Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known - O. O. Howard

Winnemucca, Chief of the Piutes

Like the great Montezuma of old Mexico, Chief Winnemucca, who was born and lived the most of his life beside Pyramid Lake, Nevada, had a thinking mind and a large, warm heart. He was chief of an Indian nation called the "Piutes," and before any white men came over the Rocky Mountains to disturb them, there were several thousand Indians, to whom he was like a father. He saw to it that they had plenty of good food to eat, nice furs and skins to wear, and handsome tepees (or wigwams) for their families to live in. He had a good wife and many children of his own; he was always very kind to them, and took much pains to teach all he himself knew to his eldest son, who was to be Chief Winnemucca after him.

Seventy years ago the Piutes were a peace-loving and contented people. They knew how to gather in the swift antelopes from the plains, how to catch the deer and ensnare the wild turkeys, and help themselves to all the game of the mountains round about their broad valley and clear lake in which they caught splendid speckled trout and other choice fish. The Piutes never appeared to be as shrewd and smart as the Snake Indians, and they were not warlike; yet with their bows and arrows they did drive off the thieves that came from their Indian neighbors, sometimes, to hunt in the mountains or fish in the lake.

Chief Winnemucca taught the Piutes very different lessons from other Indian chiefs; for example, to love peace and make constant effort to keep it; always to be kind one to another; always to tell the truth, and never to take for one's self what belonged to another; to treat old people with tender regard; to care for and help the helpless; to be affectionate in families and show real respect to women, particularly to mothers; yet he and his Piutes had no books, no writing, no chairs, no furniture, almost none of those common articles that make our houses so comfortable. Chief Winnemucca, from time to time, had wonderful dreams. One night he dreamed that some people who were different from the red men, would by and by come from the east; that they would be finer people than any he had ever seen, and that their faces would be of a white color, bright and beautiful. He stretched out his hands toward them and said: "My white brothers!"

Some time before the great explorers, Lewis and Clark, crossed the plains and saw Chief Winnemucca's valley, a company of hunters from Canada came. They were usually named Voyageurs, and were trying to collect precious furs. They hunted and trapped the beavers and foxes or bought skins from the Indians. Then these voyageurs would carry the furs to the nearest trading places and sell them at a good price to white traders.

One day a party of these voyageurs came to a high plateau and, sitting heir hardy ponies, looked for the first time on Pyramid Lake. They were taking in the beauty of the scene when suddenly a few Indians, riding furiously toward them, halted suddenly, and one Indian rode forward, making signs of goodwill as he approached. But the hunters were frightened and caught up their guns, though they did not fire. At this the Indian hurried away, joined the others, and they all dashed into the woods and rode as fast as they could straight to Chief Winnemucca's wigwam. As soon as the venturesome Piute, much excited, had told all he knew about the appearance of strangers up there on the eastern plateau, asserting that they were well mounted on large ponies, that they were curiously dressed, and that they surely had white faces, Winnemucca cried out with joy: "They are my white brothers!" and after a few moments added: "I knew you would come; you are the white brothers of my dream."

Chief Winnemucca hastened with twenty of his Indians to meet the traders. All the Indians were mounted on little ponies adorned with cedar sprigs and some bright flowers fastened to their manes and tails. The Indians were afraid and kept close together, but the chief was happy and rode boldly ahead to meet his white brothers. Now the voyageurs were full of fear and, firing their guns in the air, motioned for the Piutes to stop. These unfriendly signs startled Winnemucca. His heart bled as he saw his men hanging back in terror; but he could not forget his beautiful dream, so for a while he tried to draw nearer the strangers. They shouted angrily at him; but he got down from his saddle fifty or sixty yards away, put his strong bow and quiver of arrows on the ground, and spread out his arms as a sign of peace; but the white men, believing him and his followers to be treacherous because they were wild Indians, would not let them come any closer. Now Chief Winnemucca had heard about some powder guns which warlike Indians had and he instinctively recognized these white men's rifles as weapons of war. Greatly disappointed, he and his party rode back to their pretty village, and next morning the voyageurs passed on Westward. The Piutes never saw them again.



It was not very long after this visit when another party of about fifty white men descended from the same plateau and encamped two miles below Pyramid Lake on the bank of a swift running river.

Again the good chief went down as he had done before and tried his best by peace signs to welcome the strangers, but they would not let an Indian approach them. They even fired from loaded rifles to frighten the Piutes away. This time the Indians saw where the bullets struck the trees and bushes. But Winnemucca, after the white men had gone, reflected upon the cause of the white brothers' fear of them. So he said: "I will not give them up, I will show them a brother's heart."

