Sarah Winnemucca: Voice of the Northern Paiutes
August 14, 2006
In the history of the American Indian, Sarah Winnemucca stands out with Pocahontas as the principal female character with a singular activism and devotion to her race. Sarah spent all of her adult life educating, interpreting and lobbying for her Paiute people. The encroachment by settlements and the transcontinental railroad had pushed the Indians from their traditional hunting and gathering land south of Pyramid Lake. The changing face of the American West disrupted their society and altered their lives forever.Ironically, Sarahs grandfather, Chief Truckee, heartily embraced the early pioneers as an opportunity for the Paiute Indians to improve their own lives. Truckee was so enamored with the American people that in August 1846 he joined John Fremont to fight in the Mexican-American War. Fremont commissioned Capt. Truckee to lead Company H, which consisted of mostly American Indians from various tribes. Captain Truckee distinguished himself with honor and bravery over two years of fighting and after the war Fremont awarded him a commendation for service. Other Paiutes from the Great Basin, including Truckees brother, Pancho, also received medals and commendations.Sarahs father, Po-i-to (Chief Winnemucca), strongly disagreed with his father (Chief Truckee) about the perceived benefits of the white man and he took his family and band of followers north to a remote area of northeastern California near Honey Lake. Sarah, however, remained behind with her grandfather and a few other family members. Truckee enjoyed visiting the bustling port of Stockton, Calif., where he gazed at the large buildings and houses which floated on water (ships). While Winnemuccas band hunted in the high-plateau sage desert, Chief Truckee led Sarah and her siblings to the Santa Cruz Mountains, where wild game was plentiful and there was space to wander freely as they had in the Great Basin. Ten-year-old Sarah taught herself Spanish while working there for several white families.
In 1857, Sarah and a sister moved to Genoa, Nev., to live and work in the household of Major William Ormsby. (Ormsby was later killed by Paiute braves in the Pyramid Lake War of 1860.) While living with the Ormsbys, Sarah learned to read and write English on her own. On Oct. 8, 1860, Chief Truckee died near the town of Como, in Lyon County, Nevada, of an apparent insect bite. She later wrote, I was only a simple child, yet I knew what a great man he was. I knew how necessary it was for our good that he should live. During Sarahs teenage years, the lives of her people changed radically. These proud nomadic people were forced into cramped and squalid reservations and Indian agents were sent from the East to control and convert them. A generous patron in California had sponsored Sarah and her sister, Elma, to attend the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in San Jose. It was a prestigious school for daughters of the wealthy, where girls were taught languages, science and literature. Unfortunately, complaints that Indians were attending the school forced their prompt dismissal. But Sarahs language skills propelled her into a leadership role for the Paiute Nation as conflict deepened between the Indians and the newcomers.In order to appease the white man and prove fealty, Chief Truckee had taught his people to sing the Star Spangled Banner and salute the American flag. The settlers appreciated this display of deference and would often donate money to the Indians out of sympathy. Similarly, Chief Winnemucca, along with his two princess daughters, Sarah and Elma, and half a dozen painted warriors began doing stage shows in Virginia City and San Francisco. Sarahs role was to translate the words spoken by her father to the audience, as they pantomimed Indian life in Nevada. Winnemucca told the story of his peoples poverty and starvation from lack of food, and how they had refused to join other tribes in the war against the whites. But San Francisco journalists reviewing the performances missed the message and ridiculed the Paiute costumes and their names.
During the 1860s, the U.S. Army adopted the Humboldt Code, which mandated that soldiers kill and lay waste everything pertaining to the tribes, whenever found no trials, no prisoners, no red tape. In one massacre, Sarahs sister, mother and little brother were killed. Sarah, who had been hired and paid $65 per month as an interpreter for the U.S. government, began writing letters describing her peoples decimation to the Indian Commissioner and other politicians in Washington, D.C. They were widely circulated and drew much sympathy from the general public; one letter was published in a Harpers Weekly article.Sarahs reputation as a passionate and articulate spokesperson for the Paiutes gained her both friends and enemies. She was attractive, headstrong and proud, characteristics that made her a lightning rod for trouble. Newspapers reported her clashes with both men and women, including one incident where Sarah knifed a man who had touched her inappropriately. In 1870, Sarah fell in love and married 1st Lt. Edward C. Bartlett, a handsome officer but also an irresponsible drunkard. While Sarah earned a living working as an interpreter and educator, Bartlett spent his time drinking and gambling her money away. Their relationship was short-lived as Bartlett soon resigned from the army and left town, although he continued to write Sarah for money. Sarah already had to contend with the stresses of living in two worlds, one white and one red, but now her broken marriage forced her to defend her honor in a frontier society. She married three more times, but tragically, Sarah never seemed to find the right man. She struggled on, speaking against corrupt and incompetent Indian agents who stole from her people, causing them to suffer greatly.She traveled extensively on the East Coast, giving hundreds of impassioned lectures in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Audiences both cried and cheered, but the government always seemed to find a way to avoid helping the Paiutes. In Washington, D.C., she met President Hayes, but he too failed to act on his words of support. Her words of hope were met with allegations by government officials that she was a drunken, gambling prostitute.The Paiutes did succeed in establishing the first Indian-initiated school near the town of Lovelock, Nev., where Sarah enjoyed teaching the next generation how to read and write. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Sarah has undergone hardships and dared dangers that few men would be willing to face, but she has not lost her womanly qualities. She speaks with force and decision, and talks eloquently of her people. Sarahs lecture was unlike anything ever before heard in the civilized world eloquent, pathetic, tragic 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. Her mission, undertaken at the request of Chief Winnemucca, is to have her tribe gathered together again at their old home in Nevada, where they can follow peaceful pursuits and improve themselves. Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins died on Oct. 17, 1891, and was buried with no marker. In a fitting epitaph, a New York Times obituary observed She was the only Indian who ever took any prominent part in settling the Indian question, and as such her memory should be respected. She did our government great service, and she willingly helped the white settlers and her own people to live peaceably together. Her name Thocmetony [Shell Flower] should have a place beside the name of Pocahontas in the history of our country.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the second story in a two-part series on Sarah Winnemucca and her legacy. Part one was featured in the Aug. 1 Sierra Sun.