Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims
By Sarah Winnemucca, Ed. Mrs. Horace Mann
Boston: Privately printed, 1883

As a Piute, Sarah Winnemucca was already in the Nevada Territory when Sam Clemens arrived there in 1861. By the 1870s she had become an active and articulate witness against the wrongs and misunderstandings inflicted on Native Americans. Her autobiography, one of the first written by an Indian, attempts to give white readers in the east a Piute perspective on Indian culture and the history of their interactions with the steadily growing white population out west.


I will now stop writing about myself and family and tribe customs, and tell about the wars, and the causes of the wars. I will jump over about six years. My sister and I were living at this time in Genoa with Major Ormsbey's family, who took us as playmates for their little girl. While with them we learned the English language very fast, for they were very kind to us. This was in the year 1858, I think; I am not sure. In that year our white brothers had their houses all along Carson River. There were twenty-one houses there in our country. I know all the names of the people that lived in them. One man who was on the upper part of Carson River was Mr. Olds; the next man by the name of Palmer had a family. The third one, by the name of Job, also had a family. Another family was named Walters; another man, whose name was Dr. Daggett, had no family; nor had the next one, whose name was Van Sickle. The next one had more than one family; he had two wives, and his name was Thornton. The man who lived in the next house had still more wives. There were two brothers; one had three wives, and the other five. Their name was Reuse. The next man was named Nott, and had no family. The next house had three brothers, named Sides, with no families. The next was named Gilbert, and had no family. The next was named Alridge, and had a family. Then came our friend, Major Ormsbey. Next came Adams and brothers, who had no wives. Then Jones and family, Miller and family; Brown, with no family; Elsey, with no family; Mr. Ellis and family; Williams brothers, no family; Mr. Cole and family; Mr. Black and family at Humboldt Lake. All these white people were loved by my people; we lived there together, and were as happy as could be. There was no stealing, no one lost their cattle or horses; my People had not learned to steal. We lived that way in peace for another year; our white brothers gave my People guns for their horses in the way of trading; yet my people never said, "We want you to give us something for our land." Now, there were a great many of our white brothers everywhere through our country, and mines or farms here and there. The Mormons came in a great many wagons and settled down in Carson Valley, where now stands the great Carson City, as it is called. The following year, 1859, we were yet living with Major Ormsbey, and mother and father were down at Pyramid Lake with all our people, so sister and I were all alone there with our dear good friend, Major Ormsbey.

Late that fall there happened a very sad thing, indeed. A white man who was dearly beloved by my people started for California to get provisions for the winter, as they all did every winter. Mr. McMullen took a great deal of money to lay in large supplies, for they had a store about thirty miles down Carson River. Two of them, MacWilliams and McMullen, went off the same night, and camped in the mountains. Some one came in the night and killed them both, and after they had shot them with guns or pistols, they placed arrows in the wounds to make it appear as if Indians had killed them. The next day news came in that Indians had killed John McMullen. They were asked how they knew that Indians had killed him, and they answered, --

"We know, because it was done with arrows."

That same afternoon thirty men went to get the dead bodies of the two men. They brought them in, and the arrows too. Of course everybody said it was the Indians that killed them. My brother, Natchez, and our cousin, who was called young Winnemucca, and one hundred others were sent for. In two days' time they came. My brother was then peace-chief. Major Ormsbey asked if he knew what tribe of Indians those arrows belonged to. My cousin told his white brothers the arrows belonged to the Washoes. So our good father Major Ormsbey said to my brother, --

"Will you help us to get the Washoe chief to come in and give up the men who killed the two white men?" My brothers said they would help to find the men that killed poor John McMullen. So that evening my people had what they call a war-dance, the first one I had ever seen. A great many white men and women came to see them, and Lizzie Ormsbey kept saying, "Where is Natchez?" He was dressed up so we did not know him. The white people staid until it was all over, and when it was all over the Major called his men and said, --

"We will sing the Star-spangled Banner."

It was not a bit like the way my grandfather used to sing it, and that was the first time I had heard it sung by the white people.

My cousin was the war-chief. He sent five men to bring in the Washoe chief. The next morning they came in with about ten Washoes. As soon as they came in the white men gathered round them. Major Ormsbey showed the arrows, and asked them if they knew them. The Washoe chief, who is called Jam, said, "You ask me if these are my people's arrows. I say yes." Major Ormsbey said, --

"That is enough." He said to my brother Natchez, --

"Tell Captain Jam that his people have killed two men, and he must bring the men and all the money, and they shall not be hurt, and all will be right." The Washoe chief said, --

"I know my people have not killed the men, because none of my men have been away; we are all at Pine-nut Valley, and I do not know what to think of the sad thing that has happened."

"But here are your arrows, and you cannot say anything," said my cousin, the war-chief. "We will give you ten days to bring the men who killed our two white brothers, and if you do not we shall have to fight you, for they have been so kind to us all. Who could have the heart to kill them? Now go and bring in the men."

