Wild Women Of The West: Sarah Winnemucca


The sound of children singing hymns filled the early morning sky above Natchez Winnemucca’s ranch just outside Lovelock, Nevada.  The sun overhead was already a scorching ball of fire, and more than two dozen students took shelter from the ever-rising orb under a well-built, brush arbor.  A steady breeze, like a hearth from a furnace, wafted through the crude branch lined gazebo, sending dirt into the air and disturbing the opened pages of McGuffey Readers lying about.  

Sarah Winnemucca, a short, stout woman with long, dark hair and dark eyes led the class through a chorus of the hymn “Room at the Cross” and onto “Battle Cry of Freedom.”  The pupils kept their eyes on their teacher while proudly belting out the religious and patriotic tunes.  Sarah smiled proudly at the group as she sang along with them.  She helped found the Peabody Indian School, a school for Paiute Indian children taught by a Paiute Indian woman in 1885.  The school was a product of Sarah’s sincere belief that the only way her people could advance and protect their rights in a white world was through education.  Sarah wanted to teach Paiute children how to read and write English without sacrificing their own history and culture.  The prevailing attitude among the white officials who ran the Indian Bureau was that in order for Indian children to assimilate into a new society they had to abandon their own language and heritage.  Sarah would spend most of her life fighting against such thinking.  

When Sarah’s class of twenty-six arrived at school each day, carrying a meager lunch wrapped in animal hide or a piece of cloth, she would lead them through a series of military style drills designed to establish discipline.  Sarah taught her pupils English by asking them to say something in their native language, and then she would translate the phrase.  She then made the students say the phrase in English and had them write it out in English and Paiute on their slates.  They were later tasked with finding those words in their readers.  In addition to reading and writing, Sarah also taught her class basic math and art.  

There were a number of lessons offered to children outside the confines of the arbor setting.  Each day after the academic subjects, Sarah taught the pupils to work on the ranch where the school was located.  They learned how to plant crops, weed the fields, and feed and care for the livestock.  Both girls and boys were taught to sew various items of clothing from fabric sent to the children through the mail.  

Sarah experienced several challenges in both establishing the school and acquiring the necessary funds to keep it running.  The outspoken and daring daughter of an Indian chief was no stranger to challenges.  Throughout California and Nevada in the 1870s, she’d earned a reputation as a woman who fought hard for the interest of her people and was unafraid to take on government officials who possessed a narrow-minded view of the Native Americans’ strengths and capabilities.  The January 7, 1885, edition of the San Francisco Call noted of Sarah, “In the history of the Indians she and Pocahontas will be the principal female characters, and her singular devotion to her race will no doubt be chronicled as an illustration of the better traits of the Indian character.”  

Sarah was born in approximately 1844 in Humboldt Sink, Mexico (now in Nevada, U. S.).  She was given the name Thocmentony which means “Shell Flower.”  Her father was chief over the northern Paiute Indians of Numa, as they called themselves.  She learned the duties a young woman was required to do in the tribe from her mother, Tuboitonie.  As a child, she and her two brothers and sisters accompanied their grandfather Wuna Mucca, better known as Captain Truckee, across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to San Jose, California.  Truckee had made friends with several white settlers and served as a guide to early emigrants crossing the Great Basin.  He taught his grandchildren to be kind to the “white brothers, and they will be kind to you and teach you many things.”  Truckee gave Chief Winnemucca’s four children new names.  Sarah’s brothers were Natchez and Lee; her sister was Mary, and Thocmentony was called Sarah.

While in California, Sarah attended a mission school taught by nuns.  It was there she learned how to read and write English.  Prior to the limited formal education, Sarah and her siblings learned about government and the history of the immigrants who came to the country from England from the settlers they befriended, settlers whom Truckee insisted his grandchildren know.  

