Winnemucca, Sarah

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Winnemucca, Sarah

Born c. 1844

Near Humboldt Lake, in Nevada

Died October 16, 1891

Henry's Lake, Idaho

Native American rights advocate, author, interpreter, and lecturer

"We will look on her as our chieftain, for none of us are worthy of being chief but her."

Chief Winnemucca quoted in Sarah Winnemucca: Northern Paiute Writer and Diplomat.

As tensions between Native Americans and whites increased on the frontier in the late 1800s, Paiute Indian Sarah Winnemucca won regard as a steadfast peacemaker. Winnemucca was a valued spokeswoman for her people to white society. Unwavering in her insistence on peace, she dedicated her life to improving the lives of Indians and eventually became a nationally known lecturer and lobbyist for Indian causes.

Early years

Sarah Winnemucca was born about 1844 near Humboldt Lake, in the part of Utah Territory that later became Nevada; she was the fourth child of Chief Winnemucca, called Old Winnemucca, and Tuboitonie. They named her Thocmetony, meaning Shell Flower. Her grandfather and father were influential leaders of the Paiute Indians and both promoted friendly relations with whites. Sarah grew up listening to her grandfather, Captain Truckee, preach a story that explained how whites and Indians were related. He had traveled with John C. Frémont (1813–1890; see entry) to California in 1846 and later aided him in the Mexican-American War (1846–48; a conflict over the position of the southern border of Texas). Truckee enjoyed easy relations with whites thanks in part to his letter of recommendation from Frémont, which he carried until his death.

Captain Truckee's Story

Sarah Winnemucca's grandfather, Captain Truckee, was convinced that Indians and whites were related. Indeed, when he first heard of whites traveling eastward from California, he rejoiced, saying, "My white brothers my long-looked-for white brothers have come at last!" Despite the great suffering the Paiutes experienced at the hands of whites, Captain Truckee was steadfast in his belief that whites and Native Americans were related. He would tell the following story to explain why they had been separated so long:

In the beginning of the world there were only four, two girls and two boys. Our forefather and mother were only two, and we are their children.... One girl and one boy were dark and the others were white. For a time they got along together without quarreling, but soon they disagreed, and there was trouble. They were cross to one another and fought, and our parents were very much grieved. They prayed that their children might learn better, but it did not do any good; and afterwards the whole household was made so unhappy that the father and mother saw that they must separate their children; and then our father took the dark boy and girl, and the white boy and girl, and asked them, "Why are you so cruel to each other?" They hung down their heads, and would not speak. They were ashamed. He said to them, "Have I not been kind to you all, and given you everything your hearts wished for? ... You see, my dear children, I have the power to call whatsoever kind of game we want to eat; and I also have the power to separate my dear children, if they are not good to each other." So he separated his children by a word. He said, "Depart from each other, you cruel children; —go across the mighty ocean and do not seek each other's lives."

So the light girl and boy disappeared by that one word, and their parents saw them no more, and they were grieved, although they knew their children were happy. And by-and-by the dark children grew into a large nation; and we believe it is the one we belong to, and that the nation that sprung from the white children will some time send someone to meet us and heal all the old trouble. Now, the white people we saw a few days ago must certainly be our white brothers, and I want to welcome them. I want to love them as I love all of you.

Source: Catherine S. Fowler, foreword to Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, by Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (edited by Mrs. Horace Mann). Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1994, pp. 6–7.

However, as a young girl Sarah Winnemucca was afraid of whites because she thought they ate people. She assumed this after hearing a garbled version of the Donner Party's cannibalism. (The Donner Party was a group of travelers who became stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California in the winter of 1846 and 1847 and resorted to cannibalism to survive.) Sarah's mother, who was also afraid of whites, tried to run when she heard that they were coming to the Indians' camp. Carrying her small daughter, Elma, and dragging young Sarah by the hand, she was unable to keep up with the rest of the women in her tribe. Sarah's mother dug a shallow hole in the ground and covered her girls with sagebrush. Frightened to move for fear of being discovered, the girls spent the day listening for the white "cannibals." Later in the evening, their mother returned and dug out the girls, who were unharmed. The horror of that day never left Sarah. She later wrote in her autobiography, Life among the Piutes, "Oh, can any one imagine my feelings, buried alive, thinking every minute that I was to be unburied and eaten up by the people that my grandfather loved so much?"

