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Winnemucca, Sarah (1844–1891)

Winnemucca, Sarah (1844–1891)

Native American who lectured and wrote about the ill-treatment of her people and campaigned for the rights of American Indians. Name variations: Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins; Paiute name was Thoc-metony, Thocmetony, or Toc-me-to-ne ("Shell-Flower"). Born in 1844 (some sources cite 1842) near Humboldt Lake, in present-day northern Nevada; died of tuberculosis at Henry's Lake, Nevada, on October 17 (some sources cite 16), 1891; daughter of Paiute Chief Winnemucca II and Tuboitonie (a Paiute woman and hunter-gatherer); attended St. Mary's Convent in San Jose, California, 1860; spoke English and Spanish as well as three Indian dialects; married an unidentified Paiute man, around 1861 (divorced); married Edward C. Bartlett (a first lieutenant), on January 29, 1871 (divorced 1876); married Joseph Satwaller, on November 13, 1878; married Lewis H. Hopkins, on December 5, 1881 (died 1887); children: none.

Lived with the family of Major William Ormsby, a stagecoach agent, in Mormon Station, Nevada, now known as Genoa, Nevada (1857); served as an official interpreter for the Army post at Camp McDermitt in northern Nevada (1868); interpreted for Sam B. Parrish, at the Malheur Agency in Oregon (1875); served the U.S. Army as an interpreter, scout, and peacemaker under General Oliver O. Howard, in the Bannock War (1878); following the war, lectured in major Western cities on behalf of justice for Indians and, accompanied by her father Chief Winnemucca II, went to Washington to plead for the Indians' cause (1880); went East to lecture on Indian rights and became the protege of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and her sister Mary Peabody Mann (1883); wrote Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, edited by Mary Peabody Mann; wrote a pamphlet, "Sarah Winnemucca's Practical Solution of the Indian Problem"; opened the Peabody Indian School for Paiute children; became an important lobbyist for Indian policy reform.

Born in 1844 near Humboldt Lake, Nevada, Sarah Winnemucca was a member of the Northern Paiutes, an Indian tribe from the desert plateaus of western Nevada and southeastern Oregon. Her father Winnemucca II, whose name meant "the giver" or "one who looks after the Numa" people, was a shaman and, as his father before him, the recognized chief of the Northern Paiutes. Sarah's Paiute name was Thocmetony, meaning "Shellflower," although she was best known by her Christian name, Sarah, which she received from a white employer when she was 13 years old.

During Sarah Winnemucca's early childhood, her people's way of life was undergoing upheaval and change. The Paiutes' traditional hunting and gathering activities were increasingly curtailed by the advancement of white people onto their ancestral lands. In addition to appropriating Paiute land, the white settlers brought diphtheria and typhus to the Humboldt River. A peace-loving people, the Paiutes welcomed the white settlers, but Winnemucca developed an early fear of their noisy guns and pale skin. Her grandfather Chief Winnemucca I had accompanied Captain John Frémont on an expedition through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to California. Winnemucca grew up listening to his stories of white people traveling in "houses on water" (steamboats) and living in big brick buildings in cities.

In 1850, her grandfather took a group of 30 Paiutes to California, including six-year-old Sarah, her mother, and her four siblings. The journey did little to alleviate her fear of white people, and most of her time was spent huddled under a blanket, crying, or standing behind the protective shield of her brothers. When she returned home, her people were in mourning: Paiute families were dying of typhus as prospective gold miners continued to settle on Paiute lands. Winnemucca made additional trips to California with her grandfather and, by the time she was ten, she had learned to speak Spanish from some of her relatives who had married Spaniards.

When a more warlike tribe of Indians began to skirmish with the white settlers, the government moved all of the Indians in the region to the Pyramid Lake Reservation in northern Nevada. The Paiutes were told that life on the reservation would be advantageous. They would be given farms, food, and clothing.

In 1857, 13-year-old Winnemucca and her sister joined the household of Major William Ormsby, an agent of the Carson Valley Stage Company, in Genoa, where they worked as domestics and companions to Ormsby's daughter Lizzie Ormsby . During this time, Winnemucca learned to speak English and to read and write.

Two years later, the sisters returned home at their father's request; silver mines had been discovered in the Washoe district, and tension between the Paiutes and the whites was increasing. By spring of 1860, the situation was close to a state of war. When Major Ormsby led a group of 80 white settlers to attack the Paiutes at Pyramid Lake, he and his men were ambushed and slain before they could open fire. In spite of such violence, the Paiutes strongly desired peace, and by the end of the summer an armistice was settled.

Sarah's grandfather Chief Winnemucca, who had always advocated peaceful relations with the whites, fell ill shortly thereafter, in October 1860. According to his dying wishes, Sarah and her sister were sent to a convent school in San Jose, California. Their time there, however, would prove brief. After three weeks, the girls were sent home at the request of white parents who did not approve of Indians attending school with their children.

