For many Americans, the name Sacajawea brings to mind thoughts of exploration and discovery. Monticello's Olivia Brown looks at the myths and realities of the life of this famous Native American woman who played an unlikely but critical role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
Olivia Brown: Today's podcast is dedicated to highlighting the life of Sacajawea, the only woman who traveled with the Corps of Discovery, otherwise known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. For many Americans, her name brings to mind thoughts of exploration and discovery, and she holds a place in American popular memory as one of the most famous and important Indigenous women in history. Before we talk more about her though, I want to first talk about her name.
First and foremost, it's important for me to note that I am not a native speaker of the Shoshone or Hidatsa languages, and I recognize my own limitations in the pronunciation of words in languages I do not speak. In today's episode, I will be calling her Sacajawea. A lot has been written about Sacajawea over many decades, and research into the subject of her life clearly shows that there is no consensus on what the proper pronunciation of her name would have been, because different groups of people likely said it differently. Sacajawea's name was from a language passed down orally among its people - one that was never written down. Her name is spelled multiple different ways in the journals written by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Many believe that the Hidatsa pronunciation has a hard G sound and instead would be pronounced Sacagawea, translating to "Bird Woman," and this is likely how it was pronounced by the Corps of Discovery. Many members of her Native tribe, however, uphold its meaning in Shoshone as "Boat Launcher," and some of her modern relatives pronounce her name with the J sound instead of the hard G. While we do fully understand that there are so many complexities and nuances to Native languages and cultures, as well as how they are passed down through generations, today, I'm opting to say her name as some of her contemporary Shoshone family members pronounce it: Sacajawea.
Sacajawea was a Lemhi-Shoshone woman, born around 1788, in Idaho's Lemhi Valley along the Salmon River. Her people, the Agai'dika Shoshone-Bannock people, are part of the larger group of Shoshone Native groups who inhabit parts of California, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. While she has become a central figure in some of the founding mythology of the United States, what we know about her actual life is pretty minimal. It can also be controversial, complicated, and unclear. It's important that we understand that, and hold this history in that space of uncertainty. Many recollections of the events she experienced exist in the surviving journals from Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and other members of the Corps of Discovery, and are being told and described by white men from the United States. Her own voice remains silent in the historic record, as she was likely unable to read and write and her and traditions were oral ones. Here, let us discuss some of what we do know, some of what is still unclear, and how we can combine Indigenous histories while reading between the lines of the written record to learn more about the life of Sacajawea.
It's hard to say anything for sure about the early years of her life among her Shoshone people. In the fall of 1800, during an annual Buffalo hunt at the Three Forks of the Missouri River, this is Shoshone were attacked by a Hidatsa war party. Along with several other Lemhi-Shoshone people, Sacajawea was taken hostage by the Hidatsa when she was about 12 years old. The Hidatsa took the hostages to a large trade center in modern day North Dakota known as the Knife River Villages, which were located not far from what would later become Fort Mandan, the winter residence of the Corps of Discovery. Later in his journal, Meriwether Lewis wrote of the same story, telling of Sacajawea's capture by the Hidatsa - in his journals though, Lewis refers to the Shoshone as the Snake and the Hidatsa as the Minnetaree. On July 28, 1805, he wrote, "Our present camp is precisely on the spot that the Snake Indians were encamped at the time of the Minnetares of Knife R. came sight of them five years since. from hence they retreated about three miles up Jeffersons river and concealed themselves in the woods, the Minnetares pursued, attacked them, killed 4 men 4 women a number of boys and made[e] prisoners of all the females and four boys. Sah-cah-gar-we-ah o[u]r Indian woman was one of the female prisoners taken at that time..."
Sometime between 1800 and 1804, Sacajawea was purchased by a French-Canadian fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, who bought her, and another captive Shoshone woman known as Little Otter or Otter Woman, as his wives. Charbonneau had lived among different Native American groups for a long time and had adopted some of their traditions, like polygamy, though the women who were considered his wives were also viewed as his purchased property. Even throughout the journals of the Corps of Discovery, she is often referred to by pejorative and offensive terms for Native American women that connote the view that women were lesser than men and property that could be disposed of as the men pleased.