Coming to terms with whites

Apart from this frightening episode, Winnemucca's family tradition of peaceful relations with whites would dominate her life. Her grandfather wished so much that his family would learn the customs of white people that he sent Sarah with her siblings and mother to live with whites in California in 1851. The women could earn money as cooks and household help. Sarah performed housework for several white families as a girl. While living with a white family as a domestic worker in her early teens, she learned about Christianity and took the name Sarah, which she kept the rest of her life. With the whites Sarah did learn much about white customs; she learned to use tables and chairs, to sew, and to speak both English and Spanish. And to fulfill her grandfather's dying wish, she attended a Catholic school in California in 1860, but she was forced to leave when white parents complained about their children associating with a Native American. Though never embracing her grandfather's love of whites, Winnemucca grew to accept their differences and tried to understand their culture.

Despite her limited formal education, Sarah learned languages quickly and devoured books whenever she could. As an adult, she could speak five languages and write English proficiently. As a member of her tribe's most prominent family, Sarah was well positioned to have a great impact on lives of her people in her adulthood.

Changing times for the Paiutes

As Sarah grew, the lives of her people were changing dramatically. Once able to roam their homelands, which included parts of present-day Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon, the Northern Paiutes soon found waves of settlers encroaching on their way of life. With the discovery of the Comstock Lode (a vast silver deposit at Virginia City, Nevada), miners poured into the Paiute lands, taking the Paiute grazing land and indiscriminately raping and killing Indians. To try to keep peace in their homeland, the Paiutes signed a treaty with the whites. But in early 1860, when whites kidnaped and abused two young Indian girls, the Paiutes and white settlers fought for three months. The brief war ended with a compromise that established Indian reservations on the Paiute homeland around Pyramid Lake and the Walker River. But a series of poor Indian agents (government officials in charge of protecting Indians and distributing government aid to them) failed to keep whites from using Indian land as pastures for livestock, from fishing in Pyramid Lake, from stealing Indian timber, from squatting on the most fertile tracts of land, or from tricking Indians out of their supplies. Sarah noted in 1866 the she and her brother "got along very poorly, for we had nothing to eat half of the time," according to Ellen Scordato in Sarah Winnemucca: Northern Paiute Writer and Diplomat.

Unable to survive on the land devoted for the reservation, many of the Paiutes, including Sarah and her brother Natchez, moved to Fort McDermit in northeastern Nevada in the 1860s, where the soldiers fed them and gave them supplies. Sarah earned money at the fort by working as an interpreter and scout. In 1868, Natchez brought Old Winnemucca and 490 of his followers to Fort McDermit, but Old Winnemucca did not want to live according to white customs and left again to live his more traditional, roaming lifestyle.

After the end of the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery), the army could no longer care for the Indians at Fort McDermit, and a new Indian agent, Major Henry Douglass, took on the difficult task of making the Indian reservations in Nevada livable for the Indians. Douglass restricted the reservation land to Paiutes alone and made plans to improve the reservations. But Douglass was appointed a U. S. marshal and had to leave his plans unfinished. By 1873, several corrupt Indian agents had left the reservations in shambles. Throughout these years, Winnemucca saw her people fall on very hard times, but she emerged as a skillful translator and a strong, outspoken advocate for Indian welfare and the maintenance of peace. She occasionally earned money by working for the army as an interpreter.