Not long after Truckee passed away in 1860, Sarah, her sister, and brothers returned to the Great Basin.  By this time, hordes of white settlers had infiltrated the area and were squeezing in on the land designated for Paiutes and subsequently depleting the native people of their source of food.  Pinyon pine nut trees produced the sustenance the Paiutes used to sustain themselves.  The pine nut was to the people of the Great Basin what the buffalo were to the Plains people.  The Paiutes were concerned about the destruction of the trees by settlers who were using them to build cabins and stables.  Chief Winnemucca conveyed those concerns to the encroaching pioneers in the community of Como in Lyon County, Nevada.  He explained the reason the trees were necessary and asked that the people use only the dead or fallen trees for their building projects.  The leader’s words fell on deaf ears.  

Aware the disregard for the native people could lead to trouble, Indian agent John C. Burche interceded, writing a letter to Nevada Territory’s Governor James Nye explaining the situation.  He noted that the Paiutes’ traditional food source was all but gone and that the people were hungry.  He warned that unless supplies were provided to them he could not guarantee future peace.  Sarah, her father, and brothers did not believe the United States government would act in the Paiutes’ best interest and knew they needed to find a way to feed the tribe.

With Sarah acting as his interpreter, Chief Winnemucca took his appeal for his people to music halls in locations such as Virginia City, Nevada.  He promised the Paiutes would not war against the whites but shared his tribe’s desperate situation.  After several weeks traveling and speaking at venues from Genoa to San Francisco, the troubles the Paiute people were facing remained, and help was not forthcoming.  

The role Sarah played in bringing further attention to the plight of the Paiutes increased between 1866 and 1870.  The difficulties between the government and the natives in the Great Basin area increased as well.  The Bannocks, members of the Shoshonean tribe who also lived in the Great Basin and were frustrated over the lack of food and the unreasonable reservation policies, threatened to revolt against the treatment.  They offered to join the Paiutes in a fight against the establishment if and when Chief Winnemucca called for such action.  The Paiute leader was opposed to any forceful disputes.  He believed in a peaceful resolution, and Sarah hoped for the same.  Even when she lost her mother, one of her brothers, and her sister to the harsh treatment received on the reservation, she continued to believe as her father and grandfather had taught her that bloodshed solved nothing.  

While acting as interpreter and guide for her people with the military and Indian agents, she helped relocate her father and several other Paiute families to Fort McDermitt in northwest Nevada, more than two hundred fifty miles from the Great Basin.  Shortly after the band of Paiutes arrived at the fort, Sarah met the Indian superintendent Major Henry Douglass, and he wanted to know her thoughts on the reservation system.  “If this is the kind of civilization awaiting us on the Reserves,” Sarah responded, “God grant that we may never be compelled to go on one, as it is much preferrable to live in the mountains and drag out an existence in our native manner.”

Sarah’s forthrightness, intelligence, and talent as a mediator between the Paiutes and the Indian agency served the government and her people well for a number of years.  She was instrumental in settling disputes with the military and the disillusioned tribes in the Great Basin region.  She proved herself to be most valuable in the summer of 1878 during the Bannock uprising against the U. S. Army.

In early June 1878, Sarah was traveling by train to Elko, Nevada, from the eastern Oregon Territory where she had been visiting friends.  She planned to change trains in Elko and make her way to Washington D. C.  Her goal was to meet with President Rutherford B. Hayes to let him know her people were once again starving, that the Indian agents were corrupt, and that none of the government’s promises made to the Paiute people had been kept.

While en route to meet the president, news of an uprising was reported in the Territorial Enterprise newspaper; Sarah was unknowingly headed straight for the heart of the battle.  “We saw houses standing all along the road without anybody living in them and did not know yet what it meant,” Sarah later wrote in her book Life Among the Piute [sic].  On June 12, 1878, she and the others she was with met a lone man named Paiute Joe traveling on the road and learned the dreadful news.  “He said the Bannock Indians were just killing everything that came in their way,” Sarah recalled in her memoirs, “and he told us to get to a place called Stone House. *  That was the first I heard that the Bannocks were on the warpath.”  

Paiute Joe also let Sarah know that there was no one the Bannocks would love to kill more than Chief Winnemucca’s daughter.  They considered the chief a traitor to his people because he routinely advocated for peace.  The Paiutes were caught in a vise between their northern neighbors in Idaho and Oregon, the Bannock Indians, and the increasing number of settlers pushing them from their tribal lands in Nevada.  

