Published in The Cowboy Chronicle, July 2021, Volume 25 Issue 4
Much of what we accept as historical fact is often interpretation and legend created from a few known and recorded truths. It is frequently difficult to separate fact from fiction for many of the famous historical figures in our western heritage.
The passing of one such person on December 20, 1812, was sadly noted by clerk John Luttig at Fort Manuel, a short lived (1812-1813) fur trading outpost along the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota. He wrote, “This evening, the wife of Charbonneau, a Snake squaw died of putrid fever. She was a good and best woman in the fort.” This good and best woman known as Sakakawea, is now one of the most celebrated women in America. The young woman who had an integral yet brief part in the shaping of American History died young in a lonely outpost overlooking the Missouri River.
How did she become one of the most recognized and honored women in American history? There are more statues and monuments erected for her than any other woman in our country. She is one of five American women to be honored with their likenesses on U. S. currency. Three Navy ships have been named after her. Her amazing adventure would have astonishing enough, but what makes her story even more extraordinary is how unlikely she was to get any attention at all, let alone a position of prominence in history. She was an obscure Native American teenage girl with a new baby, married to a bigamous and unexceptional fur trader. She had no social status, formal education, or power. She was the only woman on the trek and was not personally paid for her endeavors. She was part of our American saga for less than two years. After her great journey she went back to her old life and likely died quietly in an obscure fur trader’s fort at only 24 years old. Yet, her contributions and the impression she made on those who came upon her during her legendary life was remarkable.
Sakakawea’s basic story is commonly known. She was a young Indian girl who Lewis and Clark took with them on their Voyage of Discovery, to act as an interpreter. She was married to a French fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau and cared for their newborn child as she traveled with the expedition all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back.
Volumes have been written about Sakakawea from very few recorded facts. A great deal of it is untrue; the stuff of myth and dime store novels. There are however real controversies, from the pronunciation, spelling, and meaning of her name to the time and location of her death. Some of these disputes have not been totally resolved. Most of what we truly know of Sakakawea comes from the detailed journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. If you read their passages that mention Sakakawea, you discover while there was little regard for Charbonneau, there was immense respect, admiration and concern for Sakakawea and her infant son, Jean Baptiste.
The spelling “Sacagawea” has its origins in Lewis and Clark’s journals. There are seven variations of the spelling used in the journals, all beginning the third syllable with a hard “g” sound. This is the most common spelling of her name and the one that the U. S. Geographical board has authorized for use by federal agencies. “Sakakawea,” is the spelling widely used in North Dakota where Sakakawea lived with the Hidatsa before her journey with Lewis and Clark. This spelling means “Bird Woman” and is supported as the proper moniker by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes. This spelling however, is found nowhere in the Lewis and Clark journals. Sakakawea was born to the Shoshone people, but captured and adopted by the Hidatsa when she was a young girl. The Shoshone argue therefore “Sacajawea” was her true name and it means “boat launcher”.
There were no written records of Sakakawea’s birth, but due to her age when she was married to Charbonneau, she was likely born in 1788 or 1789 into the Lemhi band of the Shoshone tribe in the Salmon River region of what is now Idaho. The Shoshone and Hidatsa were enemies. During a buffalo hunt when she was around 12 years old Sakakawea was kidnapped by the Hidatsa. She met Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader, when she was either sold to him or was payment for a gambling debt, becoming his second wife. Charbonneau was 20 to 30 years her senior.
When the Corps of Discovery was wintering at Mandan, they hired Charbonneau as an interpreter. He was to bring his two Indian wives to aid with the translations. (Charbonneau’s other wife, Otter Woman, ultimately did not go on the journey). Lewis and Clark saw that Sakakawea would be of great benefit as they traveled through what was her homeland. Charbonneau spoke French and Shoshone, and Sakakawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. This was important as these were two quite different languages. The translation process was convoluted: English to French, to Hidatsa to Shoshone, and then back. Lewis and Clark also knew they would have to buy horses to continue their journey over the mountains. The Shoshone had the horses they would need, and Sakakawea had the language skills and connection with them to assist with these transactions. When they arrived in Shoshone territory and Sakakawea met with their leader to translate the horse purchase, she recognized Chief Cameahwait as her brother and had an emotional reunion before the expedition moved on.
Sakakawea proved herself to be invaluable in more ways than originally planned. Recognizing landforms along the way through Montana she was able to give Lewis and Clark the reassurance they were indeed on the right track. On the return journey she led the way through Bozeman Pass between the Bridger and Gallatin Mountain ranges. At one point in his journals, Clark said of Sakakwea, “The Indian woman who has been of great service to me as a pilot through this country…” He was referring to the upper Yellowstone area which Sakakawea knew from childhood. Even though she was not a guide all the way to the Pacific Ocean as some legends assert, this was nonetheless another contribution that led to her a place of esteem.
