A great Paiute Indian Chief who made an
indelible imprint on the western movement
By: Guy H. Coates
For thousands of years, Native Americans migrated through the Truckee Basin to hunt large game, fish, gather medicinal plants and celebrate tribal unity.
The Washoe tribe, which inhabited the Lake Tahoe area, referred to Truckee River as a wakhu wa't'a.
During the 1830s and 1840s, increasing numbers of Americans began to traverse the Humboldt desert westward toward the Truckee River basin. These grateful pioneers renamed the river after a friendly Paiute Indian chief who safely guided their wagons over the Sierra Pass into California. The town of Truckee derives its name from this colorful individual who made himself known by friendly offices to thousands of westward-bound emigrants.
The earliest known Europeans to establish contact with the Paiutes were Spanish explorer-priests who, in 1776, were hoping to discover an overland route from New Mexico to Monterey, California. while spreading Christianity among both the Ute and Paiute Indians.
In 1827 fur trapper and explorer, Jedediah Smith pioneered the Humboldt River route westward through northern Nevada and Paiute territory eventually reaching California. Following Smith other famous adventurers, such as mountainman, Jim Beckworth and trailblazer. Kit Carson, discovered new routes through the area.
By 1833, members of an expedition under the command of Joseph R. Walker traversed the Humboldt Sink to the lake which bears his name. Accounts of their journey provide few details of their experiences although members of the group later made claim to having discovered the Truckee River.
John C. Fremont explored the region from 1843-45, discovering Lake Tahoe while conducting the first of three government surveying expeditions. He and his party of 25 men had been charting the northwest for nine months and made their way south from what is now the southern border of Oregon. They were tired and hungry. Many of their pack animals had died or been stolen by Indians.
For two weeks they slogged southward through harsh, cutting, black volcanic rock. Fremont's scout, Kit Carson, learned that a village of friendly Paiutes were encamped near the mouth of a river which flowed into a large lake which Fremont later named Pyramid Lake because of its island rock formations.
The friendly Indians treated the hungry explorers to a feast of large native cutthroat trout that resembled Columbia River salmon. The Paiutes pointed out the river, which Fremont named the "Salmon Trout River." They also explained that this river flowed from another lake (Lake Tahoe) high in the mountains.
Two months later, on May 18, 1844, while Fremont was returning eastward across the Great Basin, a party of more than fifty wagons was headed westward out of Council Bluffs. The detachment became known as the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party. They were guided by an old trapper named Caleb Greenwood whom they had met at Fort Hall in eastern Idaho.
The Humboldt Paiutes had not always had friendly encounters with white men in the past. Several braves of the village had been slain in an encounter with members of the Walker Party in 1833. Although many Paiutes demanded war, their chief, a person of great influence and integrity, persisted in keeping the peace with the white people whom he dearly loved. He believed that all men were sons of a common ancestor and that some day his white brothers would return in peace. There is no record of him leading a war party or taking part in any raids against whites in his lifetime.
By October 24, 1844, the large contingent of wagons finally reached the Humboldt River, arriving at a Paiute village located near present-day Battle Mountain. They were greeted by their chief who communicated with Greenwood by means of signs diagrams drawn in the sand. It didn't take long for him to learn that this friendly Indian meant them no harm.
Many versions abound over who first called him "Truckee," but all stories concerning the chief's friendship with the whites are in agreement. These tales may have changed as they were told, over and over, through the years.
In the "History of Plumas, Lassen & Sierra Counties," published in 1882, it was reported that when the Joseph R. Walker party explored the area in 1833, one member of the party was a Canadian Trapper named Baptiste Truckee. The account states, "While Looking for water, Baptiste Truckee discovered what is now the Truckee River and rode back to camp, swinging his hat and shouting, 'A great river!' 'A great river!" It was reported that his name was then given to the stream.
Another widely published account was that, from the Paiute chief, members of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party learned that 50 or 60 miles to the west there was a river that flowed easterly from the mountains and along the river were large trees and good grass. A scouting parting, including Stephens, Greenwood and the Indian, rode out to investigate. While exploring the route, their guide used a Paiute word for "all right," as he pointed to the west. The word sounded like "tro-kay" and everyone assumed that the chief was telling them his name and they, in turn, nodded their heads repeating "tro-kay." The word "tro-kay" was liberally translated to "Truckee."
