countless others.

Image – Max Wilbert

We are here in the bitter cold wind to oppose the destruction of this place. Lithium Americas Corporation, and their subsidiary Lithium Nevada Corporation, plan to blow up this pass, extract millions of tons of stone, and build an array of infrastructure to process this into lithium with harsh chemicals like sulfuric acid. Along the way, they will build vast mountains of toxic tailings, leaching heavy metals and uranium into what groundwater will still remain after they pump nearly 1.5 billion gallons per year into their industrial machinery.

For weeks now, I have been researching the true history of this place. I have struggled with how to tell these stories. There are many perspectives on Thacker Pass, and many ways the story can be told. 

Where to begin? There are no true beginnings or endings here, where water cycles endlessly from sky to mountain to soil to river to sky, and back again; where human existence passes as a fading footprint in the soil, as bones sinking into land, as a whisper on the breeze. Only stories upon stories, legends and myths, layers of soil and stone. But there is a beginning. 

Nineteen million years ago, a column of magma deep within the mantle of the planet arose under the continental plate. Heat and pressure built through miles of stone, liquifying it. Superheated water forced its way to the surface, and geysers appeared. Pressure kept building, and one day, the first volcanic eruption tore open the crust, spewing ash across half the continent. 

This was the birth of the Yellowstone Hotspot, an upwelling of heat from deep inside the planet that even now, after migrating hundreds of miles northeast, powers the geysers of Yellowstone National Park.

After a time, the magma was spent. Vast chambers once filled with magma, miles underground, were now empty, and the weight of the stone overhead pressed down. Soon, the ground itself collapsed across an area of more than 600 square miles, and the McDermitt Caldera, of which Thacker Pass is a part, was formed. 

The new caldera attracted water. Rain fell and flowed downhill. With wind and water and ice, rich volcanic stones became pebbles, then sand, then clay. Sediments gathered in lake basins, and one element in particular — lithium — was concentrated there.

In one version of the story of Thacker Pass — the version told by Lithium Americas — geologic conditions created a stockpile of valuable lithium that can be extracted for billions of dollars in profits. In this version of the story, Thacker Pass is a place that exists to fuel human convenience and industry — to store power for the wealthy, the consumers of gadgets and smartphones and electric cars, for the grid operators.

In this story, the lithium in the soil at Thacker Pass does not belong to the land, or to the sagebrush, or to the water trickling down past roots and stones to join ancient aquifers. It belongs to the mining company which has filed the proper mining claim under the 1872 mining law, which still governs today.

In another version of this story, this land called “Thacker Pass” is part of the Northern Paiute ancestral homeland. I do not know the Paviotso name for this place. Wilson Wewa, a Northern Paiute elder, says that “the world began at the base of Steens Mountain,” a hundred miles north-northwest of here. Wewa tells that the people emerged from Malheur Cave, a 3,000-foot-deep lava tube near the modern town of Burns. 

Northern Paiute have lived on these lands since time immemorial. Scientists have dated nearby petroglyphs as perhaps 15,000 years old — the oldest in North America. Obsidian from Thacker Pass has been gathered, worked into tools sharper than the finest modern scalpel, and traded across the region for thousands of years. There are even burial sites in the caves nearby, directly adjacent to the mine site, according to a Bureau of Land Management Ranger who visited us at camp this week.

I am told that Sentinel Rock, which stands over the Quinn River Valley at the eastern end of Thacker Pass, was an important site for prayer historically. If the mine is built, Lithium Americas’ water pipeline will skirt Sentinel Rock, pumping out billions of gallons of water. I cannot help but think: how much more can the colonizers take?

I cannot tell the story of the history of this place from the perspective of the Northern Paiute, but it would be wrong to not at least summarize what I know. Too often, the invasion of these lands by European settler-colonialists is ignored. When we ignore or minimize genocide, we make future genocide easier. As the Czech writer Milan Kundera said, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Fort McDermitt Army post originally established on August 14, 1865, Photo by John Stanton – CC-BY-SA

In the 1850’s, colonization of these lands began in earnest. The coming of the white colonizers and their cattle meant the overgrazing of the grasslands and the cutting of the Pinyon Pine trees; the damming of the creeks and rivers; the trapping of the beavers and the killing of the wolves.

