Sarah Winnemucca was the daughter and granddaughter of two well-respected Paiute Indian chiefs – Winnemucca and Truckee, respectively. She grew up with an intimate understanding of how her tribal history and native culture were quickly being lost in the mid-19th Century as U.S. government-sponsored cultural eradication policies decimated the Indian way of life. Against all odds, Sarah grew determined to change those policies and protect her people.
As a lecturer, writer and educator, Sarah lobbied for Indian rights from the 1860s through the 1880s. Her efforts led to meetings with President Rutherford B. Hayes, but little came of it. She later testified before Congress to obtain the release of Paiutes exiled to the Yakama reservation in Washington Territory. Sarah appealed to popular opinion through interviews and newspaper statements, and in 1883 she authored an autobiography, “Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” the first book written in English by a Native American woman.
Like her grandfather, Truckee, Sarah Winnemucca was interested learning about the white newcomers staking claim to the tribe’s ancestral homeland. One traveler passing through the region wrote of her, “Near the sink of the Humboldt River a strange but interesting woman visited our camp. She was a full Native blood Paiute Indian woman, highly intelligent and educated and talked the English language fluently. She ate breakfast with me and became so interested in our conversation that she offered to travel with me, across the desert to Carson Valley. Her name was Sarah Winnemucca, the only daughter of Chief Winnemucca, the great chief of the Paiute Nations. There is a station on the Union Pacific Railroad named in honor of her father.”
The encroachment by settlements and the transcontinental railroad pushed the Indians from their traditional hunting and gathering land south of Pyramid Lake. Chief Truckee had heartily embraced the incursion of settlers and miners into Nevada as a potential opportunity for the Paiute Indians to improve their own lives. Winnemucca disagreed with his father about these perceived benefits 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 several other family members.
While Winnemucca’s band hunted in the high-plateau sage desert, Chief Truckee took 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 American families. In 1857, Sarah and one of her sisters moved to Genoa, Utah Territory, to live and work in the household of Maj. William Ormsby. While living with the Ormsby family, Sarah learned to read and write English on her own. In October of 1860, Chief Truckee died 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.”
Sarah’s language skills propelled her into a leadership role for the Paiutes as conflict deepened between the cultures. Chief Winnemucca and his two daughters, Sarah and Elma, along with a half dozen painted warriors, began doing stage shows in Virginia City and San Francisco. Sarah translated the words spoken by her father to the audience, as they pantomimed Indian life in Nevada. Winnemucca told the story of his people’s poverty and starvation from lack of food, and how they had refused to join other tribes in the war against the whites. Sympathetic members of the audience donated money to the tribe. Sarah’s reputation as a passionate and articulate spokesperson for the Paiutes gained her both friends and enemies. She was attractive, headstrong and proud; qualities 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 First Lt. Edward C. Bartlett, a handsome officer, but 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, but now her broken marriage forced her to defend her honor in a frontier society. Sarah married three more times, but unfortunately, she never found the right man.
Sarah continued speaking out against corrupt and incompetent Indian agents who stole from her people. She traveled extensively on the East Coast, giving hundreds of impassioned lectures in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. “Sarah’s lecture was unlike anything ever before heard in the civilized world,” said the San Francisco Chronicle, “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.”
Audiences cheered and wept, but the government always found a way to avoid helping the Paiutes. Sometimes her words of hope were met with allegations by government officials that she was a drunken, gambling prostitute. During her last lecture in San Francisco on Christmas Eve 1879, Sarah implored: “I am appealing to you to help my people, to send teachers and books among us. Educate us. Every one shuns me, and turns a back on me with contempt. Some say I am a half breed. My father and mother were pure Indians. I want homes for my people but no one will help us. They will not touch my fingers for fear of getting soiled. That’s the Christianity of white people.”
Despite being rebuffed by the government and others, 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. 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. The name Thocmetony [Shell Flower, Sarah’s original given name] should have a place beside the name of Pocahontas in the history of our country.”
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. Check out Mark’s blog at tahoenuggets.com.