The Incredible Saga of Sacagawea
She is one of the most famous figures in American history and played a powerful role in our creation history.
Nearly all American school children and adults recognize her name. More mountains, lakes and parks are named after her than any other North American woman. Yet she started her young life abducted into slavery, as a teenager was sold to—or won in a gambling game by—a French trapper, was a mother by age 15, traveled 4,000 miles with white men across half the North American continent before the age of 18, and died at age 24. Like her other famous Native “sister” renowned in American history, Pocahontas, she was abducted and abused by white men at a very young age but was smart, very brave, played a crucial role in American history and altered the path toward the building of our young nation. And she died very young.
For someone so famous and so important in our history, it is one of those ironies of history, that so little is known about Sacagawea. This is very probably because she was a woman, as well as a Native American woman, in a time in history when little credit was given to women, especially Native women. (Even the spelling of her name is a quandary and found in many different forms. “Sacagawea” is the favored spelling of most scholars.) But because of her bravery and intelligence, because she captured the imagination of Americans, she escaped oblivion. Sacagawea is remembered and honored.
She was the daughter of a Shoshone chief of the Lemhi Shoshone Agaidika (Salmon Eaters) clan when, at age 12 she and some other Shoshone girls were abducted and the rest of their party killed by Hidasta, a warring tribe. She was taken to a village 800 miles away near what is today Washburn, North Dakota. At age 13, she was sold to—or won in gambling by—a French Canadian, Toussaint Charbonneau. What little is known about Charbonneau is not flattering.
John MacDonell, a man on an expedition with him wrote on May 30, 1795 in Manitoba that Charbonneau was “stabbed by an old Saultier woman with an Awl—a fate he highly deserved for his brutality— in the act of committing a Rape upon her Daughter. It was with difficulty he could walk back over the portage." Later, Clark would write in his journal that he had severely reprimanded Charbonneau for striking Sacagewea. And Lewis wrote a number of very derogatory things about him, including that he was “a man of no peculiar merit” and that he was “perhaps the most timid waterman in the world.” He was known mostly for his bad temper with women and his ineptitude.
Despite his faults, he spoke Hidatsa and French and knew some of the area geography. But his biggest asset was his wife, Sacagewea, who spoke Shoshone, the language of an important tribe with which Lewis and Clark would have to negotiate. In November 1804, they hired Charbonneau and Sacagewea—although she was only 15 and pregnant—at Fort Mandan, in the upper Missouri near what is today North Dakota. They stayed at the fort several months until Sacagewea had her baby in February, aided by an elixir of crushed rattlesnake tail to speed the delivery, Lewis wrote in his journal. They started out immediately, Sacagewea carrying her infant, John Baptiste, in a cradleboard on her back.
She proved indispensable. She was smart, tough and resourceful. She foraged for edible plants especially during times when the men were short on food and game, communicated adroitly with different tribes and seemed to inspire trust, and swam out into the river with her papoose on her back to save Clark’s journals and other valuable supplies when her husband upset the boat. In recognition for Sacagawea’s action, Lewis and Clark named a river after her—a tributary of the Musselshell River located in north central Montana.
When the Corps reached Shoshone territory, Sacagewea recognized her homeland and was able to provide valuable guidance. When they encountered some Shoshone Indians, Sacagewea was ebullient when she realized that its leader was her long lost brother, Caeahwait. She was normally stoic and Clark was struck by her ”extravagant joy” and “ how she jumped up, and ran and embraced him, ...weeping profusely.” It was through her that they bought horses from the Shoshone which enabled them to continue on to the Pacific Ocean. Despite her happiness at finding her family, she continued on with the expedition.
Clark and Lewis mention Sacagawea throughout their journals. On October 19, 1805, Clark wrote that an Indian tribe they had encountered were very agitated, some even crying at the sight of the strange white men. They were not quieted until Sacagawea entered. They “appeared to assume new life, the sight of this Indian woman confirmed those people of our friendly intentions, as no woman ever accompanies a war party of Indians in this quarter. " On another occasion, Clark wrote that “Our interpreter we find reconciles all the Indians to our friendly intentions.”