For the Paiutes, life on the reservation eroded their traditional nomadic existence. As white settlers destroyed the pine-nut trees needed for sustenance through the winter months, Paiute pleas to government officials fell on deaf ears. Consequently, Sarah and her father Chief Winnemucca sought to communicate their plight to the white populace. In 1864, they traveled to Virginia City, Nevada, where Chief Winnemucca addressed several crowds on the city streets. Acting as his interpreter, Sarah related how her people had befriended the whites, but that they were dying of starvation. She and her father were able to raise enough money to buy a few sacks of flour and some blankets, but their endeavor was not as successful as they had hoped.

When they returned home, conditions were the same. Food and supplies did not arrive as frequently as needed, and many of the 600 Paiutes living on the reservation were near starvation. Over the next few years, hostilities between whites and Paiutes broke out sporadically; in an attempt to stave off the destruction of his people, Chief Winnemucca eventually left the reservation with a group of Paiutes. Many whites continued to appropriate land on the reservation for their cattle and to make room for the new railroad.

In 1868, Sarah Winnemucca and her brother Natchez were invited by Captain Jerome of the Eighth Cavalry to come to Camp McDermit, where they were told to look for their father. Sarah was also hired as an interpreter and scout at $65 per month. In July, when her father and 490 Paiutes arrived at Camp McDermit and were given much-needed food and clothing, she was told about the ill-treatment of those Paiutes remaining on the Pyramid Lake Reservation. Indian agent Parker reported to his superiors that the "Indians were never so happy, or so well provided for," a great contradiction considering that many Paiutes were dying of measles, smallpox and starvation. With the hope that the new Indian superintendent to Nevada, Major Henry Douglass, would be more sympathetic, the Paiutes would agree to remain on the Pyramid Lake Reservation if they were given small farms and taught how to plant and harvest.

In April 1870, when Sarah Winnemucca wrote a letter to Major Douglass relating the situation, he was so impressed by her thoughtful and articulate communication that he had it circulated among his colleagues and sent on to Washington. She wrote of the existing reservation system:

If this is the kind of civilization awaiting us on the Reserves, God grant that we may never be compelled to go on one, as it is much preferable to live in the mountains and drag out an existence in our native manner.

Nonetheless, she indicated that if they were given land to live on and taught the skills of farming, "the savage (as he is called today) will be a thrifty and law abiding member of the community fifteen or twenty years hence."

Winnemucca's fame as a spokesperson for her people spread, and several articles about her appeared in various magazines. After their meeting, Major Douglass described her as:

A plain Indian woman, passably good looking, with some education and [she] possesses much natural shrewdness and intelligence. She converses well and seems select in the use of terms. She conforms readily to civilized customs, and will as readily join in an Indian dance.

In spite of his sympathy for the Paiutes, Douglass' plans for improving the reservation system were abated when he was replaced by the American Baptist Home Mission Society. For the next several years, the Pyramid Lake Reservation was run by agents from the Mission Society who were unable to meet the demands of the position.

During this time, Winnemucca was married briefly to Lieutenant Edward C. Bartlett, a soldier who had commanded Camp McDermit in 1870. Bartlett was a drunkard who not only spent any money that she made, but also began to pawn her jewelry. For the next several years, she worked at various jobs in an attempt to support herself; she also continued to write letters and travel to cities in an effort to present the problems that the Paiutes faced while living on the reservation.

In April 1875, the Paiutes were finally given an official home with good soil and a pleasant climate on a large tract of land in southeast Oregon

known as the Malheur Reservation. Winnemucca accepted an invitation by the Indian agent Samuel Parrish to be the reservation's interpreter. Unlike the previous agents, Parrish not only respected the Paiutes and taught them how to plant and harvest crops, but he also encouraged them to work hard and paid them for any job done. A year later, Winnemucca was happily working as a teacher's assistant at the reservation school run by Parrish's wife.

The Paiutes' happiness was short-lived, however, for Parrish was abruptly replaced by Major William V. Rinehart in June 1876. Violent and authoritarian, Rinehart, who had engineered his job through political influence, quickly alienated the Paiutes. Abolishing individual farms, he made the Indians work for him; instead of wages, they were paid with the food and clothing that had already been granted the Indians by treaty. When Winnemucca wrote a letter of protest, Rinehart dismissed her from her position as interpreter, and she was banished from the reservation. During this time, she married for a second time although no details of the marriage survive. Her second husband was Joseph Satwaller, a resident of Grant County, Oregon; unfortunately, this marriage, like her first, was disappointing and brief.

The woman who was called "The Princess" by Whites, and "Mother" by her tribe, was also surely the most famous Indian woman on the Pacific Coast.

—Frederick J. Dockstader

In April 1878, Winnemucca was asked to return to Malheur to obtain support from the soldiers at Camp Harney against Rinehart who was withholding supplies and food from the starving Paiutes. Many Bannock Indians, now living on the reservation, were becoming increasingly hostile towards Rinehart and other white settlers. Before she arrived at Malheur the hostilities had turned into open rebellion. Although the Paiutes did not wish to join the hostiles, Winnemucca's father and a small group of Paiutes were forced to travel with the Bannocks. Once apprised, Winnemucca took a daring trip over mountainous terrain to rescue her father and 75 men, women and children from the Bannock camp. The Bannock War, however, had just begun.

