Sarah Winnemucca (1844?-1891) was active as a peacemaker, teacher, and defender of the rights of Native Americans. She published Life among the Paiutes, Their Wrongs and Claims and founded a school for Indians.
Sarah Winnemucca was a skilled interpreter, an Army scout, a well-known lecturer, a teacher, and the first Indian woman to publish a book. She was born near Humboldt Lake about 1844 in the part of Utah Territory that later became Nevada, the fourth child of her father, Chief Winnemucca, called Old Winnemucca and mother, Tuboitonie. They named her Thocmetony, meaning Shell Flower. Later she took the name Sarah, a name she kept the rest of her life. The homelands of the Northern Paiutes extended over parts of present day Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Over those lands, the Paiutes hunted, gathered seeds (especially pine nuts), and fished in the rivers and lakes. During Winnemucca's lifetime, however, they were crowded onto reservations and deprived of much of their land. Winnemucca became nationally known for her fight for her people's rights and for her struggle to keep the peace between her people and the white newcomers.
Winnemucca's own friendship may have been influenced by her maternal grandfather, the leader of the tribe. He was known as Truckee, from a Paiute word meaning "good" or "all right." The name was given to him by Captain Fremont when they met soon after Winnemucca was born. Truckee and eleven Paiutes went with Fremont to California to help fight Mexican influence there. They returned full of stories of the ways of white people. Truckee, impressed by Fremont and the culture he had been exposed to in California, told his people to welcome the "white brothers."
As more emigrants moved west, however, the Paiutes heard horror stories about the killing of Indians. They apparently also heard a garbled account of the Donner Party, who survived a winter trapped in the Sierra Nevadas by eating their dead. These stories terrified Winnemucca. Her fears were intensified by an experience she described in her book Life Among the Piutes. Truckee was in California, and Old Winnemucca had become chief. One morning, hearing that white men were coming, the entire tribe fled in terror. Tuboitonie, who was carrying a baby on her back and pulling Winnemucca by the hand, found that she couldn't keep up. She and another mother decided to hide their older children by partially burying them in the ground and arranging branches to shade their faces. "Oh, can any one imagine my feelings," Winnemucca says, "buried alive, thinking every minute that I was to be unburied and eaten up by the people that my grandfather loved so much?"
At nightfall, the mothers returned and dug up the girls. It was an experience Winnemucca never forgot. It was long before she would look at white people or forgive her grandfather for his love of them. Finding that the white men had set fire to the tribe's stores of food and that all their winter supply was gone, Chief Winnemucca could no longer agree with his father-in-law that the white men were his "brothers."
Winnemucca's distrust of white folk lasted for some time. In the spring of 1850, Truckee traveled again to California, taking fifty people, including Tuboitonie and her children. Carrying a letter of commendation given him by Fremont, Truckee was able to get friendly receptions and occasional gifts of food or clothing from the settlers they met. Winnemucca, herself, hid from the strangers, refusing to speak or to look at them. Her attitude changed, however, after she fell sick with poison oak and was nursed back to health by a white woman. Although she never came to believe as strongly as her grandfather in the goodness of the "white brothers," she did try to understand them and to learn about their customs, without losing touch with her own traditions.
Winnemucca showed an early facility for languages, learning English, Spanish, and several Indian languages during the time she spent in California. She also came in close contact with white people when she, her mother and her sisters started to work in the houses of white families. When Winnemucca was thirteen, she lived with her younger sister Elma in the home of Major William M. Ormsby, a trader. Ormsby's wife, Margaret, and their daughter taught the girls to sew and cook. They learned and became quite proficient at English, even began to learn to read and write.
As contacts between the whites and Indians increased, Winnemucca often served as interpreter for her father when he met with Indian agents, army officers and in inter-tribal councils. In 1875, she was hired as interpreter for the Indian agent S. B. (Sam) Parrish at Malheur Reservation, which had been established three years earlier. In 1868 Winnemucca served as interpreter at Camp McDermit, while her father and almost 500 of his followers lived at the camp, under the protection of Captain Jerome and the U.S. Army. Parrish and Jerome were two men that Winnemucca trusted, men she believed treated her people fairly.