Also known as the Snake Indians, the Bannock Indians were superb horsemen, tall and lean.  Their enemies considered them the most savage and bloodthirsty of all the Indians west of the Mississippi, but they had been relatively peaceful until driven to rebellion.  According to the June 11, 1878, edition of the Territorial Enterprise, “General [O. O.] Howard [commander of the U. S. Cavalry in the West] says the Government has not kept faith with the Bannocks, and [General] Crook believes they have been starved into insurrection.”

On June 12, 1878, Major Edwin Mason, attached to General Howard’s command, wrote to his wife from Boise, Idaho, that military forces would quickly crush the Bannocks. “We are of the opinion that it is only a big spree among the Indians and that a month’s good work will knock the bottom out of it.” 

Major Mason, Captain R. F. Bernard, and his regiment and scouts arrived at Stone House, just over the border in eastern Oregon, at the same time as Sarah, Paiute Joe, and the small group of Paiutes that had traveled with them.  Joe explained the situation to Mason: “The Bannocks are all out fighting.  They are killing everything and everybody, Indians and whites, and I and two of my people went with these men to South Mountain to fight them, and we came on to Buffalo Horn’s camp and had a fight with them.”  Paiute Joe told that, although he was wounded, he had managed to kill Buffalo Horn, then jumped on his horse and escaped.  

Having obviously abandoned her plans to go to Washington, DC., Sarah in hope of aiding a peace effort, offered her services as interpreter to the army.  The offer was greeted with great suspicion.  White residents at Stone House believed the wagon in which she had been traveling to get to the location was loaded with ammunition intended for the Bannocks.  She spent the night locked inside a hotel, while citizens armed with rifles watched the wagon to make sure no Bannock warriors tried to take possession of it.  The next morning, she demanded Bernard search the vehicle.  “Go and see for yourself, Captain,” she cried, “and, if you find anything in my wagon besides a knife and fork and a pair of scissors I will give you my head for your football.”

Worried about her family, Sarah waited to hear the latest news of the war.  When a dispatch arrived at Stone House from Camp McDermitt, Sarah learned her father and several other tribesmen were being held by the Bannocks.  She immediately volunteered to travel to the Malheur Indian Reservation to warn the Paiutes who lived there what had transpired.  She also hoped to find out from the Bannock Indians who lived there the whereabouts of the warring tribe.  She asked Paiute Joe and the others who had traveled to Stone House with them to accompany her.  Paiute Joe was uneasy with the request.  “Sarah, we will do anything we can for the officers and you,” she recalled him saying to her in her memoirs. “We will go with dispatches anywhere but to the hostile Bannocks; we cannot go to them, for, Sarah, you don’t know what a danger that is.”  Sarah knew if the Indians accepted the mission, they could easily be killed.  Then, a stunning revelation from the Indian scouts was delivered.  “Sarah, your brother Natchez was wounded and might be dead.” 

Despite her fear that this awful news might be true, Sarah told Captain Bernard she would do her best to accomplish the mission, even if she had to go alone.  Bernard wrote a letter of safe passage: “To all good citizens of the country—Sarah Winnemucca, with two of her people, goes with a dispatch to learn of the location of the Bannock Indians.  If her horses should give out, help her all you can.”  

With two men at her side, Sarah galloped off toward the crossing of the Owyhee River.**  A mile beyond the crossing, they struck the Bannocks’ trail.  “We followed it down the river as much as fifteen miles,” she later wrote, “and then we came to the place where they had camped, and where they had been weeping, and where they had cut their hair.  So we knew that it was hereabout that Buffalo Horn had been killed.”  Trying not to think about the fate of her brother Natchez, Sarah continued on the trail.  

“We rode very hard all day long—did not stop to rest all that day.  The country was very rocky and no water,” she recalled in her autobiography.  “We had traveled about fifty miles that day. Now it was getting dark, but we rode on.  It was very difficult for us to travel fast, for our horses almost fell over sometimes.”