During the remainder of the war, Winnemucca worked as a scout for the military. The war finally ended in September 1878. Although the Paiutes wished to return to the Malheur Reservation, they were forced to travel with the Bannock Indians over 350 miles in December to the Yakima Reservation in Washington Territory. Several Paiutes died during the long winter trip. Upon their arrival, they were met by yet another unscrupulous and untrustworthy agent by the name of Wilbur.

Pressing again for public support, Winnemucca went to San Francisco to lecture on the history and hardships of the Paiutes. In 1880, she joined with her father and brother and traveled to Washington where they met the secretary of the interior, Carl Schurz. They also met briefly with President Rutherford B. Hayes and returned home with a letter and a promise from Schurz that the Paiutes would be allowed to return to the Malheur Reservation, where they would be given land and assistance with farming.

Her disappointment was acute when Agent Wilbur informed her that he had not received any such orders from Washington and would, therefore, not allow her people to leave Yakima. Undoubtedly frustrated, Winnemucca left Yakima and became a teacher and interpreter for the Bannock Indian prisoners at the Vancouver Barracks. She continued to write letters to Washington, and in 1881 she spoke with President Hayes for a second time. But again, her pleas for help were not acted upon. On December 5, 1881, she married her third husband, Lewis H. Hopkins, in San Francisco. Unlike her previous spouses, Hopkins appeared to support his wife who, as historian Gae Canfield notes, "walked a tightrope between two worlds."

On October 21, 1882, her father died. A year later, determined to fulfill his goal for the return of the Paiutes to their ancestral lands, Winnemucca and her husband traveled to Boston where they met two women who became her close friends and supporters. Seventy-nine-year-old Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and her sister Mary Peabody Mann (wife of eminent educator Horace Mann) arranged speaking engagements for Winnemucca: throughout the year, she lectured in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania on the ill-treatment of the Paiutes. She also wrote her autobiography, Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, which was one of the first published works of literature by a Native American.

But her lecture tour did nothing to endear her to the Indian agents and other governmental officials. Several articles and newspaper stories attempted to defame her by claiming that she had misused government money and that her character was morally suspect. Nonetheless, she defended herself ably and continued to speak in public. In 1884, she presented a petition to Congress asking that the Paiutes be given lands and citizenship; she also spoke before the Senate subcommittee on Indian affairs. On July 6, 1884, the Senate passed a bill which gave permission for the Paiutes to return to Pyramid Lake Reservation. Although Winnemucca was disappointed that they had not been given land at Malheur, she returned to Pyramid Lake in August. She did not remain there long, however, since the agent was unable to remove white squatters from the reservation and did not hire Winnemucca as the interpreter.

As a result, in 1885 she went to live with her brother Natchez on his farm on the Humboldt River near the town of Lovelock, Nevada. She planned to open a school for Paiute children on Natchez's ranch and began more lecturing in a fairly successful attempt to raise money. With additional help from Elizabeth Peabody and revenue from the proceeds of her autobiography, the school was opened in 1887. That February, Congress passed the Dawes Act which granted citizenship and land to American Indians. Although the Act required Indian children to be educated in English-speaking institutions, Winnemucca continued to advocate for Indian schools.

On October 18, 1887, Lewis Hopkins died of tuberculosis. For the next four years, little information is known about Winnemucca's activities. After her Indian school closed in 1888, she went to live with her sister Elma at Henry's Lake, Nevada. Her health began to deteriorate, and Sarah Winnemucca died on October 17, 1891, of consumption at the age of 47.


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

Dockstader, Frederick J. Great North American Indians, Profiles in Life and Leadership. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Fowler, Catherine S. "Sarah Winnemucca, Northern Paiute, 1844–1891," in Liberty, Margot, ed., American Indian Intellectuals. St Paul, MN: West, 1978.

Gehm, Katherine. Sarah Winnemucca: Most Extraordinary Woman of the Paiute Nation. Phoenix, AZ: O'Sullivan Woodside, 1975.

Morrison, Dorothy Nafus. Chief Sarah: Sarah Winnemucca's Fight for Indian Rights. NY: Atheneum, 1980.

Richey, Elinor. "Sagebrush Princess with a Cause: Sarah Winnemucca," in The American West. Vol XIII. November 1975, pp. 30–33, 57–63.

Truman, Margaret. Women of Courage. NY: Bantam, 1976.

Waltrip, Lela and Rufus. "Sarah Winnemucca, Paiute Peace Maker," in Indian Women. NY: David McKay, 1964.

suggested reading:

Brimlow, George F. "The Life of Sarah Winnemucca: The Formative Years," in Oregon Historical Quarterly. Vol LIII, no. 2. June 1952, pp. 103–134.

Hopkins, Sarah Winnemucca. "Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims," in Old West. Vol. 2. Fall 1965, pp. 49–96.

Peabody, Elizabeth. Sarah Winnemucca's Practical Solution of the Indian Problem. Cambridge, MA: John Wilson, 1886 (microfilm).

Winnemucca, Sarah. Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Chalfant Press, 1969.

Margaret McIntyre , Instructor of Women's History at Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

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