Over the years her exploits became legendary. As an example, in 1878, she worked as a messenger, scout and interpreter for General O. O. Howard during the Bannock War. Compared to the battles waged against the Sioux, the Apache and the Comanche, it was more a skirmish than a war.
Still there were a series of pitched bloody battle, and in the thick of it was an incredible woman that had become known as Sarah Winnemucca. She later said, quote, “This was the hardest work I ever did for the government in all my life … having been in the saddle night and day; distance, about two hundred and twenty-three miles. Yes, I went for the government when the officers could not get an Indian man or a white man to go for love or money. I, only an Indian woman, went and saved my people.” Her courageous actions landed her on the front page of The New York Times and made her the subject of dime novels.
At birth she was given the name Thocmentony that loosely translated as Shell Flower. She was born sometime around 1844 into the Numa tribe known by their American name, the Northern Paiute. As a manifestation of mid-19th century bigotry they were called digger Indians.
Her childhood years were spent in seasonal migrations with her people through what is today northern Nevada, southern Idaho, and eastern Oregon. Learned over the course of centuries were ways of survival in the harsh and unforgiving land. The tribe gathered herbs and plants, dried them to sustain the people through the months of winter, fished in lakes and streams, and hunted deer and other game. These people had also developed a rich culture.
By the time she was born the Numa people had learned to fear and avoid the strangers with their horses, wagons, and rifles. But within a few short years the stream of strangers became a torrent, and it became increasingly difficult to avoid contact and confrontations. Increasingly the Paiutes were hearing horror stories about the killing of the people and tales of whites fasting on the dead. The latter was most likely rooted in accounts rooted of the Donner party.
These stories terrified Winnemucca and the children in the tribe. One morning word spread quickly that white men were coming, and her tribe fled in fear. Winnemucca later recounted the incident and said that her mother had ran while carrying a baby and pulling her by the hand. Desperation led several mothers including hers to hide their older children by partially burying them in the ground and covering the site with brush. After dark the mothers returned for their frightened children. It was a traumatic experience Winnemucca never forgot.
Her maternal grandfather, a tribal leader known as Truckee, had traveled with John Fremont and other Paiutes to California. Upon his return he had attempted to ease tribal fears. But the attack on the tribe that led to the children being hidden, and the burning of the tribe’s winter stores that led to months of starvation, marked the end of nomadic life for the Paiute.
In the spring of 1850, Truckee, with a letter of commendation given him by Fremont, sought assistance in California. The letter from Fremont, and the kindness of strangers, led to the refugees including several dozen members of the tribe, Winnemucca, her mother, and siblings being gifted with food and clothing.
At first Winnemucca hid from the strangers they met. She acted the mute and refused to speak or look at them. She longed for home, for her former life, and was still carrying the memory of the horrible attack on her tribe. Her transition began after she fell sick and was nursed back to health by a white woman.
From an early age Winnemucca had displayed a gift for learning languages. She was fluent in several Native American dialects and languages. In California she soon became proficient in English as well as Spanish. The bilingual talents served her well when she, her mother and her sisters began working in the houses of white and Spanish families. It was while working in the home of Major William M. Ormsby, a trader, that she was taught to sew and to cook, as well as read and write English.
In 1859, land was set aside near Pyramid Lake for a Paiute reservation. Winnemucca, her family, and the northern Paiute tribes were forced onto the lands allotted them. They were expected to adapt to an “American” lifestyle and become farmers. But this was a dry, arid landscape and the Paiute were given little training and few supplies. Winter starvation and disease became pandemic in the tribe.
After that harsh winter, Winnemucca with her language proficiency began petitioning the military at Nevada’s Camp McDermit for assistance. Her success was made manifest in early spring when wagonloads of supplies were finally sent to the reservation. Her fluency with English, and ability to serve as a tribal representative, landed her employment as an interpreter. So, her father and survivors of their band moved to the military camp.
But increasingly Winnemucca found herself in an odd limbo. The Americans did not fully trust her, and many openly expressed their prejudices. The Paiute and other tribes questioned her motives, and many felt that she was a traitor. But she was undaunted. She tirelessly worked to get better treatment for the Paiute and other tribes, and to get tribes to embrace the education needed for them to adapt to the new world and survive.
The Bannock War ended badly for the Paiutes and other northwestern tribes. In 1879, military leaders forced the Paiutes at Camp McDermit to march more than 350 miles in winter to the Yakama reservation in Washington territory. Winnemucca was devastated; she had promised the Paiutes they would be all right if they followed military orders.
In Yakama, Winnemucca worked as an interpreter. She argued openly with the reservation agent, and wrote letters and petitioned government leaders. In the winter of 1880, Winnemucca accompanied her father and other Paiute leaders to Washington, D.C., to meet with the secretary of the interior, Charles Schurz. She gave interviews and her stature and recognition grew. The meeting went well and they succeeded in obtaining a letter allowing the Paiutes to return to Malheur at Pyramid Lake. Incredibly the Yakama agent defied orders refused to let them return to Pyramid Lake.
This inspired Winnemucca to escalate her fight for reform. When petitions, meetings and letters failed to improve conditions for the Paiutes, she began lecturing in San Francisco and throughout California dramatizing the plight of reservation Indians. She worked to convey a carefully curated version of the “Indian princess” to various crowds, and she often wore native dress. She described the abuses of reservation agents, and they fought back by branding her in editorials by actually using words like whore, drunkard, and thief.
In 1883, sisters Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Mary Peabody Mann, educators, and members of the Transcendentalist movement, invited her to lecture in New York and New England. The Peabody sisters also arranged for the publication of Winnemucca’s book Life Among the Paiutes, the very first book written by a Native American woman. On the lecture circuit Winnemucca spoke at hundreds of events and receptions. A reporter for The Daily Silver State wrote, “The lecture was unlike anything ever before heard in the civilized world—eloquent, pathetic, tragical 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.”
Winnemucca married several times, lost a husband to tuberculosis, vigorously lectured, and continued to campaign for Native American rights, and to encourage native peoples to become educated. On October 16, 1891, Winnemucca died at the home of her sister Elma at Henry’s Lake, Idaho, probably of tuberculosis. General Oliver Otis Howard said of Winnemucca’s Army career, “She did our government great service, and if I could tell you but a tenth part of all she willingly did to help the white settlers and her own people to live peaceably together, I am sure you would think, as I do, that the name of Winnemucca should have a place beside the name of Pocahontas in the history of our country.”
Winnemucca died believing that she had failed to make the changes she worked for, but this isn’t true. The book she wrote in 1883, was republished in 1969 and remains an important source book on the history and culture of the Paiutes. In Nevada, on the McDermit Indian Reservation, there is a historical marker, erected in 1971, honoring Sarah Winnemucca with the words “she was a believer in the brotherhood of mankind.”
And that is why she remains an inspirational figure for people throughout the world. She endured, she persevered, and she never grew tired of trying to encourage people to put aside prejudices, to work together, and to build a better world.
Winnemucca was featured on a week long series about inspirational people on the Wake Up With Jim live stream podcast. The podcasts and archived programs are a part of the multifaceted Jim Hinckley’s America network.