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Wild Women Of The West: Sarah Winnemucca

Paiute Princess.

October 29, 2019

In the history of the Indians, she and Pocahontas will be the principal female characters, and her singular devotion to her race will no doubt be chronicled as an illustration of the better traits of the Indian character. 

San Francisco Call, January 1885

The Bannock War and the Army

Territorial Enterprise, June 5, 1878:  We copy the subjoined article from the Winnemucca Silver State:

There is no longer any doubt of the uprising of the Bannock Indians.  Another war has been inaugurated in Idaho which may prove much more serious than that of the last year, as the Bannocks are far more numerous and range through a larger extent of the territory than the Nez Perces.  Troops have been ordered to the scene of hostilities from Walla Walla and Camp Harney, and the cavalry at Halleck have orders to be ready to march at a moment’s notice.

Sarah Winnemucca brooded over the abandoned houses along the dusty track.  She and her small party had departed the John Day Valley in the eastern Oregon Territory three days before.  They were on the way to Silver City, Idaho, where Sarah would drop off her passengers before heading for Elko, Nevada.  There she intended to take a train to Washington, D. C., and attempt to tell President Rutherford B. Hayes that her people were starving, the Indian agents were crooked, and none of the promises to the Paiute had been kept.  On June 8, three days after the war was reported in the Enterprise, Sarah was unknowingly headed straight for the heart of the battle.  “We saw houses standing all along the road without anybody living in them,” Sarah later wrote in her book Life Among the Piutes [sic].

On June 12, they met Paiute Joe on the road and learned the dreadful news.  “He said the Bannock Indians were just killing everything that came in their way, and he told us to get to a place called Stone House.  That was the first I heard that the Bannocks were on the warpath.” She also learned that there was no one the Bannocks would love to kill more than Chief Winnemucca’s daughter.

When the Bannock War broke out, Sarah was thirty-four years old, daughter of the highly respected Paiute chief Winnemucca and granddaughter of old Chief Truckee, who first met Captain John Fremont and his explorers and guided them over the Sierra Mountains.  Truckee had for years considered white people the long-lost brothers of Indians and always counseled peace despite increasing violence by whites against his people and the outright theft of Paiute lands in Nevada Territory.

Now it appeared the Paiutes were caught in a vise between their northern neighbors in Idaho and Oregon, the Bannock Indians, and the increasing number of settlers pushing them out of their tribal lands in Nevada.  Also known as the Snake Indians, the Bannocks were superb horsemen, tall and lean. They dressed in fringed buckskin decorated with quills, scalps, and red, yellow, and black paint and wore a single eagle feather or a headdress made of trimmed horse tail or porcupine skin.  Their enemies considered them the most savage and bloodthirsty of all the Indians west of the Mississippi, but they had been relatively peaceful until driven to rebellion.

Territorial Enterprise, June 11, 1878:  General [O. O.] Howard says the Government has not kept faith with the Bannocks, and [General] Crook believes they have been starved into insurrection.

On June 12, 1878, Major Edwin Mason, attached to General Howard’s command, wrote to his wife from Boise, Idaho, that military forces would quickly crush the Bannocks.  “We are of the opinion that it is only a big spree among the Indians and that a month’s good work will knock the bottom out of it.”

As Mason headed cheerfully down the trail from Boise, eighty miles as the crow flies, Sarah’s small group and Paiute Joe galloped into Stone House, just over the border in eastern Oregon.  They were accompanied by approximately twenty scouts. Joe reportedly explained the situation: “The Bannocks are all out fighting. They are killing everything and everybody, Indians and whites, and I and two of my people went with these men to South Mountain to fight them, and we came on to Buffalo Horn’s camp and had a fight with them.”  Paiute Joe, though wounded, managed to kill Buffalo Horn, then jumped on his horse and escaped.

