Mattie, the Daughter of Chief Shenkah

Chief Shenka was a Paiute Indian like the first Chief Winnemucca, whom the white men, who early traveled over the Rocky Mountains, met on the broad prairie land of Nevada. He was one of Winnemucca’s young followers. Of noble appearance and always brave and trustworthy, Shenkah became the chief of a small tribe of the Paiute, after Winnemucca’s death. When the Piute were at peace with other Indians and with the white people, Shenkah was very friendly indeed, especially to the soldiers, and our officers were much pleased when they could, on marches in search of lakes and rivers round their camps and posts, get Shenkah for a guide. He hunted deer and other game for them and they gave him a rifle and trusted him to make long journeys into the mountains. He always returned, and never without different kinds of wild game.

After his old chief went far away to California with General Fremont, trouble arose on account of a sad mistake which resulted in a dreadful war between some of the Soldiers and the Indians. Chief Shenkah, leading his warriors, was in that war from the beginning to the end, until, at last, a good peace came.

His daughter, Mattie, when about twenty years of age, told me about her father. Mattie could read and write English slowly, and spoke it well enough for me to understand her. She talked with a pretty musical tone, each sentence sounding sometimes like a song, and sometimes her sentences were like poetry. This is what she said: “My first memory is way back. It is like a shadow, a dream. I just see him, my father! I have this picture of him, very sad, very sad, in my heart. I did not know much then, not much as I do now. He was so strange, so different from all the rest. I know now that he was strange because he was just leaving us-for always. Oh, I was such a little girl! My father had been hurt in battle; he was very pale, and his eyes very bright, and looking far away. I am sure he knew when he spoke to me that he could not live to see another sun. He was lying down on the ground, and he took me and pressed me tenderly in his arms against his breast. Chief Egan, my uncle, was kneeling by my father’s side and bending over us with tears in his eyes. At last my dear father spoke and said: ‘Egan, my brother, the Great Spirit calls me away-I must go. I cannot take My, little child with me-the Great Spirit does not call her to go now. I wish I could take her with me to meet her mother; but I cannot. My brother, I leave her to you, be her father.’ Such words I am sure, for they pressed on my mem’ry, are the ones my poor dear father used. They were wonderful and so have remained with me through all my years. My uncle, Chief Egan, gave my father an answer, but I do not quite remember what he said, but he laid his hand very gently on my head while my father added a few words which, like his others, have always been in my mind: `My daughter, my little dove, you cannot know what this parting means; to me it is a bitter one, but you and I will meet again; your good Uncle Egan will be a father to you and you must be a good daughter to him. After a few minutes of silence he gave his last words: “Now I go in peace.”

This is all that Mattie could remember. She went away to live with her uncle, who became a chieftain among the Piute, and who led many of them in the pursuits of peace and of war. He was kind and loving to his adopted daughter, and she returned his love with childlike devotion and always treated him as a father.

It was perhaps two years after the death of her father when she was carried to a camp called Howluk near the borders of Nevada. There had been just then some battles between the white people and the Indians, and the Indians had been again defeated. This war would not have come on if the white men and the Indians had spoken the same language and could have understood each other, and when Mattie told me of it, she said: “When will my red brothers learn that it is more than foolish to rise up and go on the war-path against our white brothers. Even now we are reading and hearing of war. We poor women and the innocent little children and the old and helpless are the ones who suffer most. But now I know that the white men make war with their white brothers also. Why is this? Why do they make war with each other and make us suffer? Oh, we suffer so much; not only our bodies by hunger, sickness, cold, or heat, but our hearts bleed from the moment our dear ones go away under the sound of the song or the band and the drum. Then comes the terrible time of waiting-my breath seems to stop when I remember it. Then there is the news of wounds and death to reach us at home; very few can follow the cry of their hearts to run to the beloved one, because there are little ones to keep them at home.”

She went on to say: “I learned about wars at school in Oregon, and, as you know, I was again and again in war myself, and it is horrid! I am no coward-girl, and I am not afraid even when the guns fire; but I do not want war. Men who are so wise as to make so many wonderful things should find a way to settle their troubles without causing so much wretchedness and sorrow and tears. I am only a poor Indian girl, and though I’ve been to school many days, yet I know but very little. I am sure that many of my white sisters, who know more than I do, think about battles and wars just as I do.”