By 1875, Winnemucca and many of her tribe had moved to the Malheur reservation in Oregon. With a kindly Indian agent named Sam Parrish, the Paiutes lived relatively well. Upon their arrival, Parrish announced to the Indians that "The reservation is yours. The government has given it to you and your children." Sarah acted as interpreter and teacher on the reservation and found Parrish and his wife to be generous, kind people. But in 1876, Parrish was replaced by a new, corrupt agent at Malheur Reservation, who promptly fired Winnemucca and began cheating the Indians out of the rations sent by the government. The Paiutes did not have enough food or clothing, and Winnemucca could not persuade the federal government or the nearby army officers to help.

A daring rescue

Troubles between whites and Indians were not limited to the Paiutes and their Indian agent. A nearby tribe called the Bannocks began what Winnemucca called "the greatest Indian war that ever was known," according to Scordato. The Bannocks attacked whites as well as Paiutes and wanted "nothing better than to kill Chief Winnemucca's daughter," for supposedly siding with the army against the Bannocks, notes Scordato. Hearing of the war, Sarah Winnemucca had offered her services as an interpreter and scout.

During one attack, the dreaded Bannocks captured Winnemucca's father and other members of the tribe. Winnemucca learned of their plight while out scouting for the army. Upon hearing the news, Winnemucca mounted a horse and rode more than one hundred miles to save them. Disguising herself as a man, she rode into the camp and helped them escape during the night. But they were pursued by the Bannocks. Winnemucca kept her father's band ahead of the Bannocks by not sleeping for two full days. When she delivered her people to army protection, Sarah had ridden 223 miles. "It was," she remembered in her autobiography, "the hardest work I ever did for the army." But Sarah's work was not done; she and her sister-in-law Mattie continued to act as scouts, interpreters, and guides for the army, helping to track hostile Indian bands and witnessing many battles between the Bannocks and the army. According to Scordato, Natchez declared his sister a "warrior," and Chief Winnemucca honored Sarah's bravery before the tribe by saying, "Oh! how thankful I feel that it is my child who has saved so many lives, not only mine, but a great many, both whites and her own people. Now hereafter we will look on her as our chieftain, for none of us are worthy of being chief but her."

With the end of the war, the Paiutes were to be returned to the Malheur Reservation, but to Winnemucca's distress, the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., insisted that the Indians march 350 miles north to the Yakima reservation in Washington Territory, forcing them to live alongside tribes that had sided against them during the Bannock war. It was winter, and the Paiutes did not have adequate clothing for the long walk. Many died during the terrible trip, and others, including Mattie, died soon after.

The change in relations between the Paiutes and whites troubled Winnemucca. Her people were starving, and promises of land and supplies from whites had been almost universally broken. Her father had come to believe that whites were a weak race because of their short memories. As relations with whites worsened, Winnemucca was in a unique position to help her people. Able to speak and to write English, she brought her people's grievances to the attention of the Indian agents in charge of the reservations, and when she could, she spread news of the Indians' plight and tried to negotiate better accommodations for Indians. In 1879, in San Francisco, Winnemucca gave her first lecture on the plight of her tribe. Dressed in a spectacular feather headdress, a cape, a buckskin dress adorned with beads, and embroidered moccasins, she gave an impassioned speech on a stage decorated like a forest. She told of the dishonest Indian agents and how some of her tribe had been exiled along with their enemies to a reservation in Washington Territory.

Speaking out for her people

Her speeches were so moving that members of the audience would spontaneously shout agreement or affirm statements they knew to be true. A taste of her speeches can be found in her autobiography:

Oh, dear friends.... We shall never be civilized in the way you wish us to be if you keep on sending us such agents as have been sent to us year after year, who do nothing but fill their pockets and the pockets of their wives and sisters, who are always put in as teachers and are paid from fifty to sixty dollars per month, and yet do not teach. The farmer is really his cousin, his pay is nine hundred dollars a year, and his brother is paid as clerk.... Year after year, the government officers have been told of their wrongdoings.... Yet it goes on, just the same as if they did not know it.... Our agent made my people give every third sack of grain to the agent, and the same of everything else. Every third load of hay is given. My people ask why, as he had not given them seed for planting, nor did the farmer pay to help them to plant. They did not see why they should pay, but the agent told them that was the order from Washington ... they must pay it or he would take their wagons away.

