Sacajawea : Beyond Lewis and Clark
I can remember learning about Sacajawea in my school years. The information taught in regard to Sacajawea was that she was the interpreter for the Louis and Clark Expedition. No further information was given. After reading the book “Sacajawea” by Anna Lee Waldo, I developed an interest in learning more about this fascinating woman.
Sacajawea was born in 1787 into the Agaidika [Salmon Eater] tribe of the Lemi Shoshone, from Idaho. She was captured as a slave by the Hidatsa [ Minnetaree ] tribe during battle when she was twelve years of age. Four men, four women, and several boys were killed in this battle. Sacajawea and several other Shoshone women were taken to what is known as present day Washburn, North Dakota.
Toussaint Charbonneau was a fur trapper from Quebec, Canada. He trapped and traded among the natives. Charbonneau had a reputation of having a penchant for young girls. He became aware of Sacajawea when she was thirteen years of age and was determined to have her for his own. He already had a young Shoshone wife by the name of Otter Woman.
Toussaint Charbonneau was a skilled gambler and pressured the Hidatsa into including Sacajawea as a wager. Charbonneau won the wager and claimed Sacajawea as a second wife. He soon found he had gotten much more than he bargained for, as Sacajawea had a reputation of having a sharp tongue and letting her opinions be known. Otter woman was quiet in comparison.
Women during this period of time were not held to be of any importance except for performing household duties and having children. Native American women followed a strict code of conduct within the tribe. They were not allowed to participate in tribal counsels or make important decisions in regard to the tribe. Although, it is rumored that many women had influence with their husbands in private. Sacajawea was a forerunner of women’s liberation as she was willful and frequently spoke her mind, to the chagrin of her husband and other members of the tribe
Beating women was allowed and accepted as a right of the man. Since Charbonneau was from a culture which frowned upon beating, as a general rule, Sacajawea was admonished often, rather than receiving corporal punishment.
In 1804 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark planned an expedition up the Missouri River during the springtime. They interviewed numerous trappers to accompany them as an interpreter. The pair had been informed that Charbonneau had a Shoshone wife that was fluent in English and French and would be useful when the expedition arrived in Shoshone territory. Charbonneau was hired on the condition that Sacajawea accompany him. Charbonneau requested that Otter Woman take the place of Sacajawea, but his request was denied.
William Clark had a large black male slave who served as a man servant, by the name of York. Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacajawea moved into Fort Mandan.
February 11, 1805,. Sacajawea was delivered of a healthy male child who was named Jean Baptiste Charbonneau , but was nick named Little Pomp or Pompy. York attended Sacajawea with the birth and administered crushed rattlesnake rattlers to speed the delivery.
In April, when Sacajawea was eighteen years of age, the group left Fort Mandan traveling up the Missouri River in pirogues. A pirogue is a small flat bottomed dug out canoe. On May 14 , 1805, Sacajawea rescued journals of Louis and Clark after a boat capsized. The capsize was due to the actions of Sacajawea’s husband, Charbonneau. The river was named the Sacajawea River in her honor.
In August 1805 the expedition reached the Shoshone territory and located a nearby tribe. Sacajawea was called to interpret the groups desire to trade for horses. During the negotiations Sacajawea recognized the chief called Cameahwait as her lost brother, as well as another Indian woman who had been captured with Sacajawea, but had escaped to return to her tribe. A joyful reunion ensued.
The Shoshone agreed to barter horses and provided guides to lead the group over the Rocky mountains. The conditions became so desperate that the group were reduced to eating tallow candles. When the group descended into a warmer climate Sacajawea was able to locate and prepare camas roots to help the members regain their strength.
The natives were fascinated at the appearance of York due to his large frame and dark skin color. He was asked to impregnate many Indian women from various tribes along the trip so that the tribe would be blessed with a child bearing his unusual qualities. York is reported to have performed his duty admirably.
On November 24, 1805, the group reached the Pacific Ocean. All members of the group, including York and Sacajawea , were allowed to vote on the place to build a fort, to spend the winter months. This was unusual as slaves and women were not ordinarily allowed to cast a vote. This shows the level of respect that the expedition held toward the pair.
