Big Chief over all Paiutes in Western Nevada at the time of the arrival of the first white man, Chief Truckee was the father of Chief Winnemucca, and for him the Truckee River and the town of Truckee are named today.
The Paiute chieftain believed all men to be sons of a common ancestor, and that “the White Brothers were to return someday in peace.” Accordingly, when he heard of fair-skinned, blue-eyed men coming across Eastern Nevada, he sent word to his warriors to make them welcome. The Chief himself went to see the whites, but they were suspicious and hurried on, ignoring his greeting.
In May, 1844 an unusually well organized wagon train left Council Bluffs, Iowa for California, (Stephens, Townsend-Murphy Party), captained and guided by Elisha Stephens and 80 year old Caleb Greenwood who claimed to have made the same trip 20 years before. Despite Greenwood’s reputation for tall tales, he led the party along the best route west.
Near the Humboldt Sink an Indian Chief called on the party, dropped his rabbit skin robe to show he was unarmed, shook hands in the fashion of white, and presented gifts. Again and again he repeated the Paiute word “it is all right” or “okay”… “Truckee, Truckee.” The whites thought it was his name and called him “Chief Truckee” and so the word has come down in history. The party was told then of a passage through the Truckee Meadows, now Reno, and on up the Truckee River. They gave him a tin plate which he took for a hat, bored holes for a chin strap and proudly showed it to his tribesmen.
Above Verdi, the wagon train took to the rocky bed of the icy river! It was low water time in late autumn, they crossed the Sierra in wagons, a short time before the Donner Party failed, and a brief time after the great Fremont nearly failed. It was the first wagon train to make the trip all the way on wheels. Other groups had left their wagons; Captain Fremont even left his cannon.
Next year came Fremont, and he, too, was greeted with the robe-dropping ceremony. Like the others, Chief Truckee offered to guide them over the Sierra to California, and with Chief Truckee as guided, this 1845 trip took the direct route over Donner, and from that time on, many a party of whites reached the coast with a guide encouraged by Chief Truckee.
When Chief Truckee decided to go to California for a lengthy trip, he appointed his son, PO-I-TO, Big Chief, who became known to the whites as Chief Winnemucca. Chief Truckee took 12 Paiutes with him on one trip to the coast. He served under Fremont in the Mexican war, and as a officer of the Scouts became more proud of his rank as “Captain” than his title of “Big Chief” with the power over all sub-chiefs of the Paiutes. He was remembered by many early settlers, wearing his blue officer’s coat with brass buttons. Captain Truckee learned fast, and came home to tell of the wonders of far-off places and to laugh at what a fool he had been to mistake a tin dish for a hat.
History has no record how many big and little parties of whites were safely guided over the Sierra to Sutter’s in California by Paiute warriors on Chief Truckee’s orders.
Age overtook him and finally in the spring of 1860, a tarantula bite on the face sent him into a coma. Word went out across the desert the old man was dying and signal fires blazed on every mountain top. Relatives and gathered hurriedly for he was going fast.
Truckee became conscious and asked to see his grandchildren. Then he held counsel with his son, Chief Winnemucca, urging peace with the white man. He broke down and the entire group of Paiutes wept openly. Next morning the medicine man tried to restore him to consciousness but without success. Then when “the seven stars reached the point in the sky where the sun was at mid-day”, the old man opened his eyes, called for his son, and asked to be raised. He spoke, “bring the children, I’ve only a minute to spare, I shall soon be very happy son, I hope you will live to see as much as I have and to know as much as I do, and if you live as I have, you will some day come to me. Do your duty as I have done it to your people and to your white brothers.”
Then the medicine man explained that he had died. In Paiute tradition the family threw themselves on the body and their cries could be heard through the night. Chief Winnemucca kept the body for two days while tribesmen came from all directions.
The body was wrapped in blankets; with the commission of Captain given him by Fremont placed on his breast. All his possessions were put in the grave, and to show greatest respect, six of his horses were killed at the burial. It was a time of great sorrow to Indians all through Nevada, and to thousands of whites who had been befriended by the great old man. His death came at a time when relations between whites and Indians were very bad and when suspicions and hatreds were rising on both sides.
It was a year when a calm and strong leader, friendly to both sides was desperately needed, and that leader had just died in a little wickiup out near Como, Nevada, once-famed mill town on the Carson River.
Authorities agree on his friendship for the whites. He died just as the wrongs inflicted on his people by the pioneer whites were inflaming the Paiutes to the waging of a bloody war that would cost scores of white and Indian lives. Chief Winnemucca at times favored war on the whites but at the point of conflict, always rode off into the Humboldt River country, where his father had spent most of his life, where the grass was deep, and where the hunting was most plentiful. Within a matter of weeks, the troubles broke into a massacre of the Truckee and the Battle of Pyramid Lake.