When the Corps of Discovery arrived at the Hidatsa-Mandan settlement, about 60 miles northwest of modern-day Bismarck, North Dakota, on November 2, 1804, Sacajawea was roughly six months pregnant with her first child by Charbonneau. Toussaint Charbonneau was hired by the Corps of Discovery as a translator, as he could speak both French and Hidatsa. Because of this, his wife Sacajawea, who spoke Hidatsa and Shoshone, joined the expedition as well. Her role, in part, was to help with translation, but her presence as a woman - and eventually a woman with an infant child - also symbolized a peaceful presence to other Native American nations the expedition would later encounter. While almost every member of the Corps of Discovery spoke only English, there were three other members who were of half-French and half-Native descent: Private Francois Labiche and Private Pierre Cruzette, who were both half-French and half-Omaha, and George Drouillard, who was half-French and half-Shawnee, and was also skilled in the use of various sign languages. These three men, along with Sacajawea and her husband, could create a translation chain for the expeditions leaders to speak with tribal chiefs and elders. Meriwether Lewis was keenly aware of the fact that the Shoshone had horses, which the Corps of Discovery would need use of if they and their supplies were going to make it across the treacherous Rocky Mountains; thus, Sacajwea and her ability to speak her native language became an imperative link in the translation chain.
A few months after the Corps of Discovery arrived at the Hidatsa-Mandan villages, Sacajawea gave birth to her son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, on February 11, 1805. It's believed that William Clark also nicknamed the boy "Pomp," and he's referred to throughout the journals by that name as well. Sacajawea, with her two-month old son strapped to her back, left the Hidatsa-Mandan villages with the Corps of Discovery on April 7, 1805. Her expertise was immediately needed by the expedition as they headed West toward the Rocky Mountains and the homelands of her native Lemhi-Shoshone people. When Sacajawea fell ill at the Great Falls of the Missouri River in June, Lewis admitted, "This gave me some concern as well as for the poor object herself, than with the young child in her arms, as from the consideration of her being our only dependence for friendly negocition with the Snake Indians on whom we depend for horses to assist us in our portage from the Missouri to the columbia River." He feared that losing Sacajawea would put their diplomatic goals with the Shoshone at risk and also jeopardize the possibility of gaining valuable resources. Luckily, she survived her illness, and Lewis's fears were not realized.
On August 8, 1805, Sacajawea recognized a rock formation the Shoshone called "the beaver's head," which Lewis wrote, "was not very distant from the summer retreat of her nation." He continued, "she assures us that we shall either find her people on this river or on the river immediately west of it's source." Her knowledge and memory were both correct. A few days later, Meriwether Lewis and three other men crossed the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass, with William Clark and the rest of the Corps of Discovery following not long after. After roughly five years, either living as a captive under the Hidatsa or traveling with the Corps of Discovery, Sacajawea returned to her Lemhi-Shoshone ancestral homelands. It was clear in William Clark's journal that Sacajawea rejoiced at the reunion with her people. On August 17, 1805, he wrote that she "danced for the joyful Sight, and She made signs to me that they were her nation." While there is disagreement on the motivations Sacajawea may have had in helping the men of the Corps of Discovery, and even disagreement on whether she had a choice in the matter at all, some historians and descendants of her family members argue that it was not lost on her that the Corps of Discovery might be her only opportunity to return to her family, her native people, and her homeland.
At the Shoshone villages, Sacajawea served as a translator between the Corps of Discovery and the Lemhi-Shoshone. Unbeknownst to her, the Chief of the Lemhi-Shoshone was actually her brother, who she had not seen for many years. Lewis remarked, "Shortly after Capt. Clark arrived with the interpreter Charbono, and the Indian woman, who proved to be a sister of the Chif Cameahwait. the meeting of those people was a really affecting, particularly between Sah cah-gar-wea-ah and an Indian woman, who had been taken prisoner at the same time with her, and who had afterwards escaped from the Minnetares and rejoined her nation." The deeply emotional reunion was likely not entirely represented in these journals by the men of the Corps of Discovery, but it would have been a powerful moment for her to return home.
Sacajawea's role was not solely as a translator for the Shoshone people. Even prior to the expedition's arrival on Lemhi-Shoshone land, she was helping them survive. May 14, 1805 was an eventful day for the expedition. While Lewis, Clark, and some other men were on the shores of the Missouri hunting, Charbonneau was at the helm of the pirogue boat. Lewis, in his recollection of the event wrote, "Charbono cannot swim and is perhaps the most timid waterman in the world," which proved to be quite unfortunate. A huge squall of wind struck the pirogue, which turned it on its side and it began to fill with water. As some of the men righted the boat by cutting the sails, the contents of the boat were in danger of being lost to the river. The contents, Clark remarked, include "our papers, Instruments, books, medicine, a great proportion of our merchandize, and in short almost every article indispensibly necessary to further the views, or insure the success of the enterprize in which, we are now launched." Charbonneau froze and made no moves to save the items, likely out of his own fear of drowning, but Sacajawea, who was sitting in the rear of the pirogue, not only was able to keep her young child safe, but also saved many of the expedition's belongings. Sacajawea, who Lewis "ascribe[d] equal fortitude and resolution," caught and preserved most of what was at stake.
