Published on May 13, 2011 by Amy
Sarah Winnemucca [M.Hopkins; Thocmetony] (1844 – October 17, 1891)
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Author of Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883), Sarah Winnemucca is the first Indian woman to publish a personal and tribal history. She was born in 1844 near the sink of the Humboldt River in Nevada and was raised as a traditional Paiute. Her grandfather was Truckee, whom she inaccurately claimed was the chief of all the Paiutes, and her father was Old Winnemucca, who succeeded Truckee as chief. She and her family followed Truckee’s policy of peaceful co-existence with whites.
When Winnemucca was around ten, she accompanied her mother and Truckee to California. There she learned Spanish and began to pick up English while working for several white families. Her knowledge of English increased after 1857, when she and her sister Elma became companions to the daughter of Major William Ormsby in Carson Valley. Her beloved grandfather, who had been a strong influence, died in 1869. In accordance with his wishes, Winnemucca and Elma briefly attended a school at the Convent of Notre Dame in San Jose, run by the Sisters of Charity. Winnemucca variously gave the dates of her attendance as 1858 to 1860 and as 1861; the girls left because of whites’ objections to their presence. Winnemucca continued her education on her own while working as a domestic in and around Virginia City.
Her involvement in Indian affairs began in 1866, when the Paiutes asked her and her brother Natchez (or Naches) to go to Fort McDermit to try to stop white raids on the tribe. At the request of the army, Winnemucca and Natchez persuaded their father, Old Winnemucca, and his band to settle on a reservation. Winnemucca worked intermittently as an interpreter for the military at Fort McDermit and Camp Harney and as an interpreter and teacher’s aide at Malheur, Oregon. During the 1878 Bannock War, Winnemucca served as an interpreter for General Oliver Otis Howard’s command and as a liaison between the army and the Paiutes, who had joined the Bannocks. She also later became an interpreter and teacher at the Yakima Reservation, where Paiute prisoners were detained. Throughout this period, Winnemucca strongly criticized the mistreatment of her people by Indian agents and missionaries, especially William Rinehart and the Rev. James Wilbur.
In 1879, after hostilities had ceased, Winnemucca gave a series of highly successful lectures in San Francisco and Nevada, castigating the agents for conditions at Malheur and Yakima. That same year, she, Natchez, Old Winnemucca, and Captain Jim traveled to Washington to plead their cause to government officials. Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz authorized the release of Leggins’s band at Yakima and agreed that Paiutes could return to the Malheur reservation. Unfortunately, Schurz authorized neither provisions nor escort for the move.
In 1883 and 1884, Winnemucca gave over 300 lectures in the East, attacking corrupt agents, unfeeling missionaries, and bad government policies. While in Boston, she became close friends with Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a pioneer in kindergarten education, and her sister, Mary Tyler Mann, widow of Horace. Through their influence, Winnemucca spoke in the homes of Emerson, Whittier, and several congressmen. Among these was Senator Henry Dawes, sponsor of the 1887 General Allotment Act, which allotted Indian lands in severalty. Winnemucca and her family strongly supported this policy.
During her eastern tour, Winnemucca wrote her Life Among the Piutes, which was sold at her lectures. Largely at the instigation of Rinehart, government officials viciously attacked Winnemucca’s ethics and morals. Despite Winnemucca’s attempts to gain the Paiutes allotments on the Malheur lands, Congress failed to approve the grants. With money from Peabody and income from lectures and her book, a discouraged Winnemucca returned to Nevada to establish a school for Paiute children in 1884. That year she undertook another lecture tour in Nevada and California. After the school closed in 1887, Winnemucca settled with her sister at Henry’s Lake Idaho, where she died in 1891.
Winnemucca led a difficult and controversial life. Her many marriages bought her neither security nor support and fueled attacks on her character. In 1871, she married First Lieutenant Edward C. Bartlett, an alcoholic wastrel who quickly ran though her money. After she left Bartlett, she apparently married in the Indian custom a Native American called Jones. Two years after her divorce from Bartlett in 1876, she married Joseph Setwaller; the date of this divorce is unclear. In 1882, Winnemucca married Lieutenant Lewis H. Hopkins, a dandy who ran up large gambling debts and who in 1887 defrauded Natchez and Winnemucca’s friends of profits from a wheat harvest. He died that year from tuberculosis. Al-though Winnemucca mentions Bartlett and Hopkins in Life Among the Piutes, she does not allude to Jones and Setwaller.