Sarah Winnemucca Author and Activist

Sarah Winnemucca (c.1844 - c.1891) Author and Activist

Sarah Winnemucca was the daughter of Chief Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute People and granddaughter of Chief Truckee who guided John C. Fremont during his 1843 to 1845 expedition across the Great Basin to California. Her Paiute name was Thocmetony, which means shellflower, and when or why she chose the name Sarah is not documented.

Winnemucca developed a great skill for learning languages and because of her grandfather’s relationship with the Fremonts, she soon became one of the few Paiutes of her time to read, write and speak English. She is also the first Native American woman known to secure a copyright and to publish in the English language. Her book, Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883), is an autobiographical account of her people during their first 40 years of contact with explorers and settlers.

Her language skills also enabled her to work as an interpreter and a translator for the U.S. Army and for the government agencies at the reservations. In 1878, when the Bannock Indians revolted and were being pursued by the U.S. Army under the command of General Oliver Howard, Winnemucca volunteered for a dangerous mission. When she discovered that her father was among a group of captives held by the Bannocks, she entered Bannock territory and led the captives away to army protection in a three-day ride over more than 200 miles of rugged terrain. For this and other notable acts, she was named Chief of her tribe.

She was married to Lieutenant Edward C. Bartlett and later to Lewis H. Hopkins, an Indian Department employee, who helped her write her book. She spent most of her adult life calling public attention to the terrible treatment of Native Americans under United States government policies and lobbied Congress to improve conditions for her people on the reservation they had been forced to occupy. She traveled, wrote extensively and delivered more than 300 speeches before both European American and Native American audiences on the difficult situation facing the Paiutes and other Indian nations. Because of her visibility, she gained audiences with President Rutherford B. Hayes and Interior Secretary Carl Schurz; those meetings led to the passage of congressional legislation enabling the return of Paiute land. Unfortunately, that legislation was never enforced. In 1883, she retired from public activity. (The photograph was obtained from Nevada Historical Society, 79.)