The two men and Sarah stopped for the night, eating a little hard bread with no water.  She lay down to sleep but kept waking up when the horse she’d tethered to her arm kept pulling on the reins.  At dawn they were off again across the Barren Valley in Oregon, heading for a ranch where there would be water and food.  From a distance, they saw the smoke.  The house, still smoldering, had been burned to the ground.  They stopped briefly to make coffee and then continued on the trail of the natives heading toward Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon.  It was sixty miles to the nearest settlement.  

While galloping across the barren, sage-covered hillsides, Sarah unexpectedly met her brother Lee.  “The minute he rode up he jumped from his horse and took me in his arms,” Sarah wrote.  Lee said their father, Chief Winnemucca, and their people were prisoners of the Bannocks, who had taken their few guns and all their horses.  “Have you brought us some good news?” Lee asked, and then realized everyone was in great danger as they stood talking.  “The Bannocks are out in the mountains, looking out.  Take off your hat and your dress and unbraid your hair, and put this blanket round you, so if they should come down they would not know who it is.”  All three disguised themselves as Bannocks, although that put them in danger from the military and the settlers.  

Then Sarah asked the location of her father; she had a message from General Howard to deliver to him.  The message explained that the army would do all they could to resolve the dispute.  Lee responded, “Oh, dear sister, you will be killed if you go there, for our brother Natchez made his escape three days ago.” Delighted to hear that her brother was alive after all, Sarah did not tarry though she rode straight into grave danger.  “I must save my father and his people even if I lose my life in trying to do it,” she retorted. 

Climbing a steep mountain, sometimes on hands and knees, they reached the top and looked down into the Bannocks’ encampment.  It was a thrilling yet terrifying sight.  About three hundred twenty-seven lodges and four hundred twenty-five warriors were in the valley.  “The place looked like it was all alive and filled with hostile Bannocks. I began to feel a little afraid,” she recalled years later.  Nevertheless, Sarah concocted a plan to get inside the camp, warn Chief Winnemucca and the other Paiutes found with him, deliver Howard’s message, and get them all away to the promised safety of General Howard’s troops.  

Racing down the mountain under as much cover as could be found, they infiltrated the Bannocks’ camp and stole into the tents of the Paiute prisoners.  While the Bannocks were busy butchering cattle for an evening feast, the women left the lodges as though to gather wood, and then disappeared.  The men slipped out one by one, until only Sarah, her father, Lee, and some Winnemucca cousins remained in the lodge.  As darkness fell, they, too, slipped away.  

Fearful of discovery, they hurried away from the encampment.  Now that she had accomplished her purpose, Sarah’s strength finally wavered.  “It was like a dream. I could not get along at all.  I almost fell down at every step, my father dragging me along.  Oh, how my heart jumped when I heard a noise nearby.”

The noise was her sister-in-law Mattie, hiding in the brush with a horse.  Reunited, the small band left the mountain and met the other Paiutes at Juniper Lake in northern California, where the women were cooking a mountain sheep cached there the day before when Sarah and the two men had ascended the mountain.  Eating on the run, they rode all night and reached Summit Springs. Sarah had barely lain down to rest when an alarm sounded. A man arrived, his horse nearly foundering under him, to give the warning: The Bannocks were right behind.  “I looked back,” said the messenger, “and saw Lee running, and they firing at him.  I think he is killed.  Oytes [the Bannock chief ] is at the head of this.  I heard him say to the Bannocks, ‘Go quickly, bring Sarah’s head and her father’s, too.  I will show Sarah who I am.’”  

The next morning, June 15, Sarah and Mattie separated from the family.  They galloped toward General Howard’s promised location, at least seventy-five miles away over rough, dry country.  Chief Winnemucca and his band remained behind to try to save Lee and the others.  Her father had asked Sarah to tell Howard to send soldiers to protect the Paiutes who had refused to go to war.  

By one o’clock, Sarah and Mattie had reached a spring en route called Muddy Creek, where they watered the horses and ate some white currants growing on the banks.  At three o’clock, they reached the crossing at Owyhee River, where people gave them coffee and hard bread while fresh horses were saddled.  “We jumped on our horses again, and I tell you we made our time count going fifteen miles to the Sheep Ranch. We whipped our horses every step of the way until we were met by the officers.”  

