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First Americans: Sacagawea

July 20, 2009

This is the third in a series of four columns featuring Native Americans who were important in the shaping of our country.

Sacagawea was a member of the Shoshone tribe of Idaho. She accompanied Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition to explore the western territory of the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase. Carrying her infant on her back, she traveled thousands of miles from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean and back.

Sacagawea is the most commonly accepted spelling of her name. In the Hidatsa language it means bird woman. The Shoshone spelling, Sacajawea, means boat launcher. William Clark nicknamed her Janey.

When she was twelve years old, Sacagawea and several other Shoshone girls were kidnapped by a Hidatsa war party. She was taken to a Hidatsa village on the Knife River in North Dakota.

At thirteen years of age, Sacagawea became the second wife of Toussaint Charbonneau, a French trapper living in the village. While he was gambling he won Sacagawea in a game of chance.

Sacagawea was pregnant with her first child when the Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived at the Hidatsa village to spend the winter of 1804-1805. Captains Lewis and Clark built Fort Mandan as their winter quarters. They knew they would need the help of the Shoshone tribe at the headwaters of the Missouri River. They agreed to hire Charbonneau as an interpreter when they discovered his wife was fluent in the Shoshone language.

Charbonneau and Sacagawea moved into Fort Mandan. On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea delivered her child, a boy named Jean Baptiste. Two months later the voyagers left Fort Mandan and traveled up the Missouri in pirogues, large canoes with sails. On May 14, 1805, Sacagawea rescued items that had fallen out of a capsized boat, including the journals and records of Lewis and Clark. The corps commanders, who praised her quick action on this occasion, named the Sacagawea River in her honor.

By August 1805 the expedition located the Shoshone tribe. The captains wanted to trade for horses to cross the Rocky Mountains. Sacagawea was brought in to translate. Amazingly, the Shoshone chief turned out to be her brother, Cameahwait.

Following a glad reunion, the exchange for horses was completed. The Shoshones provided guides to lead the explorers over the treacherous Rocky Mountains.
When the party reached the mouth of the Columbia River, Sacagawea gave her blue beaded belt for the captains to trade for an otter fur robe they wished to present to President Jefferson.

The weary travelers arrived at the Pacific Ocean in November 1805 and built Fort Clatsop as their winter quarters.

On the return trip, they approached the Rocky Mountains in July of 1806. From her youth, Sacagawea remembered a gap in the high mountains through which she led the journeymen. A week later the Indian woman advised Clark to cross into the Yellowstone River basin at what is now known as Bozeman Pass across the Continental Divide.

Sacagawea served as a dependable guide for Lewis and Clark. Her ability as a translator helped the party negotiate with the Shoshone. Her greatest value to the mission may have been simply her presence. She was a talisman. War parties never traveled with women and children. The presence of Sacagawea with her child was evidence of the peaceful intent of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
When the pilgrimage ended, Charbonneau and Sacagawea spent three years among the Hidatsa before accepting William Clark’s invitation to settle in St. Louis. They entrusted their son’s education to Clark.

There are two traditions regarding Sacagawea’s death. Some historical documents suggest that Sacagawea died in 1812 at age twenty-nine of an unknown sickness. In his account of the expedition, written between 1825 and 1826, William Clark lists the names of each member and their last known whereabouts. He simply noted that Sacagawea was deceased.

Some Native American oral traditions contend that, rather than dying in 1812, Sacagawea lived a very long time. In 1813, fifteen men were killed in an Indian attack on Fort Lisa, located at the mouth of the Bighorn River. After her husband Charbonneau was killed in the attack, Sacagawea crossed the Great Plains and lived among the Comanche. She married a member of that tribe and had another son, Bazil. After her second husband’s death, she returned to the Shoshone where she died in 1884.

In 1925, the Bureau of Indian Affairs hired Dr. Charles Eastman, a Dakota Sioux physician, to locate Sacagawea’s remains. Eastman learned of a Shoshone woman at the Wind River Reservation with the Comanche name Porivo, or chief woman. This elderly woman had spoken of a long journey where she had helped white men. One of her prized possessions was a silver Jefferson Peace Medal, the type used as barter by Lewis and Clark.

According to these narratives, Porivo lived for a number years at Fort Bridger in Wyoming with her sons Bazil and Baptiste. Both sons spoke several languages including English and French. Eventually she returned to the Shoshone at the Wind River Reservation. This woman died on April 9, 1884. She was over one hundred years old.

Eastman concluded that Porivo was Sacagawea. In 1963 a monument to Sacajawea was erected on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming.

Sacagawea was a courageous American heroine. As both Lewis and Clark attested, her presence on their long trek contributed greatly to the success of the mission to open the West.

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2009

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