Sarah Winnemucca Biography

Sarah Winnemucca

Northern Paiute lecturer, educator, and writer
Born: c. 1844
Birthplace: near Humboldt Sink, western Nevada

Sarah Winnemucca, whose Indian name was Thocmetony, or “Shell Flower,” lived during a period of dramatic change for her people and played an active role in Indian affairs during the 19th century.

Her maternal grandfather was Captain Truckee, a Northern Paiute chief who fought for Gen. John C. Frémont against Mexican control of California during the mid-1840s. Truckee welcomed the white settlers and even served as a guide for various parties crossing the Sierra Nevada. When Sarah was about six years old, he took her and her mother and sister to California, where Sarah had her first introduction to white people and white culture. Later Sarah learned English when she and her sister stayed with a white family in Mormon Station (now Genoa), Nev., and she also briefly attended a convent school in San Jose, Calif. By the time she was 14, Sarah could speak English and Spanish as well as several Indian dialects.

From 1866 to 1875, Sarah Winnemucca served as an interpreter for the military at Fort McDermitt in Nevada and at Camp Harney in Oregon. In 1871 she married her first husband, Lt. Edward C. Bartlett, whom she'd met at Fort McDermitt. However, the marriage broke up after a few years, and she rejoined her tribe at the Malheur Reservation in Oregon, where she worked as an interpreter and teacher's aid from 1875 to 1878.

Following the Bannock uprising in 1878, which also involved the Northern Paiute,Winnemucca turned activist and went on a lecture tour throughout the West to publicize the injustices suffered by the Paiutes, who were being held on the Yakima Reservation in Washington. Although her efforts did not bring about the release of the Indians or the restoration of their lands, she continued to fight for their rights in Washington, DC, where she traveled in 1880 to speak with President Rutherford Hayes and Secretary of the Interior Charles Schurz.

Between April 1883 and Aug. 1884, Winnemucca gave nearly 300 lectures in various East Coast cities such as Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Washington DC. During this period, she also came in contact with many prominent Indian advocates and sympathizers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Massachusetts senator Henry Dawes, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. With their support and encouragement, she wrote her autobiography, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883), which described the Paiutes' sufferings at the hands of corrupt white Indian agents. It is believed to be the first book published by a Native American woman. Her work helped lead to the passage of the Dawes Act (1887), which ultimately turned out to be disastrous for the Indians, although at the time it was thought to benefit them.

With Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's help, Winnemucca opened a school for Paiute children near Lovelock, Nev. (1886–1887), but it closed after two years when federal funding failed to come through. Following the breakup of her second marriage, to Lt. Lewis H. Hopkins, she moved to Idaho to be with her sister. She died at Henrys Lake, Idaho, probably from tuberculosis, at about age 47.

Died: 1891