They encountered some disbelief, but finally General Howard ordered a force of men to meet Chief Winnemucca and bring him in. “This was the hardest work I ever did for the government in all my life—the whole round trip from 10 o’clock June 13, up to June 15, arriving back at 5:30 P. M., having been in the saddle night and day; distance about two hundred twenty-three miles.”

Sunday morning, June 16, General Howard asked Sarah to join him as interpreter and guide.  Sarah agreed but was “mad as could be” because she wanted to turn around and go after the Bannocks who had imprisoned her family.  Howard gave general field orders directing all the forces available toward Steens Mountain: “The enemy is reported in large force.  The columns will move with usual military precautions to scout the country and avoid ambuscades.” 

Sarah and Mattie acted as scouts with Captain Bernard’s forces as they traveled toward Camp Lyon and from there to Malheur City.  Before they reached the town, news came on June 19 that the Bannocks had abandoned Steens Mountain for Harney Valley in southeast Oregon.  Captain Bernard was hard on their ponies’ heels.  

“Later in the evening General Howard and Lieutenant Wilkinson came to us again and said, ‘Well, Sarah, what do you think about going?’”  She agreed to carry a dispatch to Captain Bernard despite danger from both frightened settlers and raiding Indians.  With a couple of soldiers as escort, she set out on the morning of the twentieth for Camp Harney, 120 miles away.  The small party did not stop to eat until dark and then traveled all night long.  They arrived at Camp Harney at ten o’clock the following morning.  “Oh, how tired I was! Mattie and I went to bed without anything to eat.”  They awoke to learn Captain Bernard had finally engaged the enemy.

By one o’clock on the morning of June 24, Bernard had chased the Bannocks another ten miles.  General Howard arrived later, along with other troops.  Sarah and Mattie followed, once again as guides and interpreters.  At one point, the volunteers saw what they thought was a large force of natives on the hills.  Sarah disagreed and said there was no danger.  Finally, troopers scaled the heights and discovered exactly what Sarah had said would be there – rocks piled to look like people waiting to conduct an ambush. 

The twenty-ninth of June saw them high in the mountains, where it snowed all day. The cavalry pursued Bannocks down the canyon of the John Day River while Howard and his wagons lumbered behind, slipping and sliding down steep slopes. Continuing the march, Howard’s forces reached Pilot Rock on the Camas Prairie near Ashland, Oregon.  After studying the terrain, Sarah explained that the hostile Indians were in perfect position for a quick escape, but no one listened. 

She was right again.  The Bannocks escaped into the forest.  “I knew they would go into the timber and get away, and this I told the General, but he would not believe it.”  Nor did he believe her when she said the Bannocks would double back through the Blue Mountains to the Malheur Agency.  That was exactly what happened, and Howard was soon bogged down in the most treacherous terrain possible.  The canyon route they followed was twelve hundred feet deep, nearly perpendicular, with the North Fork of the John Day River thundering at the bottom.  They slid down the trail to the riverbank and crossed the rushing stream, then climbed the opposite side, leading the horses, “the ascent being so steep that several of our pack animals fell over backwards into the stream and were lost,” Sarah later wrote. 

Sarah and Mattie accompanied the army on a rambling, 150-mile circuit, picking up small parties of hostiles along the way.  When they neared Camp McDermitt, Sarah felt the strong pull of family.  She talked the commanding officer into allowing her to leave, and, though she wanted to go alone, by night, the officer insisted she take three men.  At six o’clock they departed, riding all night long.  Just at daybreak, Sarah raced ahead to the camp where she found her brother Natchez and her father, who held her with tears running down his face. “Oh, my poor child! I thought I would never see you, for the papers said you were killed by the Bannocks,” her father confessed.

By August, the war was just about over. Sarah made long, hot rides for General Howard, who commended her loyalty.  Nevertheless, it was Howard who ordered all the Paiutes at Malheur to the Yakama Reservation in Washington, beyond the Columbia River, far from Winnemucca’s original lands in northern Nevada.  For the first time, Sarah disobeyed orders. Instead of rounding up Indians to bring back to the camp, she warned them away, but it was too little, and far too late.  In December 1878, Sarah and her people began the 350-mile trek to Yakama. Screaming women and children unwilling to march were tossed into wagons; men, shackled by chains, walked through the snow. 