In a letter to Mrs. Parish, a lady who was very much beloved by the Piute Indians, she writes: “My uncle called all his Indians around him and spoke to them in this way ‘The white men are taking away from us all our land here in Nevada. They are driving off all our ponies. The war-chief of the Piute was angry, and he had already taken the war-path. He, Chief Shenkah, was my brother, as you know. He did not succeed.

The red man and white man did fight many suns, many soldiers and many braves fell in battle, and the young men are buried all along the creeks and rivers. My brother, Chief Shenkah has passed on to the better land. We see very plainly that the red men cannot fight the white men. We have not such good rifles and good horses as they have. Our bows and arrows are nothing. And now the white men say Peace. They say, take a home in Malheur, Oregon. There is good land, good water, and plenty of food over there. The red man and the white man must eat bread together. I now say, this is good, let us go. Egan is done.

“Young as I was, I do not forget the long ride we took to Malheur. My people were very poor. Many of them were ill on the Way from the want of clothing and good food; but as my uncle, Chief Egan, had decided that it was best to go, the braves of the tribe kept up from day to day the weary journey- which a large number had to go on foot, as at that time the pontes, which remained
to us after the war, were very few, and those we had were mostly thin of flesh, and many lame. My good Uncle Egan never forgot me. He gave me all I needed, and I had nice little mouse-colored pony to carry me. The pony was one of the best among them all, and so he had to bear some goods as well as me. The bundles were put on his back and tied fast before I was put up on top of them. As I have now seen an elephant, I think that my little horse looked very much like a small elephant. His legs seemed very short. I was a little afraid, but Uncle Egan kindly strapped me to the load, and with pleasant words handed me a small whip and remarked that I was high up, higher than all the other riders, so I was quite safe and proud. At times, as ponies will, mine would stop beside the trail and put down his head to eat, then I would use my whip, though he appeared to know that my whippings did not mean a great deal. Our ponies seemed to know about everything much more than those of the white people. Some would not let a white man mount them. They showed their disgust in a very plain way-hard to each, and, being caught, hard to bridle, twisting their heads one way and another. Oh, how I used to enjoy the fun watching a paleface in his vain attempts to subdue one of our horses who was perfectly gentle with any of us Indians. Think of the saddling! By a wicked little shake of his body the blanket would slip off, first on one side and then on the other, and the saddle go forward or backward. The best part of the fun was to look at the white man’s attempt to mount an Indian pony; with the saddle on he would think all was right, and get one foot nearly into the stirrup, when the nag would move just a little bit, then another little bit, just enough to make his rider hop after him on one foot. To us children all this appeared so amusing that we greeted the effort with shouts of laughter. Such things happened to me when I was quite little. At school I learned that it was very unkind and rude so to laugh-to laugh at any one; but I think the children could not well help it, because here was a little animal which any Indian child five years old could catch by the mane, lead to a log, jump on and ride wherever he pleased. Of course our little nags had their likes and dislikes, just like ourselves. I think we were a little proud to find that these white men, who brought such wonderful things to us, were not equal to us in training and riding ponies.

“On that long march to Malheur we had an old donkey. His name was Wee-choo. I was such a naughty Indian child that I enjoyed Wee-choo’s mischievous performances, as I afterward enjoyed what I saw in a regular circus. I used to give hearty cheers for our old donkey. No white man or white woman ever could succeed in riding him, though many frontiermen and boys tried to do so. At one time they came great distances and had the ambition to ride what they called ‘Egan’s donkey.’ At every race or Indian feast this donkey was a source of great merriment. He would put himself in every ridiculous posture and always managed to send a white man flying from his back.

“At one time there came a tall, longlimbed Irishman. His legs, if he ever could have sat on Wee-choo’s back, were so long that his feet would have touched the ground. He looked like a grasshopper when trying to get on. The nearest he ever came to it caused him to jump entirely over the donkey and sit flat on the ground amid the laughing and shouting of the Indians. No one was ever badly hurt and Wee-choo was a great favorite with us. You may understand that some soft old river-bed or other very sandy place was chosen for the Wee-choo circus. With the Indians the old animal became so tame that no mother in our tribe would hesitate for a Toment to put her child on his back, where he would sit up straight, if strong enough, and hold to his mane. I remember the kindness of the children to this old donkey. They gave him milk to drink after his teeth became too decayed to eat grass or hay. We would grind his barley, corn or wheat, and soak it for him, and he appeared to understand and appreciate our care.”

