A diplomatic, influential leader during a fraught time in northern Paiute (Numa) history, Winnemucca (died 1880) worked hard, yet ultimately unsuccessfully to ensure peaceful relations with non-Natives, and he earned the distinction (especially among non-Natives) of being first overall chief of the northern Paiute. The northern Paiute traditionally ranged in present-day central and eastern California, western Nevada, and eastern Oregon. Prior to assuming responsibility as chief, Winnemucca (also known as Po-i-to or Old Winnemucca) is remembered as a father, medicine man, and an antelope charmer (Hopkins, 1994, 55). Public knowledge of Winnemucca's life begins with his acquisition of political power. When Captain Truckee, Winnemucca's father-in-law, left on an expedition to California, probably when accompanying Captain John Fremont in the mid-1840s, he appointed Winnemucca the band leader. Winnemucca's status as "chief" was recognized internally among the northern Paiute, distinguishing him from leaders who were appointed and acknowledged only by non-Natives (Hopkins, 1994, 10, 194).
Winnemucca assumed leadership of the northern Paiute at a critical moment in Paiute history. Regular contact with non-Natives had begun only a few years earlier, under Truckee's leadership, and changes to everyday life were imminent. Truckee had welcomed non-Natives with joy, because their arrival signaled the fulfillment of a Paiute prophecy (Hopkins, 1994, 6–7). In a dream, however, Winnemucca saw non-Natives bringing bloodshed and destruction among the northern Paiutes, and he did not celebrate the growing non-Native presence. He sought peaceful relations with non-Natives whenever possible but did not stand by to see his people abused.
In 1855 Winnemucca negotiated the Honey Lake Valley agreement with non-Native citizens of Honey Lake, California, to minimize conflict between the communities. According to the agreement, when a member of one party committed a crime against a member of the other, the communities would negotiate and turn over the perpetrator, thereby eliminating the need for continued conflict. By 1860, Winnemucca was accused of not abiding by the terms of his own agreement when he was unhelpful in the investigation of the murder of D. E. Demming, believed to be murdered by Paiutes. The agreement had collapsed on both sides: Winnemucca would not turn over members of his community each time an Anglo accused a Paiute, and the Honey Lake community was rapidly filling with new citizens who had no regard for the 1855 agreement. At the same time, Winnemucca was outraged by the non-Natives' exploitation of another agreement in which non-Native cattle herders leased land from northern Paiutes. He traveled to Virginia City in hopes of gaining legal support but came away unsuccessful (Knack and Stewart, 1984, 65).
In the spring of 1860, tensions between Paiutes and non-Natives grew until they culminated in the Pyramid Lake War. Winnemucca participated in the conflict at Pyramid Lake, although by 1862 he was exchanging gifts with Governor James Nye on neutral ground in an effort to maintain peace. In 1865, thirty Paiutes were massacred at Pyramid Lake, including Winnemucca's wives, several daughters, and other family members (Knack and Stewart, 1984, 79). Nevertheless, in 1867 Winnemucca sent a letter to Carson City in hopes of negotiating peace for his people once again.
By this time, Winnemucca was widely recognized by the Mormons and other non-Natives, and some of his own people, as the first overall chief of the northern Paiutes. In 1870, the 5,000 northern Paiutes still operated in small, semiautonomous bands of fifty to 200 that acknowledged linguistic and cultural ties. Each had its own chief, yet many acknowledged Winnemucca as a form of chief over all (Stewart, 1939, 129). Notably, Winnemucca never organized all of his subchiefs but was known as the "traveling chief" (Stewart, 1939, 130). He negotiated with Indian agents and the military on behalf of his people as they lost land and freedom and became increasingly dependent on government rations for survival.
Following the Bannock Wars, Winnemucca and his daughter Sarah (who would become famous as an educator and writer) traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz and President Rutherford B. Hayes to inform them of the northern Paiutes' primary concerns: their lack of essential supplies, exploitation by Indian agents, and the government's unfulfilled promises to help them settle in a permanent, peaceful home. Winnemucca and his daughter worked to ensure peace for the northern Paiutes, but, as bearers of promises that the federal government never upheld, their favor fluctuated in the eyes of some Paiutes. Nevertheless, Winnemucca continued caring for his people until his death in 1880.
Amy S. Fatzinger
Hopkins, Sarah Winnemucca. 1994. Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Reno: University of Nevada Press.; Knack, Martha C., and Omer C. Stewart. 1984. As Long as the River Shall Run: An Ethnohistory of Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. Berkeley: University of California Press.; Stewart, Omer C. 1939. "The Northern Paiute Bands." In University of California Publications in Anthropological Records. Edited by A. L. Kroeber, et al., 127–150. Berkeley: University of California Press.