Sarah Winnemucca, c. 1844-1891

  • Sarah-Winnemucca-WWP

Woman Category: Academy & Education, Literature & Poetry, and Religion & Ethnic CultureWoman Tags: Author, Educator, and Spiritual Leader

  • HerStory

    A Northern Paiute leader, negotiator, lecturer, activist, social reformer, and writer. The first Native American woman to publish a book.

    Thocmentony, “Shell Flower,” was her given name in the Northern Paiute tribe in the Humboldt Lake area in Nevada. When she was six years old, she moved with her family near Stockton, California, and, at 13, she and her sister went to live with a settler family at Carson City, Nevada as a companion for the family’s daughter. There, she established her English and adopted the name Sarah. When she returned to California two years later, she shortly attended a convent school before she was forced to leave due to complaints from parents of white students.
    During the Paiute War of 1860, Native Americans and settlers were frequently attacking one another. Winnemucca and her family members escaped to San Francisco. In the next five years, the family made a living by performing on stage as the “Paiute Royal Family.” In 1868, Winnemucca, among 500 Paiute survivors, moved to Fort McDermit military camp, where she began to use her skills as an interpreter. Three years later, the tribe relocated to the new Malheur Reservation in Oregon; there, she worked as an interpreter and as an assistant teacher at the local school.
    During the Bannock War in 1878, Winnemucca’s father, among other tribe members, had been taken hostage. She volunteered to save them and went to scout the Bannock territory. She covered more than a hundred miles before she located the Bannock camp, releasing the prisoners and gathering valuable intelligence for the US army. Afterward, she became a close associate of the commanding General, assisting with other missions that required her talents as scouter and interpreter. At the end of the war, the Paitus tribe was forced to move to the Yakama Reservation, suffering neglect and deprivation. Outraged by the reservation conditions, for the next five years, Winnemucca advocated and delivered hundreds of speeches regarding the injustice against Native Americans. She campaigned for the cause wherever she could, addressing army officers, senators, and legislators and securing thousands of signatures for a petition granting reservation lands for the Native Americans. Sadly, her efforts were fruitless.
    During her lecturing tour, she met Elizabeth Peabody and Mary Peabody Mann, who encouraged her to assemble her speeches into a book. In 1883, she published her autobiography “Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” becoming the first Native American woman to publish a book and the first to secure her copyright registration in the US. Her writings were a rare and valuable description of the life of the Northern Paiute and the white settlers impacted them.
    In 1884, at the age of 40, Winnemucca returned to live in Nevada, where she and her brother established a school for Paiute children, teaching them Native American culture and languages. Three years later, the school was shut down due to an act that ruled that Native children can only study in English schools managed by settlers. In 1887, after her second husband died, Winnemucca moved to live with her sister in Henry’s Lake, Idaho. She passed away four years later at the age of 47.

    “Be kind to bad and good, for you don’t know your own heart”

    “Be kind to bad and good, for you don’t know your own heart”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • Both her father and grandfather were Paiute chiefs.
    • From childhood, she spoke three Indigenous dialects as well as English and Spanish.
    • The town of Winnemucca, Nevada, was named after her father.
    • A statue of her was contributed in 2005 by the state of Nevada to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol.
    • She was married twice, and there are no records if she had kids.
    • The Sarah Winnemucca Elementary school in Washoe County, Nevada, is named in her honor.
    • October 16th (the day she died in 1891) was declared as Sarah Winnemucca Day in Nevada.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * Inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame (1993)
    * Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1994)

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Sarah Winnemucca: The Dream Fulfilled

    Exploring Nevada: Sarah Winnemucca, The Dream Fulfilled.
    The Sarah Winnemucca statue project from its beginnings with the Nevada Women's History Project, through the dedication ceremony at the National Statuary Hall on March 9, 2005 to the Carson City dedication on April 6, 2005. Includes an interview with the artist, Benjamin Victor.

  • Winnemucca's statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol. Photo credit - WWP team