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A chief’s daughter, Sarah was a crusader, an independent woman who raised her voice on behalf of her people. She remains one of the West’s great enigmas.
Photo: Nevada State Library and Archives
Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891) was the granddaughter of Captain Truckee, who was a scout for the Stevens-Murphy-Townsend party and friend of the Great Pathfinder, John C. Fremont. Her father was Poito, the War Chief Winnemucca. Sarah was born near the Humboldt Sink “in the pine nut season,” probably in 1844, and died at the home of her sister at Henry’s Lake, Montana (now Idaho) on October 17, 1891. Her own Indian name has been variously reported as Sonometa, Thocmetony, and Somit-tone, meaning shellflower. How she came by the name of Sarah has never been explained.
She is most renowned for a daring round-trip non-stop horseback ride of 233 miles from Idaho into Nevada to warn her family members against joining in the Bannock War of 1878. “Yes, I went…when the officers could not get an Indian man or a white man to go for love or money. I, only an Indian woman, went and saved my father and his people,” she exulted. Sarah Winnemucca was an interpreter, crusader, lecturer, article writer, and author of a book, “Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims.”
Nevada may never have produced a more brilliant or complex woman than Sarah Winnemucca. Part saint, part sinner, part missionary, part camp follower, she was the epitome of the good-bad heroine. Chameleon-like, she seemed different to everyone who knew her.
Sarah liked to be known as the Paiute Princess. She could be as regal as the ancestry she claimed or engage in a hair-pulling fight. Once the Nevada State Journal carried a long and laudatory account of her life, her goals, and her concerns for the Paiute people. Shortly after the newspaper had to report that the owner of the Reno hotel where Sarah was staying charged he caught her stealing food.
Princess Sarah had an unusual understanding of the ways of white people because she had an unusual education. Her grandfather, Captain Truckee, insisted that she be educated. As a youngster she lived with a Mrs. Roach in Stockton, California. Later she spent three years studying at the Convent of Notre Dame in San Jose. Sarah also learned English and Spanish and was fluent in three Indian dialects.
There is no evidence that her father, Poito, the War Chief Winnemucca, either learned English or led any troops into battle. The brainy Sarah fought all the language battles for her father-chief.
Shortly after the Pyramid Lake War of 1860, Sarah began her life-long crusade against the Indian agents appointed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. In the late 1860s, she went to the Presidio in San Francisco to tell General Irwin McDowell, commanding officer of the military district, about misconduct by Nevada agents. In 1870, she returned to the Presidio with a similar story for General John M. Schofield.
Militancy was not encouraged in any woman, Indian or white, in Sarah’s day. Therefore her letter to Ely Samuel Parker, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, written in 1870 from Fort McDermitt, seems all the more remarkable:
“Sir: I learn from the commanding officer of this place that you desire full information in regard to the Indians around this place with a view if possible of bettering their condition by sending them on the Truckee River Reservation. All the Indians from here to Carson City belong to the Pah Ute tribe. My father, whose name is Winnemucca, is head chief of the whole tribe, but he is now getting too old and has not energy enough to command nor to impress on their minds the necessity of their being sent on a reservation; in fact, I think he is entirely opposed to it. Me, myself, and most of the Humboldt and Queen’s River Indians were on the Truckee Reservation at one time, but if we had stayed there it would have been only to starve. I think that if they had received what they were entitled to from the agents they would have never left there…
“It is needless for me to enter into details as to how we were treated on the reservation while there. It is enough to say that we were confined to the reserve and had to live on what fish we could catch in the river. If this is the kind of civilization awaiting us on the reserve, God grant that we may never be compelled to go on one, as it is more preferable to live in the mountains and drag out an existence in the native manner.
“So far as living is concerned the Indians at all the military posts get enough to eat and considerable cast-off clothing, but how long is this to continue? What is the object of the Government in regard to the Indians? Is it enough that we are at peace? Remove all the Indians from the military posts, and place them on reservations such as the Truckee and Walker River (as they were considered), and it will require a greater military force stationed around to keep them in the limits than it now does to keep them in subjection.
“On the other hand if the Indians have my guarantee that they can secure a permanent home on their native soil and that our white neighbors can be kept from encroaching on our rights, after having a reasonable share of ground allotted to us as our own and giving us the required advantages of learning etc., I warrant that the savage as he is called today will be a law-abiding member of the community 15 or 20 years hence.
With our marvelous gift of hindsight, it now seems that Sarah’s request was much too clear and reasonable to have got past the bureaucracy.
Firm in her belief that white soldiers were better than white agents, Sarah had led about 500 Paiutes from the Truckee River Reservation and Walker River area to Fort McDermitt in the late 1860s.
Their coming aroused the white settlers, who beseeched Lieutenant Colonel James H. McElroy to feed the starving Paiutes in order to prevent depredations against property. So well were the Indians treated that Sarah and her brother Lee persuaded 400 more Paiutes to come from Camp C. F. Smith in southern Oregon.
Sarah Winnemucca seemed to be everywhere at once. Certainly she was cast in the same nomadic mold as the rest of her people. She called no particular spot home and had no trouble finding paying jobs as interpreter and teacher.
During the winter before the Bannock Indian War of 1878, Sarah lived in Grant County, Oregon. She heard war talk from Indians who came to see her, including her longtime friend, a grizzled one-eyed Paiute named Egan. According to Sarah’s account, she took some white passengers in her wagon to Malheur City. Then she had a rendezvous with Egan and Oytes, the Paiute “dreamer” or prophet, and Bannock Jack. They wanted her to go to Washington and report how badly the whites had treated the Indians. The three took up a collection of $29.25 to defray her expenses, and Sarah said she could drive the wagon to Elko, sell it, and set forth for Washington. — Watch parts 2 & 3 of “Sarah Winnemucca: A Capital Figure” here. —
Instead she delayed this mission to take a man named Morton and his daughter Rosey to Silver City, Idaho.