He took a few of his principal men and had them bring with them their women and children. They followed the white men several days and encamped every night in plain sight. At last the white leader, prompted by his guide who knew something of Indian ways, decided that the Piutes meant them no harm. Little by little they talked by signs. The Indians showed them how to avoid bad trails and made some short cuts in their journey and always led them to the finest camping places where they could have plenty of wood and good water. Every night they brought them a deer or an antelope. The leader of the white people was a generous and good man, so he and Chief Winnemucca soon became friends. After this success, which delighted his heart, the chief and his followers returned to their home on Pyramid Lake.

The next company of white people going toward California were, more numerous. With them was the American pathfinder, Capt. John C. Fremont, and he and Winnemucca communicated right away. They first met where the Union Pacific Railway now crosses the Truckee River—called by the Piute Indians Truckee because it means "all right." Fremont took a particular liking to the warm-hearted chief, and he asked him to lead a party of Piute scouts. The scouts consisted of the chief and eleven picked Indian men, and from that time Winnemucca was called Captain Truckee or All-Right. With Fremont, these Indians went all the way to California, and helped him while there in his contests with the Mexicans. They learned after a fashion to speak English, and Winnemucca could always make an American understand him. He was proud of his English, but prouder of a piece of tough paper on which Fremont had written a recommendation of Captain Truckee. This the chief always called "My Rag Friend."

Chief Winnemucca liked California so much that he decided after much thinking and talking with his people to go back to that beautiful and fruitful land. His son, who was to be the chief, Winnemucca Second, was put in charge of the Piutes left behind, while Captain Truckee took thirty families with him for the long journey. Of his own family he took his wife, his daughter-in-law, and four of her children—they were named by their grandfather a little later: Natchez, Lee, Mary, and Sarah, two boys and two girls. Sarah, who was then six years of old, was the youngest, and her grandfather's favorite, and he always spoke of her as "my sweetheart." She was dreadfully afraid of white men, and would hide her face, so as not to see them, and weep a long time if one spoke to her. The cause of this terror was that she once heard her father say the Piutes were to have great sorrows and troubles from bad whites.

A sister of charity succeeded in winning her heart. The result of this good lady's friendship was that Mary and Sarah learned to speak English, and for a short term were taken into the Catholic boarding-school, but the feeling against all Indians among the whites was such that they declared they would take away all their children if Indians were allowed to come there. In California Mr. Scott employed Captain Truckee and his Indians to care for numerous herds of cattle and horses, and the Indians on their ponies were most faithful and successful herdsmen.

The chief, after about a year in California, heard that the sub-chief (his son, Winnemucca Second) and all the Piutes with him, had had great trouble. At first two white settlers on their way west had been waylaid in the mountains, and robbed and killed with arrows. The arrows were left there and had on them the Washoes' marks, but the white people insisted that Piutes and the Washoes were all the same. Again two wicked white men carried off two little Piute girls and hid them. After a long search the two Indian fathers found them in a cellar, bound with cords. The Indians became enraged at this and killed the white men.

Besides, a large party of white people came to Pyramid Lake as others had done before them. It was quite late in the fall of the year and Winnemucca Second with most of his Indians was away hunting in the mountains. The Indians had left their winter supply of seeds, nuts, wild onions, and camas, and a large quantity of dried deer-meat and salted fish, carefully stored away near the Truckee River. The strangers helped themselves to what they could use, and burned up all the remaining food.

Winnemucca Second became alarmed at this, and when a volunteer company came to punish the Piute Indians for the loss of the white settlers, he and his followers began to lose all confidence in the "white brothers" that his good father had always trusted and defended. So the sub-chief kept all of the Piutes he could get to stay with him in different camps in the mountains.

Hearing all this the old chief left his two grandsons to work for Mr. Scott in California and, taking with him his daughter-in-law and the two girls, Mary and Sarah, in a large wagon, guarded by several of his Indians, he drove five hundred miles back to Pyramid Lake. He sent a messenger to find his son and begged him to come back to the beautiful valley and have his people come with him. Here they met the chief, and the wise and good-hearted old man spoke for his white brothers, and once more taught his people useful lessons.

Beside the beautiful lake he lived for many years, and when at last he was about to pass over to the Happy Land he called his son to him and told him never to forget his duty to his own people and to love and always be kind to his white brothers.