In 1859, the discovery of the Comstock lode marked the beginning of the mining explosion. Thousands of people flocked to Nevada, and their axes and cattle and saws devastated the land. Smelting the ore from the mines required every bushel of firewood that could be found. 

Ronald Lanner, in his book The Piñon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History, writes that “the furnaces of Eureka [Nevada], working at capacity, could in a single day devour over 530 cords of piñon, the produce of over 50 acres … After one year of major activity, the hills around Eureka were bare of trees for ten miles in every direction … by 1878 the woodland was nowhere closer than fifty miles from Eureka, every acre having been picked clean … The significance of the deforestation around Eureka can be appreciated by realizing that a fifty ­mile radius from that town approaches to within a few miles of Ely to the east and of Austin to the west. Both of these towns were also important mining centers with large populations, and their demands for woodland products probably rivaled those of Eureka itself.”

Lanner continues: “The deforestation of their hills and the destruction of their nut groves often brought Indians into conflict with white settlers and miners. As early as 1860, Paiutes gathered at Pyramid Lake to decide how to cope with the white men who were encroaching on their lands, killing their game, and cutting down what the settlers derisively referred to as the Indians’ ‘orchards.’”

My friend Myron Dewey, who lives on the Walker River Paiute Reservation, told me the piñon pine are to his people as the buffalo are to the nations of the Great Plains: a sacred relative, source of life, an elder being.

Wilson Wewa also tells of how European colonization dispossessed the Northern Paiute. “Pretty soon our people were having to compete with miners and settlers for food. They were killing all the deer, and the antelope, and their cattle were chomping up and destroying all the root digging grounds we relied on for food.”

The scale of ecological devastation unleashed on Nevada by the mining industry is hard to comprehend. With forests gone, soils eroded, biodiversity collapsed, and streams dried up. The damming of creeks and mass trapping of beavers were another nail in the coffin of the hydrological cycle. From north to south, east to west, colonization destroyed the waters of the region. And what are people to do when their source of life is destroyed? This devastation played a large role in the Paiute War in 1860, the Snake War of 1864-8, the 1865 Mud Lake massacre, the Modoc War of 1872-3, the Bannock War in 1878, the Spring Valley massacres of the 1860’s and 1897, and many other conflicts.

To this day, the results of this destruction are still playing out, from Winnemucca Lake — once a wildlife refuge, home to the previously mentioned oldest petroglyphs in North America, now dry — to Walker Lake, the level of which has fallen more than 181 feet over the last 139 years, causing the extirpation of the Lahontan cutthroat trout. The nearby Walker River Paiute tribe — the Agai-Dicutta Numu, trout eaters — can no longer fish for their namesake.

The piñon pine are still being destroyed, too — this time under the guise of “restoration.” Myron Dewey, who I mentioned earlier, and many others, have long been fighting to protect the “tubape” pine nut trees.

And the war footing remains as well. The largest ammunition depot in the world, the Hawthorne Army Depot, sprawls across 226 square miles just south of Walker Lake. 

Back here at Thacker Pass, the same Lahontan cutthroat trout (a federally listed threatened species) hang on in nearby Pole Creek. Will they survive the mine? Or will their creek shrink smaller and smaller as the water table drops, eventually leaving them with nothing? I cannot help but feel there are similarities between the experience of the Paiutes — land stolen, waters destroyed, marched to reservations — and the trout. Perhaps Wewa would agree with a Dakota friend, who told me “I am part of the land; what happens to the land happens to me.”

The 1872 mining law is law under which Lithium Americas Corp. has “claimed” the land here Thacker Pass, under which they have been permitted to destroy this place. A one hundred- and fifty-year-old law, a legal justification for colonial extraction, a law created to make extraction orderly. That is the legal authority which Lithium Americas claims.