“So we started on the morning of the 8th of June,” Sarah wrote. “We journeyed for three days and heard nothing about an Indian war, but we saw houses standing along the road without anybody living in them. We talked about it and did not know what it meant. On the 12th we met a man on the summit, just before getting to a place called Fort Lyon, who told us there was the greatest Indian war that ever was known. He said the Bannock Indians were just killing everything that came in their way, and he told us to hurry on to a place called Stone House. That was the first I heard that the Bannocks were on the warpath.”
An Indian named Paiute Joe came into the camp and said he had killed Buffalo Horn, the Bannock leader. That left Egan, the Paiute, as the war leader. Fearing then that the war would spread to include Paiutes as well as Bannocks, the captain in charge asked Sarah to go to Nevada and urge her father not to join the warriors.
“This was the hardest work I ever did for the government in all my life. The round trip took from 10 o’clock June 13 until 5:30 p.m. June 15; I was in the saddle night and day and covered a distance of about 233 miles.”
Many years later General O.O. Howard wrote about the short Bannock War and the part Sarah Winnemucca played in it. He characterized her as “sweet and pretty.” The general also said it was not his men but another Indian, Umapine of the Umatillas, who killed Egan. Without Egan’s leadership, the war was lost for the Bannocks.
Nevada Paiutes had not participated in the Bannock War. Nevertheless, one large band was ordered first to the Malheur Agency in Oregon and then to the Yakima Reservation in the state of Washington, where their suffering was intense.
Yakima’s squalor and corruption prompted Sarah to embark on a series of lectures about the plight of her people, with a goal of raising enough money to get to the nation’s capital and talk to those in power.
She raised so much noise about the unfair treatment accorded to Nevada Indians that the President himself tried to appease her. In 1879, Interior Secretary Carl Schurz sent an emissary to Nevada to escort Sarah and her family to Washington (see photo at left). She met President Rutherford B. Hayes and other officials.
On her return from Washington she was hired as interpreter at Malheur Agency. She was supposed to travel around trying to get Paiutes to return to Malheur. On one trip Sarah went to Yakima, but the Indian agent there said he had not received orders to let them go. Eventually the Nevada Paiutes who did not die at Yakima freed themselves by slipping away and making the journey back to their native lands.
An unfortunate result of Sarah’s ceaseless complaining about the Indian agents was the retaliation by the agent at Malheur. The agent, W.V. Rinehart, organized a series of affidavits to be sent to Washington denouncing the Indian woman. The one signed by William Currey of Grant County, Oregon, was typical: “She is generally regarded as untruthful and not entitled to be believed. She is generally regarded by those who know her as a common prostitute and thoroughly addicted to the habits of drunkenness and gambling,” he swore.
Sarah made a valiant effort to refute the slander by gathering up letters of commendation, including one from General Howard, and appending them to the book she published in 1883. During that period, Sarah Winnemucca, the Paiute Princess, by then in her late 30s, was a bitter and frustrated woman. She had no home, no world of her own. She was accepted neither by Indian nor white society. All of her projects, including matrimony, had failed.
Full of self-pity, Sarah took up her pen and wrote an article for the monthly Californian in 1882.
“Once the Indians possessed all this beautiful country; now they have none,” she wrote. “Then they lived happily and prayed to the Great Spirit. But the white man came, with his cursed whiskey and selfishness and greed, and drove out the poor Indian, because he was more numerous and better armed and knew more knowledge. I see very well that all my race will die out. In a few short years there will be none left—not one Indian in the whole of America. I dare say the white man is better in some respects, but he is a bigger rascal, too. He steals and lies more than an Indian does. I hope some other race will come and drive him out, and kill him, like he has done to us. Then I will say the Great Spirit is just, and that it is all right.”
Sometime that year Sarah’s mercurial temper cooled, and she revived her faith in the white man to the extent of marrying one of them. It was probably her third marriage to a white man. This time she married L.H. Hopkins, a commissary clerk, in Montana in 1882. They remained married until he died at Lovelock four years later.
Meanwhile, Sarah’s efforts had come to the attention of a tireless do-gooder, Elizabeth Palmer of Boston. She invited Sarah to travel east. There the Paiute Princess was enormously popular on the lecture circuit; she also made appearances at Congressional hearings.
Miss Peabody, who became immensely fond of Sarah, insisted upon financing an Indian school to be taught by Sarah in Nevada. So came into existence the Peabody School at Lovelock. The school, though well intentioned, had an erratic existence.
After Hopkins’ death and her own increasing bouts with ill health and alcohol, the Paiute Princess was no longer regal. Jeanne Elizabeth Wier, first director of the Nevada Historical Society, dismissed Sarah as “degenerate in her later years.”
But what did Miss Wier really know of this Indian woman’s enormous zest for life? The last act wasn’t over yet.
The final scene of Sarah’s drama was played out in Henry’s Lake, Montana (now Idaho) where the princess had gone to live with her sister. Around Henry’s Lake, they say Sarah died from a dose of poison administered by her sister because the two women were contending for the attention of the same man. Sarah’s obituary states that she was taken violently ill with stomach cramps after eating and died on October 17, 1891.
Even in death she was flamboyant and controversial.
“Sarah Winnemucca: Paiute Princess” was originally published in the No. 2, 1978 edition of Nevada Magazine. The Lake Tahoe cover photo teased a Vacation Guide, and the issue introduced the inaugural Great Nevada Picture Hunt photo contest.
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