February 2, 1879, they arrived in Yakama where they were quartered in a cattle shed.  The snow was waist deep.  The Yakama people resented the Paiutes, stole their horses, and threatened their children.  The Indian agent described the Paiutes as some of the most destitute of any he had seen, some being literally naked, but he did little more than pray for them. As her people died in the harsh conditions, Sarah was filled with grief.  Once more she was persuaded to act on their behalf. 

Earning money by lecturing on traditions of her people and speaking eloquently of the conditions they now endured, Sarah raised money for another journey to Washington, D.C.  The trip to tell the president of her people’s troubles that had been interrupted by the news of the Bannock uprising was resumed.  In the winter of 1879–1880, she traveled with her father to the nation’s capital where she met with President Hayes and secured promises of better treatment for her people.  Promises easily broken.  

They were assured that they could return, at their own expense, to Malheur Reservation.  Unfortunately, in 1881, permission to depart was denied by Yakama agent Father James H. Wilbur, the “blue sky” agent who looked toward heaven and prayed while the Paiutes’ blankets were stolen right off their slumbering forms. 

“Knowing the temper of the people through whom they must pass, still smarting from the barbarities of war two years previous, and that the Paiutes, utterly destitute of everything, must subsist themselves on their route by pillage, I refused permission for them to depart,” Wilbur reported. Five years later, many of the Paiutes still remained at the Yakama Reservation, unable to get the money or the permission to leave. 

When Sarah wasn’t acting as interpreter for the various Indian agents who came and went, she was teaching.  In 1880, she established a school at the Vancouver (Washington) Barracks where the Bannock Indians were housed.  Her class consisted of twelve girls and six boys.  President Hayes visited the barracks in October 1880 and while there was introduced to Sarah and her pupils.  

After the president’s tour of the one-room schoolhouse, Sarah escorted him out and walked with him to his carriage.  She seized the moment to plead with him to allow her people to be united at one location to live permanently.  The Indians were tired of being moved from one reservation to the next to live with families, being torn apart in the process.  “You are a husband and a father, and you know how you would suffer to be separated from your wife and children by force,” Sarah told the president.  Although President Hayes and his wife, who was also present, wept as Sarah made her request, he could not make her any promises.  

By 1883, Sarah had married, written a book about the history of her people, and embarked on a lecture tour sharing the culture of Paiute people and the unfortunate treatment they had received at the hands of the government.  Among the many people who heard Sarah speak were two women from Boston, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Mary Peabody Mann.  Mary was the widow of educator and reformer Horace Mann.  Both women were inspired by Sarah’s lectures and wanted to do what they could to help her, the Paiute people, and the American Indians as a whole.  They were instrumental in getting Sarah’s book published, financially supporting more widespread speaking engagements, and helping the Indian princess collect signatures calling on the government to return to the Paiutes some of their native land.

In 1884, Congress passed a bill that gave the Paiute people back their land at Pyramid Lake.  Sarah returned to the Great Basin, and she and her husband, Lieutenant Lewis H. Hopkins, lived with her brother Natchez on his land near Lovelock, Nevada.  Not long after Sarah and her husband arrived in Nevada, she began holding classes for her six nephews and nieces.  The vision for more students and a proper school grew from there.  

The Peabody sisters sent money and supplies for the construction of a schoolhouse.  Sarah named the school after her chief benefactor.  Sarah would spend the rest of her life soliciting funds for the growing school and fighting against U. S. government officials opposed to the school.

Sarah Winnemucca, princess of the Paiute Indians, died on October 16, 1891, while vising relatives in Monida, Montana.  According to the October 28, 1891, edition of the Bozeman Chronicle, Sarah passed away after eating a hearty meal.  “…The nature of the disease which carried this notable woman away, is not, and may never be known,” the article read.  

Sarah was forty-seven years old when she passed away and was remembered by politicians, former students, and family as a “remarkable woman who greatly aided her people.”

*A Southern Pacific Railroad stop in the Shoshone country, nineteen miles west of Battle Mountain.  

**A tributary of the Snake River in northern Nevada.

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