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Sacajawea: What is the Truth?

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 1

When you grow up in Southeastern Idaho, you grow up with a legend who was bigger than life.

The stories about Sacajawea and her amazing journey with the Lewis and Clark Expedition will live on forever.

But, how much of the story that has been told is really true?  And, what really happened to her?

Monument to Sacagawea

Sacajawea was born in the “Salmon Eater” or Agaidika tribe of Lemhi Shoshone, located between Kenney Creek and Agency Creek.  This area is about twenty minutes away from the town presently known as Salmon, Idaho.  Her birth is recorded as being in about 1787 or 1788. 

When she was between 10 and 12 years old (the accounts vary as to her age) her camp was attacked by a hostile tribe of the Minnetaree from North Dakota.  To her horror she saw the Hidatsa warriors killing many members of her tribe.  This battle resulted in the death of four men, four women and several boys.  Sacagawea was taken as a captive to a Hidatsa village near present day Washburn, North Dakota.  She was given a new name, of Sakaa-ja-wiija, meaning “Bird Woman.”

There she lived and worked hard for about three years.  When she was about thirteen years old she was traded to a French Canadian fur trader, Toosaint Charbonneau, who was living in the village.  He was much older than her, about three times as old, and had also taken another wife, a young Shoshone woman named Otter Woman.  History is not clear whether he actually purchased these wives, or won them while gambling.

Sacajawea was pregnant when Captains Meriweather Lewis and William Clark arrived to spend the winter of 1804-1805.  They built Fort Mandan while there.  They were interviewing several trappers for a position to guide and interpret for their expedition up the Missouri River in the spring as they made their way West. They had decided on Charbonneau when they discovered that his wife could speak Shoshone and would be able to help them with the Shoshone tribes along the headwaters of the Missouri.

“Little Pomp” or “Pompy,” (Jean Baptiste Charbonneau) was born to Sacagawea on February 11, 1805.  The nicknames came from Clark and the other members of the Expedition.  The Expedition left Fort Mandan (Bismark, North Dakota) two months later on April 7, 1805.  The Captains and several other members of the party wrote details of each days events and Sacajawea was wrote about often as they talked about her sacrifices, perseverance, and heroic deeds.

Clad in doe-skin, and the only woman in the Expedition party, she walk for hundreds of miles in mountainous terrain in the bitter cold winter.  She saved the men from starvation during a particularly bad time by finding and cooking camas roots. They were also reduced to eating tallow candles to survive.

The story is told of the party trying to move the pirogues (boats) against the current of the river and when one capsized and all of the journals and records of Lewis and Clark were dumped in the cold waters.  Sacajawea rescues the items and they named the Sacagawea River in her honor.

Sacajawea soon became more valuable than Charbonneau because she knew so much about the Rocky Mountain tribes.  Also, a woman in a party of men showed other Indians that the Expedition party members came in peace.  She sat in Tribal Council meetings with the Chiefs, as no Indian woman had done before, and would negotiate for food and supplies.  She spoke many languages and served at the interpreter for the Captains. 

She was a quiet woman who never complained during the journey and gained much respect from the men in the expedition.

When the party met with the Shoshoni band led by Chief Cameahwait (in Idaho), Sacajawea recognized Cameahwait as her long-lost brother.  After a happy reunion, the Shoshoni provided Lewis and Clark with information, horses, and a guide.

At the end of the journey, Fort Clatsops, they met a Chinook Chief Comowool.  He was wearing a beautiful while robe make of white otter skins.  Lewis and Clark thought this robe would be the perfect gift for President Thomas Jefferson but the Chief would not consider anything that they wanted to trade.  However, he kept staring at a beautiful blue beaded belt worn by Sacajawea which she had received from her mother many years before.  Blue beads were like gold to the Indians.  He wanted the belt, and Sacajawea traded it for the white robe for the Great White Father in Washington with no hesitation. 

Sacajawea Leading the Expedition

Sacajawea continued to be a valuable member of the party as they traveled onward to the Pacific Ocean which they reached on October 30, 1805. While camped for the winter at Fort Clatsop on the Pacific coast, a gray whale got stranded on a beach while the party was wintering near the Pacific Ocean among the Clatsop Indians.  Clark took some of the party to see the whale and trade for blubber and oil.  Sacajawea insisted on going to see the "monster fish."  Having grown up far from the oceans, she had never seen the ocean nor heard of whales.  Imagine Sacajawea's amazement at the size of this creature.  We don't know its exact size, but gray whales can be much as 43 feet long.  Sacajawea never forgot the "big fish."  After returning home, and for years afterward, she told the story of the "big fish" to other Indians who lived far from the oceans.  Unfortunately, they didn’t believe her story and said she was just "the woman with the big fish story."

They returned to the Mandan villages in August of 1806 where Charbonneau was paid five hundred dollars for his services and Sacajawea was paid nothing because she was simply Charbonneau’s wife. 

The end of Sacajawea’s life is a unknown for sure.  The mystery begins after Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis.  It is recorded that Sacajawea and Charbonneau lived in St. Louis in 1810-1811, and she gave birth to a daughter, Lizette.  After her recorded death on December 20, 1812, Lisette and Pomp (now six years old) was adopted by Clark.  It is supposed that Lisette died at a young age as there is no history of her.  Jean Baptiste went on to live a colorful life until the age of 61.

After that, there are two different stories about her life—and death!   Some historians believe that she died in 1812, and others believe that she lived to be a very old woman.

According to one diary written at that time says that Charbonneau’s Snake (Shoshoni) wife drowned in 1812. Others say she died of a putrid fever.  However, Charbonneau had two Shoshoni wives, and it isn’t clear which one died.  Some reports said that Charbonneau was cruel to Sacajawea and that she left him.

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Sacajawea Monument
ther stories say that a number of people reported seeing Sacajawea in the years that followed.  Comanche Indians living in Oklahoma believed that she lived among them for about 25 years.  This woman married a Comanche man and had five children.  After her husband was killed in battle, she became unhappy and left the Comanches in about 1855.  Another account is that during the 1860s, a number of different people reported seeing or knowing Sacajawea in Montana and Wyoming.   One man reported that "everybody" around Fort Bridger knew who she was.   Late in life, this woman went to live with a son and his family at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.  She died there in 1884 as a very old woman. The woman at the Wind River Reservation was called Chief Woman, Porivo, and Bazil’s Mother.  She had a friendship medal that she said Lewis and Clark gave her, and some papers that were buried with her. She could speak French, and she told stories of a French husband and a long trip "toward the setting sun."  She also told the story of the "big fish."

There are at least three mountains, two lakes and twenty four monuments named after her contributions to the discovery of the West.  There are more statutes erected in her honor than any other American woman in history. 

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Sacajawea Dollar
acajawea was also chosen to appear on the new U.S. one dollar coin issued in the year 2000.  She is shown carrying her son, Baptiste.  The model used for the picture is a Shoshoni woman who lives at Fort Hall, Idaho.
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Comments

Feb 5, 2012 1:12am
vicdillinger
I had been considering tackling her myself, exploring some of the depths you already covered here. Since you've done nicely, you just saved me a bunch of work!! Thumb's up for a good piece on Sacagawea (who is one of the greatest humans ever to march across this continent!)
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