Poor, poor Washoes, they went away with very sad hearts. After they left brother talked with all his men, and asked them what they thought about it. They all said it was very strange, indeed; time would tell whether they killed them or not. Six days after, the Washoe chief came in with three prisoners. One of the prisoners had a wife, the other two had none, but their mothers came with them. The white men gathered round them and put handcuffs on them to lock them up in a small house for the night. Next morning all the white people came to see them. Some said, "Hang the red devils right off," and the white boys threw stones at them, and used most shameful language to them. At about three o'clock in the afternoon came thirty-one white men, all with guns on their shoulders, and as they marched along my brother and cousin ran to meet them. One Washoe woman began to scream, "Oh, they have come to kill them!" How they did cry! One could hear the poor things miles away. My brother went to them and told them not to cry.

"Oh, dear chieftain, they did not kill the white men,--indeed they did not. They have not been away from our camp for over a month. None of our men were away, and our chief has given these three young men because they have no fathers." One of the young girls said, --

"You who are the mighty chieftain, save my poor brother, for he is all mother and I have to hunt for us. Oh, believe us. He is as innocent as you are. Oh, tell your white brothers that what we tell you is true as the sun rises and sets;" and one woman ran to my cousin, the war-chief, and threw herself down at his feet and cried out, "Oh, you are going to have my poor husband killed. We were married this winter, and I have been with him constantly since we were married. Oh, Good Spirit, come! Oh, come into the hearts of this people. Oh, whisper in their hearts that they may not kill my poor husband! Oh, good chief, talk for him. Our cruel chief has given my husband to you because he is afraid that all of us will be killed by you," and she raised up her head and said to the Washoe chief, "You have given my innocent blood to save your people." Then my brother said to the Washoes, "These white men have come to take the three Washoe men who killed John McMullen and MacWilliams to California to put them in jail."

Just then one of the women cried out, "Look there, they have taken them out. See, they are taking them away." We were all looking after them, and before brother got near them the three prisoners broke and ran. Of course they were shot. Two were wounded, and the third ran back with his hands up. But all of them died.

Oh, such a scene I never thought I should see! At daybreak all the Washoes ran to where they were killed. The wife of the young man threw herself down on his dead body. Such weeping was enough to make the very mountains weep to see them. They would take the dead bodies in their arms, and they were all bloody themselves. I ran to Mrs. Ormsbey crying. I thought my poor heart would break. I said to her, "I believe those Washoe women. They say their men are all innocent. They say they were not away from their camp for a long time, and how could they have been the men that killed the white men?" I told her all I had heard the women say, and I said I believed them. Mrs. Ormsbey said, --

"How came the Washoe arrows there? and the chief himself has brought them to us, and my husband knows what he is doing."

I ran back to see what they were going to do with the dead bodies, as I had heard my people say that the Washoes were like the Digger Indians, who burn their dead. When I got there the Washoe chief was talking to my brother. I did not know what he said before I came, but I know from what I heard that he had been making confession. He said, pointing down to the men that were innocently killed, --

"It is true what the women say,--it is I who have killed them. Their blood is on my hands. I know their spirits will haunt me, and give me bad luck while I live."

This was what the Washoe chief said to my brother. The one that was wounded also died, and the sister and the mother it was dreadful to see. The mother cried out, --

"Oh, may the Good Spirit send the same curse upon you ! You may all live to see the day when you will suffer at the hands of your white brothers, as you call them." She said to her girl, --

"My child, you have no brother now,--no one to love you, no one to come with game and say, 'Here, sister, here is game for you.' You are left all alone. Oh, my sweet son,--gone, gone!"

This was the first trouble the poor Washoes had with white people, and the only one they ever did have with them.

So the day passed away, and the two dead Washoes were taken away, and their bodies were burned. That is their custom. The other was taken to California. My poor little sister made herself sick she cried so much that day.

Two days afterwards Major Ormsbey sent his men home; so he did my cousin, who is called young Winnemucca, and brother staid longer for us, because we had been with Major Ormsbey a long time, and we could talk very well. My poor little sister was so very sick it was two weeks before we could go to our mother. When we got home it was winter. There was so much snow that we staid in the mountains where now stands the great city called Virginia City. It was then our Pine-nut mountains. Some time during the winter the Washoe chief came and told us that the white men who killed McMullen and MacWilliams were caught. My brother Natchez said, --

"Oh, have they been caught?" "Yes, that is what Major Ormsbey said; so did all the others." The Washoe chief went on and said, "I have come to ask you to pay me for the loss of the two men. The white men have brought back the other men, and they say that they have hung two men." My brother told the Washoe chief that his people had nothing to do with what the white people had done. "It is you who ought to pay the poor mother and sister and wife of your own tribe, because you gave them up yourself, therefore you must not blame us. We only did our duty, and we all know that the white men did nothing to us, and we did no more than what they would do for us." . . .

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