Not all provisions could be carried with them. Sakakawea was able to forage for foods such as wild artichokes, currents, prairie turnips and fennel root to help relieve stomach pain. She had knowledge of the vegetation they did not. Sakakawea paved the way for friendly encounters with other Native Americans they would meet that would naturally be suspicious of this expedition. Having a woman and an infant traveling with the group clearly showed they were not a “war party” and would only have peaceful intentions. Wiliam Clark noted on two occasions the calming effect she and her son had on tribes that otherwise might have been hostile.
One of the more significant incidents of the trip showed Sakakawea’s resourcefulness, calm, and dependability when others were unable to act. In a dangerous squall one of the large dugouts began to capsize and precious supplies are going into the water. The crew was “panic stricken”; Charbonneau just “sat in shock”. Sakakawea in the back of the vessel precariously reached out to grab crucial papers, navigational supplies, books, medicines, and other supplies as they floated by, catching nearly everything. She did this while keeping her baby son safe. Lewis in his journal entry about the incident said “…Sacajawea demonstrated fortitude and resolution equal to that of any man on board the stricken craft…”They named the river after her in recognition of her heroics.
Charbonneau was given trade goods to purchase a horse for Sakakawea, another indication of Sakakawea’s stature. The fact that special a provision was made so she could have her own horse was notable. She in turn was a loyal member of the expedition and had a genuine regard for the leaders as expressed with her acts of kindness.
As the expedition reached the Columbia River, Sakakawea and Clark’s slave York, were given an equal vote on where to camp for the winter. What an extraordinary moment – an equal vote more than sixty years before emancipation and more than a hundred years before women and Indians would be able to vote. This may have been the only time in her life she had an equal say in how things were to be.
Towards the end of the trip, when Lewis and Clark wanted to get an otter skin robe to bring back to the President, the local Pacific Indians refused to trade for anything but blue beads. The expedition’s supply was nearly depleted, but Sakakawea gave up her own blue beaded belt so the exchange could be made.
Think of all that she probably did that was not mentioned due to time, conditions and the tremendous amount of information that had to be documented. Sadly, no sketch was made of her. Keeping track of what this young woman was doing would not have been a priority in the daily activities of such a journey.
Towards the end of their journey together, Clark named a prominent geographical feature in now Eastern Montana after the little boy he had become so fond of, Jean Baptiste, nicknamed Pomp. Rising from the river was a “remarkable rock formation” Clark named Pompy’s Tower. (Today it is Pompey’s Pillar National Monument) A nearby creek was named Baptiste’s Creek.
On August 17, 1806, the Charbonneau family left the expedition when it returned to North Dakota. Three years later they traveled to St. Louis and eventually left Jean Baptiste with Clark to be educated. They tried their hand at farming, but ultimately left on a fur trading expedition. Clark would later officially adopt the boy and his younger sister Lissette.
In 1811 journalist Henry Brackenridge, met Sakakawea and Charbonneau and noted they were living at the Fort Manuel Trading Post. He describes Sakakawea as a “good creature…. but she had become sickly…” Sakakawea gave birth to a daughter Lissette in the summer of 1812 and reportedly died in December of that year.
Most historical scholars believe Sakakawea died in 1812, but many still believe, despite historical documents which give evidence to the contrary, she lived until she was nearly one hundred years old dying in 1884 on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. There is a large granite marker stating it as marking her final resting place. Records show that an elderly Shoshone woman is buried there. She came to the reservation in the 1870’s and reported she had been a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Her stories of the journey with them have been handed down through the generations. In 1907, Grace Hebard, a professor at the University of Wyoming published an article with this theory. It was widely believed and promoted until journal entries and other official documents came to light with evidence that Sakakawea died at Fort Manuel. William Clark himself in notes written between 1825 and 1826, listed the names of each member of the expedition and their last known whereabouts; for Sakakawea he notes, “Se car ja we au –Dead”.
At the end of the Corps of Discovery’s journey, Clark wrote to Charbonneau, “Your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her.”
He may not have had the power then, but over time this young Indian woman has been honored and remembered like no other. Her importance and what she symbolizes is solidified in American history.
Bird Woman’s Story by Sherry Devlin of the Missoulian. May 31, 2003
Sacagawea’s Descendants Voices Heard by Jodi Rave, The Missoulian, September 3, 2006
How the West Was Wrong: The Mystery of Sacagawea by Natalie Shure Buzz Feed Contributor, October 11, 2015
Who’s Buried in Sacagawea’s Grave by Christopher Klein, December 20, 2012
A Lewis and Clark Chapbook: Lewis and Clark in North Dakota, by Clay S. Jenkinson, c. 2002
The Truth about Sacajawea, by Kenneth Thomasma, c. 1997
Interpreters with Lei and Calrk: The True Story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau by W. Dale Nelson, c. 2003
Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns c. 1997