The scouting party returned to the village three days later to report that everything was as the chief had told. The route proved to be "all right." From then on, members of the party began to refer to their guide as "Chief Truckee." The Indian liked the name and he proudly retained it through his remaining years.
Another account was published in the Truckee Republican (Predecessor to the Sierra Sun) on May 5, 1875. The article reported that Matt Harbin, one of the members of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party stated that when their group reached the Humboldt, "an Indian came into (their) camp who professed knowledge of the route from that point to California. He gave his name as Truckee." They employed him as a guide.
As they progressed in their journey westward, "his statements in regard to the country were verified and upon reaching the Truckee River, near today's Wadsworth, he had become such a favorite with the party, they expressed thankfulness on leading them to what they considered to be an oasis." They christened the river "Truckee," as a compliment to their favorite guide."
Other studies point to another a more plausible explanation regarding the origin of Chief Truckee's name. According to one source, "Fremont-Explorer for a Restless Nation," by Ferol Egan, Chief Truckee had a brother named "Pancho" from the Pyramid Lake village. In "Life Stories of our Native People," published by The Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, Pancho's brother's name was "Tru-ki-zo," a name which could easily be distorted through translation as "Truckee." This suggests that Truckee's Paiute name was Tru-ki-zo.
Following the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, Donner Pass became one of two main thoroughfares for the passage of the central Sierra. In 1845 came a large company led by W.F. Swasey and W.L. Todd. They were followed by the Grgsby-Ide party.
Fremont returned to the area in Dec. leading his third expedition, reaching the summit on December 4. A few days behind Fremont came Lansford W. Hastings with a mounted party of ten men.
Between May and July, 1846, more than five hundred wagon trains were strung out along the great plains, headed west. Hastings had posted a widely read advertisement of a new route to Salt Lake, then through the desert, for those interested in getting to California "the easy way." The Craig-Stanley party came through in August with the Edwin Bryant-Richard Jacob company close behind it. Other parties came in close succession throughout September.
Chief Truckee, continually made himself available as a guide to the endless succession of emigrant groups. There is no record of how many parties of emigrants Truckee personally guided safely over the Sierra to Sutter's Fort or by others on orders from him.
In May, 1846, the United States went to war with Mexico over Texas. When news of the war reached California Fremont began organizing a volunteer army composed of settlers at Sutter's Fort. Native Americans from California and Paiutes from the Great Basin answered the call and were ready to fight with bows and arrows as well as rifles. By November, the army had grown to about 400 men.
While preparing to join Fremont in California, Truckee appointed his son, "Po-i-to," who later became known as Chief Winnemucca, to serve as chief in his absence. He made his son promise to keep the peace with the his white brothers while he was gone.
Along with his brother, Pancho, Truckee joined the Joseph Aram party as a guide and, in August 1846, he said goodbye to his people and headed west. Upon reaching Donner lake, he spent three days helping them search for an easier Gap over the Sierra Ridge.
The ill-fated Donner party was the last wagon train to attempt the crossing in late October, 1846. In her book, "Life among the Paiutes," Sarah Winnemucca (Chief Truckee's granddaughter) noted that members of this group were the least organized and not very resourceful.
They located the place where her people had stored their supplies for the long winter ahead. She wrote, "They set everything we had left on fire. It was a fearful sight. It was all we had for the winter, and it was all burned during that night. They surely knew it was our food."
What a tragic irony that these emigrants would later themselves endure such hardship and starvation.
"We could have saved them," she recalled, "only my people were afraid of them. We never knew who they were or where they came from."
During this difficult time for his people, Chief Truckee had joined Fremont's troops as a guide. Recognizing his leadership, Fremont appointed him Captain, in command of Company H, made up mostly of Native Americans from various tribes, including the Delawares who came west with the colonel. Captain Truckee had supervision over all the Indian scouts during the Mexican War between 1846 and 1848.
In his recollections of the war, Jacob Wright Harlan recalled seeing Chief Truckee in action, specifically mentioning an encounter near Mission San Buenaventura.
