Sarah Winnemucca Biography

Author, Activist, Writer(c. 1844–1891)
Sarah Winnemucca was an author, educator, interpreter and military scout who advocated for the rights of Native-American communities.

Synopsis

Born circa 1844 in Humboldt Sink, Nevada, Sarah Winnemucca developed a high proficiency in language, later serving as an interpreter for her people and the U.S. Army during times of great conflict. She spoke passionately in the west and east about the mistreatment of Native-American communities and wrote the autobiographical account Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. She died in 1891.

Background and Early Life

Sarah Winnemucca was born circa 1844 near the Humboldt Sink, in northwestern Nevada. Given the name Thocmetony, meaning “shell flower,” she was the daughter of Chief Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute and his wife Tuboitonie. Her grandfather was Chief Truckee, who had accompanied General John C. Frémont in his exploration of California and fought by his side during the Mexican-American War.

Believing that his granddaughter should be exposed to the customs and language of the white settlers who at that time were arriving in Paiute territory in greater and greater numbers, Chief Truckee brought Thocmetony west with him when she was a young girl. They settled in central California for the next seven years, during which time Thocmetony developed an aptitude for languages, learning English, Spanish and several Native-American dialects. In 1857 they returned to Nevada, at which point Thocmetony lived briefly with a white family and adopted the name Sarah.

Forced Relocation to "Misfortune"

Following Chief Truckee’s death in 1860, Sarah granted his dying wish by attending a white school in San Jose, California. However, after a short time there, she was forced to leave when some non-Indian families objected to her presence. Sarah returned home to Nevada around the time that the Paiute War erupted, resulting in the deaths of several of her family members. As sporadic clashes between Native Americans and the U.S. government and white settlers continued through the decade, Sarah decided to use her language skills to play peacemaker, becoming an interpreter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Fort McDermitt in 1868. She also married Lieutenant E. C. Bartlett around that time, though she would later leave him to escape his horrific drinking and gambling, to which he lost their money.

Despite Sarah’s efforts, in 1872 her tribe was relocated to a reservation in Eastern Oregon ominously named after the nearby river Malheur, the French word for “misfortune.” For the next four years, Sarah served as an interpreter for the U.S. government’s Indian agent there, but lost her job when his more hostile replacement arrived in 1876. Two years later, the growing tensions between Native Americans and the U.S. government came to head in the Bannock War, during which Sarah’s father and other members of her tribe were taken hostage by Bannock forces. 

Offering her services to U.S. Army General Oliver Howard, Sarah traveled over some 200 miles of rough terrain into Bannock territory, ultimately returning with the freed hostages and important military intelligence for Howard. In the aftermath of the conflict, however, both the Bannock and Paiute were punished with exile to the Yakama reservation, further north in Washington Territory. Bad turned to worse there, with persistent mistreatment at the hands of the government's agents and waves of disease that began to decimate the reservation.

Wrongs and Claims

Determined once more to use her abilities to help her people, in 1879 Sarah set out on a tour of California and Nevada, during which she gave lectures on their plight. Early the following year, her campaign took her to Washington, D.C., where she was able to speak with both President Rutherford B. Hayes and Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, who promised that her tribe would be allowed to return to the reservation at Malheur. However, it never came to pass, and their assurances were later described by Sarah as “promises which, like the wind, were heard no more.”

Returning to Washington Territory, Sarah taught at a reservation school and married army officer Lewis Hopkins, who also had a gambling problem. However, two years later she traveled east again to win support for her cause, delivering hundreds of lectures over the next year. With the help and encouragement of benefactors, she wrote the autobiographical Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, which was published in 1883 and helped fund her tour and further her efforts. It was the first book written in English by a Native-American woman and remains a valuable historical record of both Native-American life and the detrimental impact of white settlement on indigenous communities. 

By the end of Sarah’s tour, she had gathered thousands of signatures calling for an allotment of land for her tribe from Congress, which granted it by passing a bill in 1884. As had been the case years earlier, however, nothing came of the measure.

Heard No More

Angered and deflated by the government’s empty promises, Sarah abandoned her campaign and returned to Nevada, where she used the proceeds from her book and tour to found a Paiute school near Lovelock. However, by 1886 money was running low based on proceeds from her lecture tour and she was forced to shut down the school. The Dawes Severalty Act was passed the following year and signed by President Grover Cleveland, forcing Indian children to attend white schools and be assimilated into American society.

In 1886 Sarah’s financial troubles were further compounded when her husband died of tuberculosis. She soon became ill as well and moved to Henry’s Lake, Idaho, where she died on October 16, 1891. In 2005 Nevada sent a statue of Sarah Winnemucca to the U.S. Capitol Building's National Statuary Hall, one of two that represent the state.

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