Despite tragedy and cruelty visited on her people and family, Sarah Winnemucca persisted in working to better the lives of the Northern Paiute and build a bridge with whites.
The annals of the American West are rich with stories of explorers, cowboys, and pistoleers whose names we have known since childhood. The history books, however, are notoriously sparse in their accounts of the remarkable women — especially Indigenous women — who faced down prejudice and violence to make their mark upon the settlement of the frontier. One such woman was Sarah Winnemucca.
Born the daughter and granddaughter of regional Northern Paiute chiefs Winnemucca and Truckee around 1844, near Humboldt Lake, Nevada, she spent her short life as a writer, lecturer, teacher, and interpreter in an unflagging effort to help and protect her people. In the process, she stood against personal attacks, rampant official corruption, and a federal government and white population often unwilling to hear or address the truth.
She was also the first Indian woman to write a book on her Indigenous culture. Published in 1883, Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims is a remarkable and insightful work, combining her own story with that of her people and their difficulties under white dominion.
Dear reader, I must tell ... about my poor people, and what we suffer at the hands of our white brothers.” And so she does.
At the beginning of her book, Winnemucca writes of the unfortunate results of her tribe’s first encounter with the whites. “I was a very small child when the first white people came into our country. They came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion, and have continued so ever since, and I have never forgotten their first coming.”
She spent her short life as a writer, lecturer, teacher, and interpreter.
Ironically, it was the ill-fated Donner Party that set the terrible precedent for the immigrant whites’ approach to the Northern Paiutes for decades to come. “[T]he people that my grandfather called our white brothers came along to where our winter supplies were. They set everything we had left on fire. It was a fearful sight. It was all we had for the winter, and it was all burnt during that night. ... And this was the first wrong done to us by our white brothers.”
Winnemucca entered the world in a time of chaos and upheaval for her people. By the 1850s, what began as a trickle of westering whites had turned into a torrent soon after silver was discovered in Nevada. In 1858, Sarah’s grandfather, Chief Truckee — foreseeing the need to adapt to the influx — placed her and her sister in the home of friend and early Nevada settler William Ormsby, to receive an education while serving as playmates for Ormsby’s young daughter. A quick study, Sarah became fluent in both spoken and written English, language skills she would put to use in the years to come.
In a further gesture of assimilation, she abandoned her birth name of Thocmetony, or “Shell Flower,” choosing instead Sarah as her given name, and Winnemucca as her last. Many whites, however, would come to know her simply as the “Paiute Princess” or “Princess Sarah.”
When her tribe was driven onto the newly established Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation in a remote desert section of northwestern Nevada, Sarah returned to her people and acted as interpreter on their behalf. Life on the reservation was harsh. A nomadic hunter-gatherer culture (the whites referred to them as diggers), the Northern Paiutes had traditionally ranged over present-day northeastern California, western Nevada, and southern Oregon. Suddenly they were expected to become sedentary, and to farm an arid, unyielding land, with no government involvement beyond the presence of corrupt Indian agents whose primary objective was self-enrichment.
A quick study, Sarah became fluent in both spoken and written English, language skills she would put to use in the years to come.
Cheated out of the food and clothing earmarked for their survival, many Natives died of starvation and exposure. After the first horrific winter, Sarah rode to Fort McDermit and pleaded for aid from the military, who then drove several wagonloads of provisions and winter clothing to her people.
Misunderstandings on both sides led to a series of violent confrontations, beginning with the Pyramid Lake War of 1860, in which Sarah’s former teacher and mentor, William Ormsby, was killed. At one point after peace had been restored, a Paiute informed on a white man named Lindsey, who had illegally entered the reservation. Lindsey was banished but returned the following winter with the express purpose of killing the Indian who had reported him. He found the Paiute in the crowded post-trader’s store.
As Sarah told it, “After some talk, Lindsey said, ‘I’ll bet the whiskey for the crowd that I can shoot his eye out.’ Some one took the bet, and without any more delay, he turned round and shot him just below the eye. He then coolly pulled out his knife and scalped him and put the scalp in his pocket, got on the stage and went to Winnemucca, eighty-five miles; then went from saloon to saloon calling for drinks, and offering to pay for them with a scalp of a good Indian — a dead one.”