"As the American spearhead approached the Californias, Truckee was right in back of the leading officer, Major Russell," says Harlan. "Truckee fired his rifle at them and ran toward our camp. Major Russell spurred his horse to his swiftest speed in the same direction, but they would both have been lanced had not Fremont caused a cannon to be fired at the pursuers, who thereupon halted and turned back."
After the war Fremont awarded Truckee a commendation for service which he proudly carried with him to his death. Other Paiutes from the Great Basin, including Truckee's brother Pancho, also received medals.
Proudly adorned in his blue uniform with brass buttons, Captain Truckee returned to his central Nevada home and told his people of his adventures in California. He then gathered some of his kin and led them over the summit and into Santa Cruz Valley, where he became fluent in Spanish while working on several ranches. He remained there for several years and learned to read and write the white man's language. .
The older leader returned to the Nevada desert and told his people of all the wonders he had seen in those far off places.
He sat with his people for days and nights telling his people about his white brothers. He told of the many battles they had with the Mexicans and he sang the Star-Spangled Banner, which everybody in his village learned.
Chief Truckee continued to advise the mounting tide of immigration on the best current route to California, although not all the emigrants were friendly to his people.
One day while fishing with his people, several members of an emigrant party fired on members of the village. Six braves were killed, including one of Truckee's sons. Four others were wounded. The tribal counsel demanded war, but the Chief refused to consent and stood firm in defense of his beloved white brothers.
Captain Truckee died near the town of Como, Palmyra District, Lyon County, Nevada On October 8, 1860. At the time most of the old residents of Dayton, was well as the former residents of Como, could point out his grave.
Prior to his death, Captain Truckee and other Paiutes from the Walker River, where he had lived for some time, were engaged in their annual pine nut harvest at Como. Chief Winnemucca was quoted as referring to the area as the "Indian's Orchard." The area abounded in splendid forests of pine nut trees, which produced extra good nuts.
John Nelson, in 1875 superintendent of South Comstock Mine in lower Gold Hill, was prospecting with some friends near the Palmyra District. Captain Truckee often visited their camp with his two wives and had showed Nelson a small bible, inscribed and presented to him by Fremont.
The old Paiute also carried and displayed with pride an old copy of the St. Louis Republican and other papers. He spoke at length of Fremont and other early explorers and emigrants he had been in contact with.
One day Truckee came to Nelson's camp to show them a very bad looking swelling on his neck, seeking advice on how to treat it. They diagnosed it as a tarantula sting or the bite of some other poisonous bug or snake.
With little medical lore, they prescribed application of a piece of fat bacon to the inflamed area. Nelson, in later years, said he didn't know whether or not Truckee applied the remedy. At any rate, the next day he was dead.
"He died at the Indian camp near the spring, a mile or so this side of Como," Nelson later wrote, "where the little town of Palmyra was subsequently built."
Prior to his death, Captain Truckee called all his grandchildren to him, and also spoke to his son, Chief Winnemucca, urging him to keep peace with the whites. He gave instructions as to how deep his grave was to be dug, how his head was to be laid, and mentioned specifically that his hands were to be folded on his breast, and the dirt was to be heaped in a mound above his resting place. He also ordered that he be buried with all his possessions, including Fremont's Bible.
Nelson later sought to obtain possession of the Fremont Bible, offering the surviving Paiutes five dollars for it, but they would not sell and, together with the other papers treasured by Chief Truckee, it was buried in his grave with him.
Winnemucca kept the body for two days and signal fires blazed on every mountain top, calling tribesmen from all directions. In Paiute tradition, the family threw themselves on the body and the Paiute death wail rang out in a terrifying manner.
Because they did not know how to do the things he requested, Truckee's Paiute companions brought his body to the camp where Nelson and his friends were and told them it was their chieftain's last wish to be buried by white men after the style of white men.
In compliance with his wishes, they dug his grave on a ridge just west or northwest of Como, on the cropping or surface range of the old Goliath range, beneath a grove of shady pine nut trees. A large assemblage of whites and Indians were present for the last rites.
All of his instructions were carried out. His body was wrapped in blankets and, in Paiute Fashion, Six horses were killed at the burial, so that he might have a swift journey to the afterlife. His son-in-law pronounced the eulogy at the grave, first in Paiute and then in English. Members of his village set fire to the hut in which he died.