Northern Paiutes of the Malheur


Northern Paiutes of the Malheur

High Desert Reckoning in Oregon Country

David H. Wilson Jr.

336 pages
17 photographs, 2 illustrations, 3 maps, index


May 2022


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May 2022


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September 2024


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About the Book

2023 Oregon Book Award Finalist

In 1870 a twenty-six-year-old Paiute, Sarah Winnemucca, wrote to an army officer requesting that Paiutes be given a chance to settle and farm their ancestral land. The eloquence of her letter was such that it made its way into Harper’s Weekly. Ten years later, as her people languished in confinement as a result of the Bannock War, she convinced Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz to grant the requests in her letter and free the Paiutes as well. Schurz’s decision unleashed furious opposition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, cattlemen, and settlers. A campaign of disinformation by government officials followed, sweeping truth aside and falsely branding Paiute chief Egan as instigator and leader of the Indian forces. The campaign succeeded in its mission to overturn Schurz’s decision.

To this day histories of the war appear to be unanimous in their mistaken claim that Egan led his Paiutes into war. Indian agents’ betrayal of the people they were paid to protect saddled Paiutes with responsibility for a war that most opposed and that led to U.S. misappropriation of their land, their only source of life’s necessities. With neither land nor reservation, Paiutes were driven more deeply into poverty and disease than any other Natives of that era. David H. Wilson Jr. pulls back the curtain to reveal what government officials hid—exposing the full jarring injustice and, after 140 years, recounting the Paiutes’ true and proud history for the first time.

Author Bio

David H. Wilson Jr. rafted the rivers and hiked the lands of the Paiutes after moving to Oregon to practice law, specializing in employment discrimination. He also taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Law, Willamette University School of Law, and the University of Oregon School of Law. After retiring Wilson spent eight years researching and writing Northern Paiutes of the Malheur. He lives in Portland, Oregon.


“In this searing and painstakingly researched account, Wilson challenges the accepted story of [the Paiutes’] exile . . . and argues persuasively that they were victims . . . of a misinformation campaign whose effects have lasted more than a century.”—The New Yorker
“Wrong was done to the Paiutes—it’s as simple as that—and the passion David Wilson puts into telling their story comes through more powerfully for the restrained and careful way he tells it. This will be a book of lasting value for its contributions to the history of the West and for its simple, elegant prose, which is a western artifact of its own. Both authoritative and exciting to read, this is an excellent piece of work.”—Ian Frazier, best-selling author of Great Plains and On the Rez and two-time winner of the Thurber Prize

“An outstanding text that flips the official narrative of the Bannock War and clears Egan.”—Ethan Gauthier, Pacific Northwest Quarterly

"In this well-researched and meticulously argued history of the Northern Paiutes who were involved in the 1878 Bannock War, David Wilson constructs an ethnographic record of what transpired before and during that war."—Sondra Cosgrove, Nevada Historical Society Quarterly

“In Northern Paiutes of the Malheur David Wilson captures the untold story of Chief Egan and our people, fulfilling the wish of my grandfather Hubert Egan for the true story of the Paiutes, hidden for almost a century and a half, to be revealed at last.”—Nancy Egan, direct descendant of Chief Egan and representative of the Egan family

“Fascinating. . . . Extensively researched and carefully documented, Northern Paiutes of the Malheur is essential reading for anyone interested in Native American history of the Northwest.”—Steven Lubet, author of The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery

Northern Paiutes of the Malheur fills a historical gap with a meticulously researched, fascinating story of the survival of a small band of Indians who wanted to go home—and eventually did. . . . David H. Wilson Jr. does extremely well in describing personalities and backgrounds of leading characters in the story, bringing them to life as real people, not dull figures from a history book. He also excels at placing events in context of some of the cultural and social movements that affected Indian policy.”—Roberta Ulrich, author of American Indian Nations from Termination to Restoration, 1953–2006

“Portland author David H. Wilson Jr. spent eight years hiking and rafting Oregon’s high desert, meeting with descendants of the Paiutes, and researching primary sources to untangle the causes of a tragedy as infuriating in its own way as the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The result is a chronicle that deserves to be recognized as a definitive work of Native American history.”—Matt Buckingham, Willamette Week
“David H. Wilson Jr.’s beautifully written book tells the story of the Northern Paiutes in their historical lands of southeastern Oregon. The Paiutes had learned to survive in this harsh and spectacular landscape in ways that were antithetical to the manifest destiny drive of dominant society. Warfare and persecution of the Paiute people was justified by the long-standing lies of self-serving Indian agents. Wilson shines truth on this sad yet amazing story.”—Jim Scott, founder of the Foundation for Community Vitality in Montana

"Northern Paiutes of the Malheur is a beautiful book, one that seeks to finally deliver the justice the Northern Paiute were due after the war and never received. . . . Wilson adroitly balances the refutation of previous scholarship with the strength of his own, and it is a book that will help shape future interpretations of the short but devastating Bannock War."—Katrina Phillips, H-Environment

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Author’s Note
Dramatis Personae
1. Paiute-White Encounters, 1826 and 1862
2. Before Whites
3. “Wholly and Completely Different”
4. Paiute Power
5. Keeping Up Appearances
6. Dark Dawn
7. A Messenger to My Heart
8. The Snake War
9. A Home on Their Native Soil
10. A Troika
11. A New Agent
12. The Bannock Uprising
13. Exodus
14. Truth Management
15. Barren Valley Imbroglio
16. Rescue
17. Steens Mountain
18. Silver Creek
19. A Great Circle
20. Crania Absentia
21. Placing the Paiutes
22. A Big Talk
23. Doing Right by the Paiutes
24. Backlash
25. Untethered from Truth
26. Gold and Cattle
27. According to Howard
28. A Yale Ho-Chunk
29. White Whim, Paiute Penury


2023 Oregon Book Award Finalist

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