At last, after the long and tedious journey, Chief Egan and his Indians reached Malheur They were put on a large piece of land called a reservation-something very few of the tribe knew anything about. It appeared to the people something they did not like, some sort of prison.

Mattie said: “Had my uncle, Chief Egan, seen any other way to provide for his people, he never would have gone there, and would never have used his influence to bring them all to that place-. But what were they to do? All our land in Nevada that was of any account had been taken away and settled upon by the white people. Every place which we had held and where there was good soil and good water was taken and fenced in as a white man’s claim; and so we came to Malheur, Oregon. I have been told that the word ‘Malheur’ means misfortune, and as soon as the people heard this meaning, it added to their homesickness and sadness.”

But Mattie was fortunate. She met Mrs. Parish. No white person had ever spoken so kindly to her, nor looked so pleasantly in her face. Mattie’s heart went out to this good woman. She did not then quite understand her language, but she did understand her gentle voice and kind manner. Again Mattie found a loving welcome from the interpreter, Sarah Winnemucca, who soon became a sister to her and a teacher. Mr. Parish was, at that time, in charge of all the Indians, and he was of such noble spirit and kind ways, that he very soon made them feel that Malheur was not so bad for them as they first had feared.

Mattie (her teacher, Mrs. Parish, says) looked very quaint and nice in her manta dress; and how good and attentive she was in the school! She also remembered the pretty flowers that Mattie brought her, and how radiant she was when told that her good friend loved flowers, and put them into a vase on her desk. Mattie loved her teacher more every day, and this loving little girl was dearest of all to her teacher.

Mattie loved to talk of those days when the Indians had Mr. Parish for their good agent. One day, as the children came into the school-room their attention was attracted by a great number of beautiful colored pictures hung on the walls of the room-pictures of horses, dogs, cats, birds, trees, and many things which they had never seen before. Mattie says that the little Indians were as happy as they could be when they looked upon those pictures for the first time. The pictures were so attractive that their schoolroom soon filled with children, children large and small, and the largest did not know more than the smallest.

One day Chief Egan came in and said to the scholars: “You must be very good children and obey the teacher; give good attention to what she says and remember it as well as you can. The great father in Washington sent her to teach the little ones, and this was good for us.”

No Indian chief seemed to be more respected and loved by his people than Chief Egan. Mattie remembered the day when she tried hard and at last succeeded in lisping the teacher’s name. The next day she learned to say “Good morning,” and all the children were soon able to say, “Good morning, Mother Parish.”

Mr. Parish one day brought in and hung near the teacher’s desk a clear-faced clock. It was the first one that these children had ever looked upon, and it took them two or three days to get used to it, first, to call it by name in English and then, little by little, to learn, as they all did, how to tell the time of day.

At this school Mattie had a little boy friend named Tayhue. “Poor little fellow,” she said, “he was so good and stupid, trying so hard, as bard as ever he could, but somehow letters and words would not sound right out of his mouth. No one could picture Tayhue’s sounds. Well, he never spoke quite plainly in his own language.” Mattie said that one should see him now, that he has grown up into a very nice young man and has married. He married little La-loo, and he declared that beloved her from the time she tried to teach him what to say in school.

When Mattie could speak English she said to Mrs. Parish: “You know I have no mother, so I had more love to give you than the other children. Did you ever dream how very dear you were to me? As soon as yon thought that we children could understand you told us about the Saviour. I would think of all you said to us when I went home, and from your words there came most sweet and lovely thoughts to me,-indeed, you woke up my soul.”

Mattie describes the time when the large maps came and were shown near the teacher’s desk. She recalled particularly the great map of the United States. There were many different colors to represent the States, and at first the children thought that the land must be red, green, yellow, or blue, just as it looked to them on the map. They had hard work to understand the picture of the ocean. Mattie had seen several lakes, but not till by and by, when she came to San Francisco, did she see the grand sight.

When Mattie grew up she became the wife of Lee Winnemucca, and when I saw her, as I often did during the last year of her short life, she was always with Lee’s sister Sarah, doing what she could to help and comfort her people, for they had suffered many trials and hardships during the Piute and Bannock War. She had not forgotten her early lessons at Malheur, and by her sweet manners and loving spirit made every one about her very happy.


Howard, Oliver Otis Famous Indian Chiefs I have Known. University of Nebraska Press. 1908.

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