Sacajawea's knowledge of the land and native plants also helped the men on the expedition. Rozina George, a great-great-great-great niece of Sacajawea, wrote of her ancestor for the Lewis and Clark Rediscovery Project at the University of Idaho. She said, "It was her spirituality, her connection, and teaching about our mother earth that helped her to persevere on the arduous journey." She collected edible plants and foraged for roots that could contribute to the overall food supply. She knew how to track where mice hoarded quantities of wild artichokes and collected gooseberries and currants that the men of the expedition could eat. In mid-May 1806, when the Corps of Discovery was preparing to cross the Bitterroot Mountains, some of the company fell ill. Meriwether Lewis wrote on May 16, "our sick men are much better today. Sahcargarmeah geathered a quantity of roots of a speceis of fennel which we found very agreeable food, the flavor of this root is not unlike annis seed." Sacajawea also collected yampa root, which Lewis described as being able to be eaten fresh, raw, boiled, or dried. She was drying out a store of the root as they crossed the Rocky Mountains. These additional food sources helped sustain the Corps of Discovery as they traveled unfamiliar land.
The Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean on November 15, 1805, and established winter quarters in modern-day Oregan, which they called Fort Clatsop, named for the local group of Native people. In March of the following year, they began their return journey. Lewis and Clark divided the expedition into two groups, one led by each of them. Sacajawea, her son Jean-Baptiste, and her husband Toussaint traveled with William Clark south of the Yellowstone River and through the Rockies at a place today called the Bozeman Pass. In his journals on July 13, 1806, Clark said Sacajawea "has been of great Service to me as a pilot through this Country," continuing to prove her skill as a navigator on the long and difficult journey. When the two groups of the expedition reunited in August, they traveled the next couple of days back to the Hidatsa villages where they had initially met Sacajawea and her husband. At this point, she and her family departed from the rest of the Corps of Discovery who was preparing for their travel back to St. Louis. For his service to the Corps of Discovery, Toussaint Charbonneau received 320 acres of land and a total of $500.33. His wife, who helped translate, navigate, and forage, and was the only female member of the expedition, received no compensation.
Sacajawea's life did not end simply because the expedition was over, but just as we know little about her childhood, we also know little about the later years of her life. William Clark, whose affection for Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau was apparent in his journals, offered an opportunity to Toussaint Charbonneau in a letter from August 20, 1806, when Clark was at an Arikara village nearby. He invited Charbonneau to bring his wife, Sacajawea, who Clark said, "deserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans," and move to St. Louis. Of their son, Clark said he would "educate him and treat him as my own child." Charbonneau accepted Clark's offer and traveled to St. Louis with his wife and young son. When Charbonneau chose to return to the Upper Missouri River region later on, he took his wife with him, but they left their son in Clark's care.
Many people believe that it was at this point that Sacajawea lived at Fort Manuel Trading Post, named for Manuel Lisa's Missouri Fur Company, which her husband worked for as a trader. In these accounts about the end of her life, it's believed that she gave birth to a daughter named Lisette somewhere around 1812. Her health declined, and it's said that she died around 25 years old on December 22, 1812, from typhus, according to the Fort Manuel records. While this is one account of her death, there are some oral histories that maintain she lived a much longer life. Many people dispute even the location of her grave, and some continue to say that she did not die until 1884 and was buried at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, which was occupied by the Lemhi-Shoshone.
We may never be certain about when Sacajawea actually died, where she was buried, or what the details of her later life truly held. As we do consider her role in the history of the United States and the North American continent, we see that there is little by way of verifiable and corroborative evidence about her life and experiences, mostly due to the fact that her own voice does not appear in the historic record. The image of Sacajawea, however, has been one used by many groups throughout American history. Suffragists used her as an example of how women have been inseparable from the growth of the country, in an effort to win women the right to vote. Americans of white, European descent used her as an example of a Native person essentially pledging allegiance to the burgeoning United States. The way she's viewed by Native people is varied today. Some, especially modern Shoshone relatives, believe that her actions stemmed from a desire to return to her Shoshone homeland with her new child. There's also disagreement among different peoples, like the Shoshone and the Hidatsa, about who can and should claim her life and legacy. She has become a figure in American public memory and mythology, and even with few facts about her life, her image has become more about what her life represents than the actual experiences she had.
Today, I leave you with a quote from Rozina George, one of Sacajawea's modern day family members. She said, "we believe that Sacajawea retained her allegiance to her Lemhi-Shoshone people. In spite of being captured by the Hidatsa at an early age, Sacajawea remained true to her culture and the completion of the arduous journey of the Lewis and Clark Expedition rests on this Lemhi-Shoshone teenager's cultural knowledge, courage, and fortitude."
This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.
Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.