Sarah instantly dropped plans to go to Washington, D. C.  Instead, in the hope of aiding a peace effort, she offered her services as interpreter to the army.  The offer was greeted with great suspicion. Citizens at Stone House believed her wagon was loaded with ammunition intended for the Bannocks.  Even the soldiers who arrived with Captain Reuben Bernard “looked at me as if I were some fearful beast.” She spent the night locked inside the hotel, while citizens armed with rifles watched the wagon.  The next morning, she demanded Bernard search it. “Go and see for yourself, Captain,” she cried, “and if you find anything in my wagon besides a knife and fork and a pair of scissors I will give you my head for your football.”

Bernard believed her and realized she could be an asset to the army.  Although only about five feet tall, she rode a horse as well as any man he had seen, even when seated sidesaddle when she wished to show she was a lady.  Her training as a youngster had included a stint in a California school as well as residence in the household of a Nevada family where she learned to read and write.  That training had been put to good use at the Malheur Reservation where her people had been removed, but she’d been fired from her job and banished for reporting the Indian agent’s theft of blankets and the starvation rations he provided for her people.  Those trials and others had motivated her now aborted attempts to seek justice in Washington.

Worried about her family, Sarah waited to hear the latest news of the war.  When a dispatch arrived at Stone House from Camp McDermitt, Sarah volunteered to take the news to Sheep Ranch, some thirty miles away.  Garbed in a riding habit and riding sidesaddle, Sarah and a small escort galloped across the sage-covered hills. As they neared the encampment, they saw a man on the road ahead.  Apparently believing the Natives meant to attack the man first ran then turned to shoot. Fortunately, Sarah and her party were able to reach Sheep Ranch safely. There she was asked to get the Paiute with her to carry a message to Camp Harney or the Malheur Agency to discover the whereabouts of the Bannock.

The request was greeted with uneasiness and brought even more bad news from Paiute Joe.  “Sarah, we will do anything we can for the officers and you; we will go with dispatches anywhere but to the hostile Bannocks; we cannot go to them, for, Sarah, you don’t know what a danger that is.”  Sarah knew if the Indians accepted the mission, they could easily be killed. Then, a stunning revelation from the scouts: “Sarah, your brother Natchez was killed, or is dead.”

Despite her fear that this awful news might be true, Sarah told Captain Bernard she would do her best to accomplish the mission, even if she had to go alone.  Bernard wrote a letter of safe passage: “To all good citizens of the country–Sarah Winnemucca, with two of her people, goes with a dispatch to her father. If her horses should give out, help her all you can.”

Territorial Enterprise, June 13, 1878:  It is now conceded that the uprising is almost universal among the Bannocks, and that all the military forces of the Division of the Pacific will be required to subdue the savages.

With two men at her side, Sarah galloped off toward the crossing of the Owyhee River.  A mile beyond the crossing, they struck the Bannocks’ trail. “We followed it down the river as much as fifteen miles, and then we came to the place where they had camped, and where they had been weeping, and where they had cut their hair.  So we knew that it was hereabout that Buffalo Horn had been killed.” Trying not to think about the fate of her brother Natchez, Sarah continued on the trail.

“We rode very hard all day long–did not stop to rest all that day.  The country was very rocky and no water. We had traveled about fifty miles that day.  Now it was getting dark, but we rode on. It was very difficult for us to travel fast, for our horses almost fell over sometimes.”

The two men and Sarah stopped for the night, eating a little hard bread with no water.  She lay down to sleep, but kept waking up when the horse she’d tethered to her arm kept pulling on the reins.  At dawn they were off again across the Barren Valley, heading for a ranch where there would be water and food. From a distance, they saw the smoke.

The house, still smoldering, had been burned to the ground.  They made coffee in a scorched tin can, but Sarah refused to kill and eat any of the loose chickens; they belonged to the absent rancher.  The men considered themselves under her command, and she determined to continue on the trail of the Natives headed toward Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon.  It was sixty miles to the nearest settlement.

Silver City, Idaho, June 14, 1878:  There is general joy here at the prospect of General Crook coming to take a hand in putting down the Indian rebellion.  He is very popular in Idaho. Ten whites have thus far been killed by the Bannocks.