Winnemucca served as scout, along with her brother, Natchez, while she was at Camp McDermit, but it was during the Bannock War in 1878 that she met her greatest challenge. On her way to Washington, D.C., where she hoped to get help for her people, she learned that the Bannock tribe was warring with the whites and that some Paiutes, her father among them, were being held by the Bannocks. On the morning of June 13, she left the Camp McDermit for the Bannock camp with two Paiutes, arriving at nightfall of the second day. Wrapped in a blanket, her hair unbraided so she wouldn't be recognized, she crept into the camp. There she found her father, her brother, Lee, and his wife, Mattie, among those held captive. They escaped during the night, but were soon pursued by the Bannocks. Winnemucca and her sister-in-law raced their horses to get help, arriving back at Sheep Ranch at 5:30 on June 15. She had ridden a distance of 223 miles. "It was," Winnemucca said, "the hardest work I ever did for the army."
Winnemucca was poorly rewarded for her hard work for the U.S. Army. Both she and Mattie served as scouts during the Bannock War. After the war, the Paiutes were to be returned to Malheur Reservation, but to Sarah's distress, they were ordered to be taken to Yakima Reservation on the other side of the Columbia River, a distance of about 350 miles. It was winter, and the Paiutes did not have adequate clothing. Many people died during the terrible trip, and others, including Mattie, died soon after.
Over the years the situation worsened. Winnemucca sent messages, complaints and entreaties to anyone she thought might help. She traveled to San Francisco and spoke in great halls, telling of the mistreatment of her people by the Indian agents and by the government. She was labelled "The Princess Sarah" in the San Francisco Chronicle and her lecture was described as "unlike anything ever before heard in the civilized world—eloquent, pathetic, tragical at times; at others her quaint anecdotes, sarcasms and wonderful mimicry surprised the audience again and again into bursts of laughter and rounds of applause." News of her lectures reached Washington, and in 1880 she was invited to meet with the President. Together with Chief Winnemucca, and her brother Natchez, she met with Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz and, very briefly, with President Rutherford B. Hayes. However, Winnemucca was not allowed to lecture or talk to reporters in Washington, and the small group were given promises that were not kept.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and her sister, Mary Peabody Mann, the widow of Horace Mann, helped arrange speaking engagements for Winnemucca in Boston and many other cities in the East. They encouraged her to write, as well as speak. She wrote many letters, at least one magazine article and a book. Her friends also encouraged Winnemucca in her dream to start an all-Indian school. Winnemucca had been an assistant teacher on the Malheur Reservation, even though her formal education was limited to three weeks at a Californian Catholic school. In 1884, she founded the Peabody School for Indian children near Lovelock, Nevada, on land that had been given to Natchez. It was to be a model school where Indian children would be taught their own language and culture as well as learning English. Unable to get government funding or approval, however, she had to close the school after four years.
Winnemucca's own life was cut short a few years later by disease. After brief marriages to 1st Lieutenant Edward Bartlett and to Joseph Satwaller, she married Lewis H. Hopkins in 1881. He traveled east with her when she went to lecture there. Hopkins died at their ranch at Lovelock on October 18, 1887 of tuberculosis. On October 16, 1891, Winnemucca died at the home of her sister Elma at Henry's Lake, Idaho, probably of tuberculosis as well. In his book Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known, General Oliver Otis Howard said of Winnemucca's Army career, "She did our government great service, and if I could tell you but a tenth part of all she willingly did to help the white settlers and her own people to live peaceably together, I am sure you would think, as I do, that the name of Thocmetony should have a place beside the name of Pocahontas in the history of our country."
Although Winnemucca ended her life believing that she had failed to make the changes she worked for, she has not been forgotten. Her name is in most reference books about North American Indians. Many books have been written about her life and accomplishments, several especially for young people. The book she wrote in 1883, with the encouragement and editorial assistance of Mary Peabody Mann, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, was republished in 1969 and remains an important source book on the history and culture of the Paiutes. In Nevada, on the McDermit Indian Reservation, there is a historical marker, erected in 1971, honoring Sarah Winnemucca with the words "she was a believer in the brotherhood of mankind." The name of Sarah Winnemucca, as General Howard hoped, stands high among those Native Americans who have fought for the rights of their people.
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