He also wrote on May 16, 1806, that "The men who were complaining of the head ake and cholick yesterday and last night are much better to day” and that Sacagawea had “gathered a quantity of fenel roots which we find very palatable and nurushing food.” She was also an invaluable interpreter in talking not only with the Shoshone, but also the Flatheads, the Wallula, and the Nez Perce.
When they reached the Pacific Coast and the sought-after “Northwest Passage” in November 1805, Clark insisted that Sacagawea have a vote along with the other expedition members regarding where they would build a fort to stay for the winter. Sacagewea recommended they settle at a place that had lots of “potas” (wild potatoes) for winter forage.
It is here, too, that Sacajawea shows her strength of spirit when the expedition is told of a monstrous fish (a beached whale) on the shore but she is told to stay behind. She protested. Lewis wrote that she “was very impo[r]tunate to be permitted to go; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either (she had never yet been to the Ocean).” She accompanied the men to see the giant fish and the ocean.
During the expedition, Clark had become very fond of Sacagewea and her toddler son, Jean Baptiste. He called Sacagewea “Janey” and her little boy “Pompy,” which was a Shoshone term of endearment. During the trip back on the Yellowstone River, Clark climbed a 200-feet tall rock on July 25, 1806 and named it “Pompy’s Tower” after Jean Baptiste, Sacagawea’s son.
When the journey was completed and Charbonneau, Sacagawea and their baby departed to return to the Mandan village on the upper Missouri River, 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 [at the time].... As to your little Son (my boy Pomp) you weII know my fondness for him to take and raise him as my own child. I once more tell you if you will bring your son Baptiste to me I will educate him and treat him as my own child..... Janey had best come along with you to take care of the boy.”
Charbonneau agreed to travel to St. Louis, where Clark set him up with 320 acres of land to settle and farm. But within a year Charbonneau had decided farming was not to his liking. He and Sacagewea returned to North Dakota, but left John Baptiste with William Clark.
Sacagewea was pregnant again. She gave birth to a daughter, Lizette, in August 1812. But Sacagewea came down with fever. It is believed she died December 20, 1812 of typhus at the age of 24.
On Sunday, December 20, 1812 John C. Luttig in his journal during a fur-trading expedition on the Upper Missouri 1812 wrote: “This Evening the Wife of Charbonneau died of a putrid fever she was a good and the best Woman in the fort, aged abt. 25 years she left a fine infant girl.” A month later, William Clark signed papers, adopting both John Baptiste and the newborn Lizette. They were taken to live with him.
Like the complicated and ambiguous nature of her name spelling, Sacagewea’s fate is also a mystery. Many scholars believe she died in 1812 as a young woman. But some scholars believe she actually left her degenerate husband and returned to the Shoshone, where she married, reunited with her beloved son, John Baptiste, became a chief among her people, and lived in peace to nearly 100 years old, dying in 1884.
A renowned Western Frontier scholar, Grace Raymond Hebard, published such a narrative after decades of research in a 1907 edition of the Journal of American History, claiming that a “Wadzewipe,” meaning “lost woman,” a very old Shoshone woman had died on the Wind River Reservation in 1884. A minister who lived on the reservation had confirmed with Hebard in 1905 that “a son of Baptiste told me that his father often told him that his mother carried him as a baby on her back when she showed the way to.... the big water toward the setting sun...” She was called “Paraivo,” meaning “Chief Woman.” Many Shoshone at Wind River told Hebard of the old woman who wore a medal around her neck that the mission captains had given her. It was around her neck when she was prepared for burial. She had told the people many stories, including one about a whale on the Oregon beach: “The fish as big as a house!”
The New York Times and Associated Press covered the story. The Bureau of Indian Affairs even sent Charles Eastman, the leading expert in Sioux ethnohistory and American Indian culture, to investigate the matter. He confirmed that Sacagewea really HAD died at Wind River in 1884!