After her lecture in San Francisco, she was labeled "The Princess Sarah"—a title that would stick—in the San Francisco Chronicle. 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," according to Dorothy Nafus Morrison in Chief Sarah: Sarah Winnemucca's Fight for Indian Rights.

News of her lectures reached the nation's capital, 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 Shurz and, very briefly, with President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893). However, Winnemucca was not allowed to lecture or talk to reporters in Washington, D.C., and her small group was given promises that were not kept. Despite the lack of action on the government's part, Winnemucca was able to continue to rally audiences with her stories of mistreatment on the reservations. In 1883, seventy-nine-year-old Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and her younger sister, Mary Peabody Mann, the widow of Horace Mann (an American educator who helped revolutionize public education), helped arrange speaking engagements for Winnemucca in Boston and many other cities in the East. The sisters would remain Winnemucca's enthusiastic financial supporters for many years. They encouraged her to write, as well as speak. Winnemucca wrote many letters, at least one magazine article, and the first English language autobiography of an Indian. Though she sent messages, complaints, and entreaties to anyone she thought might help, her people received little from the government or the Indian agents.

Peabody and Mann also encouraged Winnemucca in her dream to start an all-Indian school, arranging to pay one hundred dollars per month to support it. Winnemucca had been an assistant teacher to the kindly Mrs. Parrish on the Malheur Reservation and greatly enjoyed children. In 1884, she founded the Peabody School for Indian children near Lovelock, Nevada. It was to be a model school where Indian children would be taught their own language and culture as well as learning English. Peabody and Mann could not support the school alone, however. Unable to get government funding or approval, Winnemucca was forced to close the school after four years.

Winnemucca's life was cut short a few years later by disease. After her brief marriage to First Lieutenant Edward Bartlett (whom she married in 1871 and left a few months later after discovering him to be an alcoholic) and then to Joseph Satwaller (whom she married in 1876 and left in 1878), she had married Lewis H. Hopkins in 1881. He traveled east with her when she went to lecture there. A habitual gambler, Hopkins proved as poor a husband as Winnemucca's first two. He died at their ranch at Lovelock on October 18, 1887, of tuberculosis. On October 16, 1891, Sarah Winnemucca died—probably of tuberculosis—at the home of her sister Elma at Henry's Lake, Idaho. In his book called Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known, General Oliver Otis Howard said of Sarah'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."

Though she never wavered in her commitment to aiding her people, Sarah died believing that she had failed to make the changes she had worked so hard for. Nevertheless, 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, Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, was republished in 1994 and remains an important source 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 stands high among Native Americans who have fought for the rights of their people.

For More Information

Canfield, Gae Whitney. Sarah Winnemucca of the Northern Paiutes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.

Hopkins, Sarah Winnemucca. Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Edited by Mrs. Horace Mann. Foreword by Catherine S. Fowler. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1994.

Howard, O. O. Famous Indians Chiefs I Have Known. 1908. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Morrison, Dorothy Nafus. Chief Sarah: Sarah Winnemucca's Fight for Indian Rights. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1990.

People of the Western Range. Alexandria, VA:, Time-Life Books, 1995.

Scordato, Ellen. Sarah Winnemucca: Northern Paiute Writer and Diplomat. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.

Woodward, Grace, Harold Howard, and Gae Canfield. Three American Indian Women: Pocahontas, Sacajawea, Sarah Winnemucca. New York: Fine Communications, 1995.

Zanjani, Sally. Sarah Winnemucca. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

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