The same day, galloping across the barren, sage-covered hillsides, Sarah unexpectedly met Lee, another of her brothers.  “The minute he rode up he jumped from his horse and took me in his arms,” Sarah wrote. Lee said their father, Chief Winnemucca, and their people were prisoners of the Bannocks, who had taken their few guns and all their horses.  “Have you brought us some good news?” Lee asked, and then realized everyone was in great danger as they stood talking. “The Bannocks are out in the mountains, looking out. Take off your hat and your dress and unbraid your hair, and put this blanket round you, so if they should come down they would not know who it is.”  All three disguised themselves as Bannocks, although that put them in danger from the military and the settlers.

Then Sarah asked the location of her father; she still had the message from General Howard to deliver to him.  “Oh, dear sister, you will be killed if you go there, for our brother Natchez made his escape three days ago.” Delighted to hear that her brother was alive after all, Sarah did not tarry though she rode straight into grave danger.  “I must save my father and his people even if I lose my life in trying to do it,” she told Lee.

Climbing a steep mountain, sometimes on hands and knees, they reached the top and looked down into the Bannock encampment.  It was a thrilling yet terrifying sight. About 327 lodges and 425 warriors were in the valley. “The place looked like it was all alive and filled with hostile Bannocks.  I began to feel a little afraid.” Nevertheless, Sarah concocted a plan to get inside the camp, warn Chief Winnemucca and the other Paiutes from the Malheur Agency, and get them all away to the promised safety of General Howard’s troops.

Racing down the mountain under as much cover as could be found they infiltrated the Bannock camp and stole into the tents of the Paiute prisoners.  Later, they put Sarah’s plan into play. While the Bannocks were busy butchering cattle for an evening feast, the women left the lodges as though to gather wood, and then disappeared.  The men slipped out one by one, until only Sarah, her father, Lee, and some Winnemucca cousins remained in the lodge. As darkness fell, they, too, slipped away.

Fearful of discovery, they hurried away from the encampment.  Now that she had accomplished her purpose Sarah’s strength finally wavered.  “It was like a dream. I could not get along at all. I almost fell down at every step, my father dragging me along.  Oh, how my heart jumped when I heard a noise nearby.”

The noise was her sister-in-law Mattie, hiding in the brush with a horse.  Reunited, the small band left the mountain and met the other Paiutes at Juniper Lake, where the women were cooking a mountain sheep cached there the day before when Sarah and the two men had ascended the mountain.  Eating on the run, they rode all night and reached Summit Springs. Sarah had barely laid down to rest when an alarm sounded. A man arrived, his horse nearly foundering under him, to give the warning: The Bannock were right behind.  “I looked back,” said the messenger, “and saw Lee running, and they firing at him. I think he is killed. Oytes [the Bannock chief] is at the head of this. I heard him say to the Bannocks, ‘Go quickly, bring Sarah’s head and her father’s too.  I will show Sarah who I am.’ “

The next morning, June 15, Sarah and Mattie separated from the family.  They galloped toward General Howard, at least seventy-five miles away over rough, dry country.  Chief Winnemucca and his band remained behind to try to save Lee and the others. Her father had asked Sarah to tell Howard to send soldiers to protect the Paiutes who had refused to go to war.

By one o’clock, Sarah and Mattie had reached Muddy Creek where they watered the horses and ate some white currants growing on the banks.  At three o’clock, they reached the crossing at Owyhee River, where people gave them coffee and hard bread while fresh horses were saddled.  “We jumped on our horses again, and I tell you we made our time count going fifteen miles to the Sheep Ranch. We whipped our horses every step of the way until we were met by the officers.”

They encountered some disbelief, but finally General Howard ordered a force of men to meet Chief Winnemucca and bring him in.  “This was the hardest work I ever did for the government in all my life – the whole round trip from 10 o’clock, June 13, up to June 15, arriving back at 5:30 P.M., having been in the saddle night and day; distance about two hundred twenty-three miles.”

