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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Sarah Winnemucca

By Martin Middlewood, for The Columbian
Published: November 6, 2022, 6:04am

The most famous Native American woman activist and writer of the 19th century hired Joseph Fletcher, a Vancouver attorney, to write and send a letter to The Oregonian on Dec. 16, 1880. Fletcher’s letter asked the Portland newspaper to republish it and halt any uncertainty about her divorce being refused on jurisdiction issues. Fletcher noted Judge John P. Hoyt, associate justice of the Washington Territory, had declared the divorce valid.

To Sarah Winnemucca’s relief, the Portland newspaper published her letter two days later. The missive likely references her second husband, Joseph Satewaller, of whom little is known. She wed him in Grant County, Ore., after her 1876 divorce from her first husband, Lt. Edward Bartlett. It’s possible she met both during the Bannock War.

Winnemucca, a Paiute, was born in Nevada. Her father and grandfather served as guides for John C. Fremont’s 1840s explorations that opened the West. Their aid to Fremont contributed to the 1848 California Gold Rush and the 1859 Comstock Lode silver rush in Nevada. The greed for precious metals devastated the Paiutes’ ability to live like their ancestors.

During the 1870s, Winnemucca worked for the Indian Office persuading bands of reluctant Natives to move to reservations. The June-to-September Bannock War of 1878 faced off about 800 Bannocks, Paiutes and Shoshones against Brig. Gen. Oliver O. Howard leading about 900 21st Infantry Regiment soldiers and volunteers.

That Winnemucca spoke English and three tribal languages made her a valuable translator and negotiator for the warring one-armed general. Her efforts, which included her capture, brought a life-long friendship between the two. At the end of the Bannock War, the government moved the Paiutes out of their traditional homeland around the Eastern Oregon-Nevada border and onto the Yakama Reservation. The loss of her tribe’s native land turned Winnemucca into a social activist for the Paiutes and all Native Americans.

Howard, who commanded the Vancouver Barracks 1874-1880, imprisoned Bannock War captives in the barracks’ guard house. He hoped the Nez Perce would see this as a threat and convince them to accept “Anglo-Saxon civilization.” As prisoners trickled into the barracks, Winnemucca acted as a translator and champion for better treatment. By 1880, Howard had incarcerated 53 Native American men, women and children.

During her life, Sarah Winnemucca experienced atrocities common to other Native Americans. She saw two uncles killed and her sister raped. She also had lived under the roofs of whites. Two of her husbands were military men. While she enjoyed aspects of white society and saw a merging with hers, she became a sharp-tongued critic of phony Christianity. She saw reservation agents and reformers using the Bible to justify stealing Native American land, reservation agents’ greed and violence.

With the 1883 publication of her book “Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” Sarah Winnemucca became the first Native American woman to write an autobiography. Twice she traveled to Washington, D.C., and once petitioned Congress to further her advocacy of the Native tribes. She toured the nation lecturing about the white abuse and preached how “the white people came in like a lion,” destroying the Paiutes’ culture.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.