Relations between the whites and Indians continued to deteriorate. Sarah wrote of one incident in which an ambitious young officer led his company of cavalry onto an encampment on the Paiute reservation, in an unprovoked raid. “Oh, it is a fearful thing to tell, but it must be told. Yes, it must be told by me,” she began. “It was all old men, women and children that were killed; for my father had all the young men with him ... on a hunting excursion, or they would have been killed too. After the soldiers had killed all but some little children and babies still tied up in their baskets, the soldiers took them also, and set the camp on fire and threw them into the flames to see them burn alive.”
Sarah’s baby brother was among them.
“This almost killed my poor papa,” she recalled. “Yet my people kept peaceful.” As a result of this and other attacks, her band of around 400 Paiutes sought the Army’s protection and moved onto the Camp McDermit military reservation.
Sarah continued to serve as an interpreter and go-between, in the hope of bringing calm to the region and securing better living conditions for her tribe. In 1868, recognizing her value, the Army command hired her as a translator, messenger, and scout at a salary of $65 per month. She would ultimately serve with distinction under noted generals O.O. Howard and George Crook.
By 1878, the Northern Paiutes had been moved to the Malheur Indian Reservation in Oregon. At first, under a benevolent agent with Sarah as interpreter, they were content and worked hard, making great strides in farming and even digging two large irrigation ditches. With the arrival of a new agent, conditions changed drastically. William V. Rinehart’s cheating and mistreatment of her people quickly set Sarah and the new man at odds and she was replaced. Despite Malheur’s abundant natural resources, by the time she was offered her position back two years later, at the paltry sum of $420 a year, not one Indian was left on Malheur. Although he was being paid by the government to minister to Indians, Rinehart had brought whites on to graze their cattle at $1 a head and plow the most fertile land, and he sold all the clothing and provisions meant for the Indians. Starving and half-naked, the Indians had left for other camps in the area.
At this time, the Bannock tribe was waging war against the whites, and a handful of Paiutes joined them. For the most part, however, the Paiutes sided with the whites. Throughout the conflict, Sarah acted as Gen. Howard’s personal interpreter and messenger, riding countless miles to deliver his vital communications to her tribe and to other military units.
Sarah continued to serve as an interpreter and go-between, in the hope of bringing calm to the region and securing better living conditions for her tribe.
When the war ended, in retribution for the offenses of the few who had joined the Bannocks, the Army — purportedly on orders from the president himself — force-marched the entire Paiute band 350 miles, inadequately clothed and in the dead of winter, to the Yakima Indian Reservation across the Columbia River. “We travelled all day,” Winnemucca wrote. “It snowed all day long. We camped, and that night a woman became a mother; and during the night the baby died, and was put under the snow. The next morning the mother was put into the wagon. ... That night she too was gone, and left on the roadside, her poor body not even covered with the snow. In five days three more children were frozen to death. ...”
Several died on the brutal journey, and many more — including Sarah’s sister — soon perished on the reservation, which was nothing more than an internment camp.
Winnemucca sent off dozens of letters and petitions in a desperate effort to get her people released from Yakima, without result. “Year after year,” she wrote, “they have been told of their wrong-doings by different tribes of Indians. Yet it goes on, just the same as if they did not know it.”
Finally, she traveled to Washington, D.C., where, as a representative of her tribe, she was able to plead her case before an impressive number of congressmen and government officials, including Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz and President Rutherford B. Hayes. Although Schurz initially gave permission for the tribe to return to Malheur, he soon revoked it, opting instead to close the reservation.
Frustrated in her efforts to mediate, Winnemucca found that public speaking was the most effective way to represent them. Dressed in Native attire, she delivered hundreds of lectures on the plight of the Paiutes, traveling between coasts and driving herself to the point of exhaustion. Although she was widely well-received, she frequently encountered condescension. One reporter in Somerset, Pennsylvania, after writing a glowing description of her speech and manner of dress, closed by stating, “On the whole, Sarah Winnemucca is a living refutation of the argument that an Indian woman cannot be civilized.”