Sunday morning, June 16, General Howard asked Sarah to join him as interpreter and guide.  Sarah agreed but was “mad as could be” because she wanted to turn around and go after the Bannocks who had imprisoned her family.  Howard gave general field orders from Sheep Ranch directing all the forces available toward Steens Mountain: “The enemy is reported in large force.  The columns will move with usual military precautions to scout the country and avoid ambuscades.”

Sarah and Mattie acted as scouts with Captain Bernard’s forces as they traveled toward Camp Lyon and from there to Malheur City.  Before they reached the town, news came on June 19 that the Bannocks had abandoned Steens Mountain for Harney Valley. Captain Bernard was hard on their ponies’ heels.

“Later in the evening General Howard and Lieutenant Wilkinson came to us again and said, ‘Well, Sarah, what do you think about going?’ ”  Once again she agreed to carry a dispatch to Bernard despite danger from both frightened settlers and raiding Indians. With a couple of soldiers as escort, they set out on the morning of the twentieth for Camp Harney, 120 miles away.  The small party did not stop to eat until dark and then traveled all night long. They arrived at Camp Harney at ten o’clock the following morning.  “Oh, how tired I was!  Mattie and I went to bed without anything to eat.”  They awoke to learn Captain Bernard had finally engaged the enemy.

Silver City, Idaho  June 27: In the recent attack of Captain Bernard’s command upon the hostile forces, the force of the latter is said to have been 1,000 warriors.  The Indians were not aware of the presence of the soldiers, and their stock was unguarded.  Bernard addressed his troops, informing them that they were very close by the enemy and could whip them.  He charged them not to retreat, as, if they did, they would be shot and they might as well die by shots fired by the savages as by their own men.

By one o’clock on the morning of June 24, Bernard had chased the Bannocks another ten miles.  General Howard arrived later, along with other troops. Sarah and Mattie followed, once again as guides and interpreters.  At one point, the volunteers saw what they thought was a large force of Natives on the hills. Sarah disagreed and said there was no danger.  Finally, troopers scaled the heights and discovered exactly what Sarah had said would be there: rocks piled to look like people waiting to conduct an ambush.

The twenty-ninth of June saw them high in the mountains, where it snowed all day.  The cavalry pursued Bannocks down the canyon of the John Day River while Howard and his wagons lumbered behind, slipping and sliding down steep slopes.  Continuing the march, Howard’s forces reached Pilot Rock on the Camas Prairie. After studying the terrain, Sarah explained that the hostile Indians were in perfect position for a quick escape, but no one listened.

She was right again.  Major Edwin Mason told his wife in a letter dated July 8, “We had a lively fight today.”  Mason went on to praise Bernard’s expertise. “I have rarely seen men handled in better style.  They moved to the attack without a moment’s hesitation, firing as they advanced, leading their horses up the steep and rocky hill without a particle of cover, for the country is treeless.”  However, the Bannock escaped into the forest at their backs, as Sarah had predicted.

“I knew they would go into the timber and get away, and this I told the General, but he would not believe it.”  Nor did he believe her when she said the Bannocks would double back through the Blue Mountains to the Malheur Agency.  That was exactly what happened, and Howard was soon bogged down in the most treacherous terrain possible. The canyon route they followed was 1,200 feet deep, nearly perpendicular, with the North Fork of the John Day River thundering at the bottom.  They slid down the trail to the riverbank and crossed the rushing stream, then climbed the opposite side, leading the horses, “the ascent being so steep that several of our pack animals fell over backwards into the stream and were lost,” Sarah later wrote.  One skirmish resulted in the death of a courier by a different band of Natives led by Chief Homeli:

Baker City, Oregon, July 17:  Chief Homely [sic] with his band of Indians fought hostiles on the 15th instant, killing Chief Egan and have his scalp and head.

