ECHOES FROM THE PAST: Chief Truckee’s final days remembered
(Part one of this column, telling of the history of the town’s namesake, Chief Truckee, told of his aid to Sierra emigrants and his service in the Mexican-American War.)
During the 1850s, Chief Truckee continued to advise the mounting tide of immigration on the best current route to California, although not all emigrants realized that his tribe was friendly and meant them no harm.
One day while Truckee was away fishing, several members of an emigrant party fired on members of his village. Six braves were killed, including one of Truckee’s sons. Four others were wounded. The tribal counsel demanded war, but the Chief refused to consent and stood firm in defense of his beloved white brothers.
In the late spring of 1860, the Pyramid Lake War, the first organized warfare between the Northern Paiutes and the whites suddenly changed the world of the Paiute. Facing defeat, large numbers of Pyramid Lake Paiutes who were unwilling to live on reservations began leaving Nevada, many settling in southeastern Oregon. Deeply saddened by these events and unwilling to participate in the hostilities, the elderly old chief retreated south with relatives near the Walker Lake Indian reservation.
Chief Truckee died near the town of Como, Palmyra District, Lyon County, Nev., on Oct. 8, 1860. At the time most of the old residents of Dayton, was well as the former residents of Como, could point out his grave, but today only a few ghostly ruins of the town remain.
Prior to his death, Chief Truckee and other Paiutes from the Walker River, where he had lived for some time, were engaged in their annual pine nut harvest at Como. Chief Winnemucca was quoted as referring to the area as the “Indian’s Orchard.” The area abounded in splendid forests of pine nut trees, which produced extra good nuts.
An article published in the San Francisco Alta on May 10, 1875, recites a story told by John Nelson, superintendent of South Comstock Mine in lower Gold Hill, who was prospecting with some friends near the Palmyra District. Captain Truckee often visited their camp and had showed Nelson a small bible, inscribed and presented to him by Fremont.
The old Paiute also carried and displayed with pride an old copy of the St. Louis Republican and other papers. He spoke at length of Fremont and other early explorers and emigrants he had shared adventures.
One day Truckee came to Nelson’s camp to show them a very bad looking swelling on his neck, seeking advice on how to treat it. They diagnosed it as a tarantula sting or the bite of some other poisonous bug or snake.
With little medical lore, they prescribed application of a piece of fat bacon to the inflamed area. Nelson, in later years, said he didn’t know whether or not Truckee applied the remedy. At any rate, the next day Chief Truckee was dead.
“He died at the Indian camp near the spring, a mile or so this side of Como,” Nelson later wrote, “where the little town of Palmyra was subsequently built.”
Prior to his death, Captain Truckee called all his grandchildren to him, and also spoke to his son, Chief Winnemucca, urging him to keep peace with the whites (a promise that Winnemucca kept). He gave instructions as to how deep his grave was to be dug, how his head was to be laid, and mentioned specifically that his hands were to be folded on his breast, and the dirt was to be heaped in a mound above his resting place. He also ordered that he be buried with all his possessions, including Fremont’s Bible.
Nelson later sought to obtain possession of the Fremont Bible, offering the surviving Paiutes five dollars for it, but they would not sell and, together with the other papers treasured by Chief Truckee, it was buried in his grave with him.
Winnemucca kept the body for two days and signal fires blazed on every mountaintop, calling tribesmen from all directions. In Paiute tradition, the family threw themselves on the body and the Paiute death wail rang out in a terrifying manner.
Because they did not know how to do the things he requested, Truckee’s Paiute companions brought his body to the camp where Nelson and his friends were and told them it was their chieftain’s last wish to be buried by white men after the style of white men.
In compliance with his wishes, they dug his grave on a ridge just west or northwest of Como, on the cropping or surface range of the old Goliath range, beneath a grove of shady pine nut trees. A large assemblage of whites and Indians were present for the last rites.
All of his instructions were carried out. His body was wrapped in blankets and, in Paiute Fashion, six horses were killed at the burial, so that he might have a swift journey to the afterlife.
His son-in-law pronounced the eulogy at the grave, first in Paiute and then in English. Members of his village set fire to the hut in which he died.
Although his age is not recorded, he was by this time an old man, suggesting that he was born around 1780-1790. This is remarkable because it means that, given all his later adventures and achievements, it is said that Chief Truckee never laid eyes on his first white man until he was 60 years old.
Dan DeQuille in “The Big Bonanza” records that the following eulogy was spoken in both Paiute and English at his funeral by a relative, Captain John.
“A good man is gone. The white man knows he was good for he guided him around deserts and led him in paths where there was grass and good water.”
“His people knew he was good, for he loved them and cared for them and came home to them to die. All know that Truckee was a good man – Pauites and Americans. He is dead. A good man is gone. All over, people cry, for they loved Truckee.”
His lonely grave was marked by a crude cross which bore the inscription, “here lies Captain Truckee, the faithful guide and true friend of the white man.”
“Echoes From The Past” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He can be reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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