The controversy has raged for decades. Although most scholars today believe that Sacajawea died as a young woman in 1812, there are those who believe otherwise. One historian and writer, Ramona Cameron Worley, who’s written a book about Sacagawea, believes the Wind River version and that William Clark helped protect Sacagawea from an abusive husband and from white society, kept her secret and raised her children so they could later rejoin her. Wouldn’t it be nice to think so....
PHOTOS: (1) The Sacagawea Center in Lemhi River Valley, Salmon, Idaho, was created in 1932 to commemorate her 1788 birthplace in the Lemhi Valley and is a National Historic Landmark. The bronze statue is by Idaho sculptress, Agnes Vincen Talbot and was funded in part by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The center is dedicated to providing education and information about the Native American heroine and her role in the Corps of Discovery expedition, visitor’s center, amphitheater, community garden and research library. (2) A regal, 12-foot statue of Sacagawea by sculptor Leonard Crunelle on the state capitol grounds in Bismarck, North Dakota, funded by the Federated Clubwomen and Schoolchildren of North Dakota in 1910. It commemorates Sacagawea joining the Lewis and Clark Expedition at Fort Mandan as an interpreter and guide who would prove crucial to the survival and success of the expedition. A replica stands on the U.S. Capitol, as well. See #4. (3) A spectacular bronze statue of Sacagawea and her baby, John Baptiste, in Washington Park, Portland, Oregon, by Alice Cooper. The statue was unveiled in 1905 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The National American Women’s Suffrage Association funded the statue. (4) A replica of the Leonard Crunelle sculpture at North Dakota’s State Capitol was donated to the U.S. Capitol in Washington D. C. by North Dakota. (5) One of Edgar S. Paxson’s famous paintings of the Corps of Discovery and Sacagawea. This 1917 painting, “Sacagawea and Her Dog,” shows the Shoshone guide and interpreter carrying her papoose on her back. His most famous Corps of Discovery painting hangs inside the Montana State Capitol. (6) Charles Marion Russell’s 1918 painting, “Lewis and Clark Reach Shoshone Camp Led by Sacajawea the Bird Woman,” hangs at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Russell was a famous painter of the American West. The C.M Russell Museum is located in Great Falls, Montana. (7) There are NO known photographic images of Sacagawea (despite the Internet’s many claims!). This circa 1888-1892 photograph depicts Shoshone women in their native dress, with an infant in cradleboard. Sacagawea most likely carried her infant boy, Jean Baptiste, in a beaded buckskin cradleboard in the Shoshone style. Courtesy of the University of Utah-American West Center via Mountain West Digital Library. (8) Map that shows the nearly 8,000-mile journey of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and where they hired Sacagewea and her trapper husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, at Fort Mandan, in North Dakota. She proved indispensable in guiding the expedition through Columbia River Shoshone country and interpreting in highly delicate and dangerous situations. (9) As part of the U.S. Postal Service’s “Legends of the West” series, a commemorative stamp of Sacagawea was issued October 18, 1994. (10) The Sacagewea golden dollar was first minted in 2000. Since 2009 the reverse side of the coin has been changed annually to depict various aspects of Native American culture. (11) Famous (Caucasian) actress, Donna Reed, as Sacagawea in the 1955 Hollywood film, “The Far Horizons,” starring Charlton Heston and Fred McMurray, the ONLY major American motion picture about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Unfortunately, the production is hugely inaccurate. In 2011, Time magazine rated the film in the top ten most historically inaccurate! (12) This 2007 documentary “The Spirit of Sacajawea” is narrated by famous Native American Metis actress Tantoo Candinal (Dances with Wolves, Legends of the Fall, Godless, Wind River, and others). (13) The Journey of Sacagawea is a 2004 PBS film narrated by famous Cherokee singer Rita Coolidge, focuses especially on Sacagewea’s journey as a guide and interpreter for Louis and Clark’s Expedition, based on journals from the Corps of Discovery, and meeting with the Shoshone, Hidasta and Nez Perce tribes in the Pacific Northwest.
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• The True Story of Pocahontas
"The Incredible Saga of Sacagawea" was first posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on October 22, 2019.
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