In her talks and newspaper interviews, she was at her most vehement in exposing the systematic abuses by the Indian agents who had been assigned to the various Native reservations, and whom she called “the cause of all our woes and troubles.” When she reported that agent Rinehart had been peddling whiskey to the tribe and privately selling off Indian lands, timber rights, clothing, provisions, and whatever sparse crops the Paiutes could raise, he publicly — and falsely — accused her of being a drunkard, gambler, and harlot. Winnemucca went on to testify against him before the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs: “Everything I have said about Rinehart I would say to his face,” she stated. It accomplished nothing. Ultimately, Rinehart left his position and went on to become a state senator in the newly formed state of Washington’s first legislature.
Another agent, Bill Gibson, had apparently hired his extended family to nominally assume various jobs on the reservation, where they collected salaries for doing nothing, pocketing thousands of federal dollars meant for the tribe. Sarah recorded the fraudulent abuse in her autobiography, writing, “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 paid from fifty to sixty dollars a month, and yet they do not teach. The farmer is generally his cousin, his pay is nine hundred dollars ($900) a year, and his brother is a clerk. I do not know his name. The blacksmith and carpenter have from five hundred to eleven hundred dollars per year.”
Dressed in Native attire, she delivered hundreds of lectures on the plight of the Paiutes.
She also took the story to the press. “If a conspiracy were formed by the most cunning men to desert and neglect the Indians on our reservation,” Winnemucca told a reporter, “it could not succeed better than the selfish policy of Bill Gibson ... and his hungry relations.”
Gibson responded by adding “thief” to his predecessor’s list of calumnious allegations. Although the charge was false, there were many — including the brass in the corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington — who were eager to believe his word against that of an Indian woman. While some journalists were sympathetic, others were scathing in their treatment of her. Carson City’s Daily Appeal of February 24, 1885, printed in detail Gibson’s completely fabricated account of how “Sarah and her accomplices ... assaulted and robbed him of all his money.” The article concludes, “All the Sarah Winnemuccas in existence could not blacken William Gibson’s honorable record in this State.”
By speaking publicly of the ills visited upon her people by the government, Winnemucca had set herself up for the most vitriolic attacks. One absurd tale that made the rounds of the Western newspapers in the 1880s told of a “plot among the Winnemuccas to murder the garrison, sack the post, announce Sarah Winnemucca as their Queen, and begin a war of extermination of the whites. ...” Still, she persisted. In 1885, driven by her concern that the lifestyle and traditions of the Paiutes were at risk of disappearing, Winnemucca started her own reservation school. However, two years later, the federal government passed the Dawes Severalty Act, mandating that all Native children attend government schools, to be taught by white instructors whose goals for them were conversion to Christianity and the eradication of all traces of their tribal culture. Consequently, Winnemucca’s school was forced to close its doors.
Her personal life, as well as her outspoken advocacy for her people, was fodder for the press. One journalist commented on Winnemucca’s “extensive and diversified matrimonial experience,” and in fact, they were not happy unions. She was married three times to white men, two of them Army officers. The first two marriages were brief, and her third husband, Lt. Lewis H. Hopkins, was an inveterate gambler who depleted her savings. Nonetheless, she remained married to him until his death in 1887, retaining “Hopkins” as her legal name.
Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins — author, activist, linguist, lecturer, educator, and peacemaker — died of tuberculosis in late 1891, at around 45 years of age. Countless newspapers carried the news, along with tributes to “the famous Piute [sic] Princess.”
Gen. Howard, who had relied on Winnemucca’s service during the Bannock War, stated, “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 [her name] ... should have a place beside the name of Pocahontas in the history of our country.”
Winnemucca was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 1993; 12 years later, her statue was installed in National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. In October 2017, the governor of Nevada, in a proclamation in which he described Winnemucca as “one of the most influential and charismatic American Indian women in American history,” declared October 16 — the date of her death — to be Sarah Winnemucca Day.
Though the declaration could not rectify the injustices she and her people suffered, it did effectively acknowledge that while a lone woman could not hope to triumph over both a corrupt federal system and the ever-increasing flood of interlopers, Sarah Winnemucca had represented and spoken for her people with strength and dignity during the most cataclysmic period in their history.
Photography: Courtesy Public Domain/Alamy Stock Photo
From our May/June 2021 issue