Sarah Winnemucca

Native American Activist and Writer

Portrait of Sarah Winnemucca
Portrait of Sarah Winnemucca. Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Sarah Winnemucca Facts

Known for: working for Native American rights; published first book in English by a Native American woman 
Occupation: activist, lecturer, writer, teacher, interpreter
Dates: about 1844 - October 16 (or 17), 1891

Also known as: Tocmetone, Thocmentony, Thocmetony, Thoc-me-tony, Shell Flower, Shellflower, Somitone, Sa-mit-tau-nee, Sarah Hopkins, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins

A statue of Sarah Winnemucca is in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., representing Nevada

See also: Sarah Winnemucca Quotations - in her own words

Sarah Winnemucca Biography

Sarah Winnemucca was born about 1844 near Humboldt Lake in what was then Utah Territory and later became the U.S. state of Nevada. She was born into what were called the Northern Paiutes, whose land covered western Nevada and southeastern Oregon at the time of her birth.

In 1846, her grandfather, also called Winnemucca, joined Captain Fremont on the California campaign. He became an advocate of friendly relations with the white settlers; Sarah's father was more skeptical of the whites.

In California

Around 1848, Sarah's grandfather took some member of the Paiutes to California, including Sarah and her mother. Sarah there learned Spanish, from family members who'd intermarried with Mexicans.

When she was 13, in 1857, Sarah and her sister worked in the home of Major Ormsby, a local agent. There, Sarah added English to her languages.

Sarah and her sister were called home by their father.

Paiute War

In 1860, tensions between the whites and the Indians broke into what's been called the Paiute War. Several members of Sarah's family were killed in the violence. Major Ormsby led a group of whites in an attack on Paiutes; the whites were ambushed and killed.

A peace settlement was negotiated.

Education and Work

Soon after that, Sarah's grandfather, Winnemucca I, died and, at his request, Sarah and her sisters were sent to a convent in California. But the young women were dismissed after just days when white parents objected to the presence of Indians in the school.

By 1866, Sarah Winnemucca was putting her English skills to work as a translator for the U.S. military; that year, her services were used during the Snake war.

From 1868 to 1871, Sarah Winnemucca served as an official interpreter while 500 Paiutes lived at Fort McDonald under the protection of the military. In 1871, she married Edward Bartlett, a military officer; that marriage ended in divorce in 1876.

Malheur Reservation

Beginning in 1872, Sarah Winnemucca taught and served as an interpreter on the Malheur Reservation in Oregon, established only a few years earlier. But, in 1876, a sympathetic agent, Sam Parrish (with whose wife Sarah Winnemucca taught at a school), was replaced by another, W. V. Rinehart, who was less sympathetic to the Paiutes, holding back food, clothing and payment for work performed.  Sarah Winnemucca advocated for fair treatment of the Paiutes; Rinehart banished her from the reservation and she left.

In 1878, Sarah Winnemucca was married again, this time to Joseph Setwalker. Little is known of this marriage, which was brief.  A group of Paiutes asked her to advocate for them.

Bannock War

When the Bannock people -- another Indian community that was suffering under mistreatment by the Indian agent -- rose up, joined by the Shosone, Sarah's father refused to join the revolt. To help get 75 Paiutes including her father away from imprisonment by the Bannock, Sarah and her sister-in-law became guides and interpreters for the U.S. military, working for General O. O. Howard, and brought the people to safety across hundreds of miles.  Sarah and her sister-in-law served as scouts and helped to capture Bannock prisoners.

At the end of the war, the Paiutes expected in exchange for not joining the rebellion to return to the Malheur Reservation but, instead, many Paiutes were sent in wintertime to another reservation, Yakima, in Washington territory.

Some died on the 350-mile trek over mountains.   At the end the survivors found not the promised abundant clothing, food and lodging, but little to live on or in. Sarah's sister and others died in the months after arriving at the Yakima Reservation.