“Oh, I saw the most fearful thing during the summer’s campaign,” Sarah reported.  “Poor Egan, who was not for war, was most shamefully murdered by Umatilla Indians.  He was cut in pieces by them, and his head taken to the officers, and Dr. Fitzgerald boiled it to get the skull to keep.”  Sarah mentioned the atrocities in her book but always returned to the tale of her march with the army. She and Mattie accompanied General Forsythe on a rambling, 150-mile circuit, picking up small parties of hostiles.

When they neared Camp McDermitt, Sarah felt the strong pull of family.  She talked Forsythe into allowing her to leave, and, though she wanted to go alone, by night, Forsythe insisted she take three men.  At six o’clock they departed, riding all night long. Just at daybreak, Sarah raced ahead to the camp where she found her brother Natchez and her father, who held her with tears running down his face.  “Oh, my poor child! I thought I would never see you, for the papers said you were killed by the Bannocks.”

By August, the war was just about over.  Sarah made long, hot rides for General Howard, who commended her loyalty.  Nevertheless, it was Howard who ordered all the Paiutes at Malheur to the Yakama Reservation in Washington, beyond the Columbia River, far from Winnemucca’s original lands in northern Nevada.  For the first time, Sarah disobeyed orders. Instead of rounding up Indians to bring back to the camp, she warned them away, but it was too little, and far too late. In December 1878, Sarah and her people began the 350-mile trek to Yakama.  Screaming women and children unwilling to march were tossed into wagons; men, shackled by chains, walked through the snow.

February 2, 1879, they arrived in Yakama where they were quartered in a cattle shed.  The snow was waist deep. The Yakama people resented the Paiutes, stole their horses, and threatened the children.  The Indian agent described the Paiutes as some of the most destitute of any he had seen, some being literally naked, but he did little more than pray for them.  As her people died in the harsh conditions, Sarah was filled with grief. Once more she was persuaded to act on their behalf.

Earning money by lecturing on traditions of her people and speaking eloquently of the conditions they now endured, Sarah raised money for another journey to Washington, D. C.  The trip to tell the president of her people’s troubles that had been interrupted by the news of the Bannock uprising was resumed. In the winter of 1879-80, she traveled with her father to the nation’s capital where she met with President Hayes and secured promises of better treatment for her people.

Promises easily broken.

They were assured that they could return, at their own expense, to Malheur Reservation.  Unfortunately in 1881, permission to depart was denied by Yakama agent James H. Wilbur, the “blue sky” agent who looked toward heaven and prayed while the Paiute’s blankets were stolen right off their slumbering forms.

“Knowing the temper of the people through whom they must pass, still smarting from the barbarities of war two years previous, and that the Paiutes,  utterly destitute of everything, must subsist themselves on their route by pillage, I refused permission for them to depart,” Wilbur reported. Five years later, many of the Paiutes still remained at the Yakama Reservation, unable to get the money or the permission to leave.

Despite betrayal after betrayal, for the rest of her life Sarah worked for her people.  She married William Hopkins but was later divorced. She lectured across the nation, started a school for Indian children, and wrote the first book ever penned by a Native woman, Life Among the Piutes, Their Wrongs and Claims, [sic] published first in 1883.

The original editor of the book, Mary Peabody Mann, noted that Sarah’s speeches were extraordinarily moving, but it was her goal to set down in writing the full story.  “It is the first outbreak of the American Indian in human literature, and it has a single aim–to tell the truth as it lies in the heart of a true patriot, and one whose knowledge of the two races gives her an opportunity of comparing them justly.”

SARAH WINNEMUCCA

The Death of a Noted Indian Woman, With a Sketch of her Somewhat Interesting Life.

Bozeman Chronicle, October 28, 1891:  Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, well known in this country, after eating a hearty meal on Tuesday, the 17th, suddenly expired in great pain.  This was at Henry’s Lake, one hundred and twenty miles away from Bozeman, and almost as far away from a doctor.  As a result, the nature of the disease which carried this notable woman away, is not, and may never be known.

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