In September of 2019, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, which is made up of 27 tribal, band, and community councils from the Western Shoshone, Goshute, Washoe, and Northern and Southern Paiute nations passed a resolution, which called for reform of the 1872 mining law. The resolution states that “the Great Basin tribes believe the 1872 Mining Law poses a serious threat to the Great Basin tribes land, water, cultural resources, traditional properties, and lifeways.”

I circle back to that name: Thacker Pass. “Who was Thacker,” I wonder, watching the first Dark-eyed Junco of the spring migration flit from sagebrush to ground.

Basic research found nothing, so I called the Nevada Historical Society and the Humboldt County Museum, and started combing through archives looking for prominent people named ‘Thacker’ in the history of the state and of Humboldt County. Digging through old copies of the Reno Evening Gazette, I find a match: John N. Thacker, who was elected sheriff of Humboldt County on November 3rd, 1868, and held the post for many years before becoming the head of the detective service for the Southern Pacific Company and Wells Fargo express through the 1870’s and into the 1880’s.

Thacker was an enforcer and lawman in the Wild West of train robberies and outlaws hiding in canyons — and the laws he enforced were in large part designed to protect the mining industry. Throughout the late 1800’s, Nevada mines produced an incredible amount of wealth – the equivalent of billions of dollars annually. Gold and silver from the mines were transported by stagecoach and train by well-paid mining and banking employees, and this made a tempting target for thieves. Thacker had at least one shootout with bandits who had absconded into the hills. 

In other words, Thacker acted as a protector of mining revenues and an economy based on colonial mining. He worked for the state, the bankers, and the railroad company – the trifecta of institutions creating the conditions for mining to thrive, financing mining projects, and moving ore and raw materials to bigger markets. And, of course, profiting handsomely. 

Many people forget the importance of railroads in this era before paved roads. The first transcontinental railroad passed through Winnemucca, operated by Southern Pacific. As Richard White writes in his book Railroaded, the massive land grants given to railroad companies — a total of more than 175 million acres between 1850 to 1871, more than 10 percent of the landmass of the United States — and easy transportation of both people and goods kicked off a massive influx of settler-colonialism to the interior of the American West.

Railroad companies were notorious in this period for corruption, environmental devastation, and mistreatment of workers. Interestingly, Southern Pacific was the defendant in a landmark 1886 Supreme Court case that massively extended the power of corporations in the United States. In Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, Thacker’s employer successfully argued that the Fourteenth Amendment – originally established to protect formerly enslaved people in the aftermath of the Civil War – also applied to so-called “corporate persons,” striking down various regulations that would have reigned in their power in the West. 

Since this unanimous decision, corporations have relied heavily on the Fourteenth Amendment for protection from the public. As my friend and attorney Will Falk writes, “between 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, and 1912, the Supreme Court ruled on only 28 cases involving the rights of African Americans and an astonishing 312 cases on the rights of corporations, it is easy to conclude that the Fourteenth Amendment has done a better job protecting the rights of corporations than that of African Americans.”

Dana Toth at the Humboldt County Museum helps solve the rest of the mystery: an 1871 newspaper shows that John Thacker owned a 160-acre ranch in the King’s River Valley, just to the west of Thacker Pass. That is most likely the origin of the name Thacker Pass.

A cold north wind has been blowing all morning at Thacker Pass. It was 16 degrees this morning, without the wind chill. The frigid air bites my fingertips and my nose. Our banners flap in the breeze.

And at the headquarters of Lithium Americas Corporation at 300-900 West Hastings Street in Vancouver, Canada, men and women plan how to blow this place up, to shatter the mountainside, to crush the wild integrity of this place under churning bulldozer treads, and turn it into money.

I look out across a landscape named after a man named John Thacker, a man who worked to protect mining industry profits for decades, and I cannot help but feel that not much has changed. Like in the 1850’s and 1860’s, men with explosives, backed by the armed power of the state, are coming to destroy the mountains, the sagebrush steppe, the grasslands, and the waters¬ of Thacker Pass.

What value is there in history, except in guiding our thoughts and actions in the present? As Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “To know our history is to begin to see how to take up the struggle again.”


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Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, will be released in March.


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.