Working for Rights

So, in 1879, Sarah Winnemucca began working toward changing the conditions of Indians, and lectured in San Francisco on that topic. Soon, financed by her pay from her work for the army, she went with her father and brother to Washington, DC, to protest the removal of their people to the Yakima Reservation. There, they met with the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Shurz, who said he favored the Paiutes returning to Malheur. But that change never materialized.

From Washington, Sarah Winnemucca began a national lecture tour. During this tour, she met Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and her sister, Mary Peabody Mann (wife of Horace Mann, the educator). These two women helped Sarah Winnemucca find lecture bookings to tell her story.

When Sarah Winnemucca returned to Oregon, she began working as an interpreter at Malheur again. In 1881, for a short time, she taught at an Indian school in Washington. Then she again went lecturing in the East.

In 1882, Sarah married Lt. Lewis H. Hopkins. Unlike her previous husbands, Hopkins was supportive of her work and activism. In 1883-4 she again traveled to the East Coast, California and Nevada to lecture on Indian life and rights.

Autobiography and More Lectures

In 1883, Sarah Winnemucca published her autobiography, edited by Mary Peabody Mann, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. The book covered the years from 1844 to 1883, and documented not only her life, but the changing conditions her people lived under. She was criticized in many quarters for characterizing those dealing with Indians as corrupt.

Sarah Winnemucca's lecture tours and writings financed her buying some land and starting the Peabody School about 1884. In this school, Native American children were taught English, but they were also taught their own language and culture.

In 1888 the school closed, never having been approved or funded by the government, as hoped.

Death

In 1887, Hopkins died of tuberculosis (then called consumption). Sarah Winnemucca moved in with a sister in Nevada, and died in 1891, probably also of tuberculosis.

Background, Family:

  • Father: Winnemucca, also known as Chief Winnemucca or Old Winnemucca or Winnemucca II
  • Mother: Tuboitonie
  • Grandfather: known as "Captain Truckee" (called that by Captain Fremont)
  • Tribal affiliation: Shoshonean, commonly known as Northern Piutes or Paiutes
  • Sarah was the fourth child of her parents

Education:

  • Convent of Notre Dame, San José, briefly

Marriage:

  • husband: First Lt. Edward Bartlett (married January 29, 1871, divorced 1876)
  • husband: Joseph Satwaller (married 1878, divorced)
  • husband: Lt. L. H. Hopkins (married December 5, 1881, died October 18, 1887)

Bibliography:

  • Native American Netroots Biography
  • Native American Writers: Sarah Winnemucca
  • Gae Whitney Canfield. Sarah Winnemucca of the Northern Paiutes. 1983.
  • Carolyn Foreman. Indian Women Chiefs. 1954, 1976.
  • Katherine Gehm. Sarah Winnemucca. 1975.
  • Groover Lape, Noreen. "I Would Rather Be with My People, but Not to Live as They Live': Cultural Liminality and Double Consciousness in SarahWinnemucca Hopkins's Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims." American Indian Quarterly 22 (1998): 259- 279.
  • Doris Kloss. Sarah Winnemucca. 1981.
  • Dorothy Nafus Morrison. Chief Sarah: Sarah Winnemucca's Fight for Indian Rights. 1980.
  • Mary Frances Morrow. Sarah Winnemucca. 1992.
  • Elizabeth P. Peabody. Sarah Winnemucca's Practical Solution of the Indian Problem. 1886.
  • Elizabeth P. Peabody. The Piutes: Second Report of the Model School of Sarah Winnemucca. 1887.
  • Ellen Scordato. Sarah Winnemucca: Northern Paiute Writer and Diplomat. 1992.
  • Sarah Winnemucca, edited by Mary Tyler Peabody Mann. Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Originally published 1883.
  • Sally Zanjani. Sarah Winnemucca. 2001.
  • Frederick Douglass and Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins: Writing One's Own Identity in American Literature.  City College of New York, 2009.