Toussaint was frequently upset with the respect and latitude that was given to Sacajawea. Indian women as a rule were not provided horses to ride but were required to walk, often carrying heavy loads.
During the trip Louis and Clark purchased Sacajawea a horse to ride, to the dismay of Charbonneau, and the other Shoshone women who accompanied the group as far as the Rocky Mountains. The other Shoshone women became jealous of Sacajawea and felt she exhibited a superior attitude and reached far beyond her station .
In January a whales carcass washed up on the beach south of the new fort. Sacajawea demanded the right to go and view the “ monstrous fish“. Charbonneau refused her request but Sacajawea appealed to William Clark who over ruled her husband.
Sacajawea was allowed to accompany the group to view the great fish. This was a sight that stayed in the mind of Sacajawea all her life, and she frequently repeated the story to others during her lifetime.
On the return trip Sacajawea advised the party of a gap in the mountains which is now called Gibbons Pass. On July 13, 1806, Sacajawea advised the group to cross into the Yellowstone River basin at what is now known as Bozeman’s Pass. The route was later used by the Northern Pacific Railroad to cross the continental divide.
Sacajawea was not only useful as a guide she also was skilled in the use of herbs and edible plants used for food and treating illness. Her presence confirmed the peaceful intentions to other tribes , as women did not travel with war parties. Pomp also traveled with the party throughout the expedition. Sacajawea enjoyed traveling with the group and was sad when the trip ended. She would not receive the freedom and respect as Charbonneau’s wife that she had received while she traveled with the expedition.
During the expedition William Clark became attached to little Jean Baptiste and offered to raise the child as his own and educate “little pomp” in the manner of the white man. In 1809 the Charbonneau’s relocated to St Louis, Missouri, where Clark was entrusted with Jean Baptiste’s education. He was enrolled in the Saint Louis Academy boarding school.
In the year 1812, there is a mystery as to what became of Sacajawea. It was recorded that she had a girl child by the name of Lizette in 1810 and died in 1812. It was recorded in the journal of Fort Manuel Lisa on December 20, 1812, that the wife of Charbonneau died leaving an infant girl.
Later evidence indicates this was in reference to Otter Woman and not Sacajawea. Charbonneau was believed to have been killed in an Indian attack at Fort Lisa at the mouth of the Bighorn river. It was later found that he survived the attack and lived until the age of eighty.
Records of the Comanche tribe tell a different story. According to their records Sacajawea left her husband after he brought another young girl into the home. The girl was jealous of Sacajawea and encouraged Toussaint to beat and even requested he kill his wife. After receiving one such beating, Sacajawea packed a bag and left.
She crossed the great plains and married a young Comanche warrior by the name of Jerk Meat. She lived among the Comanche and had five children with Jerk Meat, two of the children survived until adulthood. She returned to the Shoshone tribe after the death of Jerk Meat where she resided on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming until her death in 1884.
In 1925 Dr. Charles Eastman, a Dakota Sioux physician, was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to locate Sacajawea’s remains. Dr. Eastman interviewed many tribes before reaching the Comanche tribe in question. A woman named Tacutine came to Dr. Eastman and stated she was the granddaughter of Sacajawea ,who went by the name of Porivo [chief woman] ,while living with the Comanche.
She stated her grandmother had traveled with the Louis and Clark expedition and that she wore a silver Jefferson peace medal . This type of medal was carried by the Louis and Clark expedition. Tacutine was the daughter of Sacajawea’s son Ticinaff with Jerk Meat.
When Sacajawea returned to the Shoshone after the death of Jerk Meat she left her two surviving children from Jerk Meat with the Comanche tribe. She is reported to have lived with her sons Baptiste and Bazil [son of Otter Woman and Toussaint] in Wyoming.
She died April 9,1884, on the Wind River Reservation.
Sacajawea was a role model for the national suffragists at the time period when women were seeking the right to vote. Her memory was viewed with pride by women who sought to obtain the independence that Sacajawea had achieved in her lifetime, in an era where women had no rights. A memorial has been erected at Sacajawea’s final resting place at Fort Washakie, near Lander, Wyoming.