By Anne Adams
When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their expedition began their journey up the Missouri River from St. Louis in 1804 on their “Voyage of Discovery.” they knew they would need a guide/interpreter. Both Lewis and Clark kept complete records of their journey and many entries of their journals describe not just the man they employed, but also his Shoshone wife, Sacajawea. It was this “Bird Woman” who would not just be the only woman in the party but would also contribute in ways they could not yet see.
When the expedition arrived at the village of the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples in what is now North Dakota in November 1804, to spend the winter there they employed Toussaint Charbonneau. He was a French-Canadian man who had lived on the frontier for several years and brought with him two Indian wives. One of these girls was Sacajawea.
She was born sometime before 1790 to the Lehmi band of the Shoshone tribe in what is now central Idaho , but when she was about twelve she was abducted by some Hidatsa warriors and given the name of “Sacajawea” or “Bird Woman”. A few years later Sacajawea and another girl were acquired as wives by Charbonneau, who was living among the Hidatsa peoples.
However, before the expedition could resume traveling, in February 1805 she gave birth to a son named Jean Baptiste Charbonneau but often mentioned in the journals as “Pomp.” Then with the baby on her back in a cradleboard, Sacajawea, Charbonneau and the other 32 members of the expedition resumed their journey on April 7, 1805 . Clark described the party in his journal, and listed: “Sharbonah and his Indian squaw to act as interpreter and interpretess for the Snake Indiansand Sharbonah’s infant.”
Yet aside from her services as an “interpretess”, Sacajawea’s soon put her knowledge of the country to use as she gathered, stored, and prepared many local plants to vary their diet of the game animals they shot. On another occasion, just a month after they’d resumed their trip up the Missouri , she helped rescue some vital equipment. Lewis described how their boat overturned in a sudden squall and while the crew immediately set about righting the craft, it was Sacajawea who, with Pomp on her back, quickly began gathering various articles that had washed overboard. The books and scientific instruments were unharmed because they had been wrapped in a waterproof covering and in appreciation they later named a newly discovered river after her.
In July the group arrived at the point on the Missouri River where Sacajawea recognized her home country and so hoped her Shoshone people should be nearby. It proved so, for on August 17 they met a party of Lehmi-Shoshone and their chief Cameahwait and Sacajawea was called in. As Lewis described it: “She came into the tent, sat down and was beginning to interpret, when in the person of Cameahwait she recognized her brother; she instantly jumped up and ran and embraced him, throwing over him her blanket and weeping profusely after some conversation between them she resumed her seat, and attempted to interpret for us, but her new situation seemed to overpower her, and she was frequently interrupted by tears.” Because of this connection, Sacajawea helped arrange the provision of the needed supplies and guides to resume their journey.
The expedition continued, following the Snake River to the Columbia and then on down the Columbia to their ultimate destination the Pacific. However, while all along Sacajawea assisted the expedition with interpretation and knowledge of the local country, it was her very presence that also helped secure the security of the group. Clark described it in an entry for Oct. 13, 1805 : “The wife of Shabono our interpreter we find reconciles all the Indians as to our friendly intentions a woman with a party of men is a token of peace.” Lewis and Clark were probably well aware that the Indians would be secretly watching them and would naturally be suspicions of their intentions. Were they here to fight? Would they want to take tribal lands? Yet when they saw Sacajawea and her baby traveling with a group of men it was a silent indication that this was no war party. Once they realized that they would be less likely to meet the group with hostility.
The expedition returned to the Mandan villages in August of 1806 and there Charbonneau and Sacajawea decided to remain though they agreed to Clark’s offer to adopt Pomp when he was a bit older. Eventually they did join Clark for a short period in St. Louis , but returned to South Dakota , leaving their son. Jean Baptiste lived at least till 1866, and worked as a trapper, guide and soldier.
Charbonneau and Sacajawea reportedly settled at a fur company fort in South Dakota and it was in 1812 that we have an indication of her possible death. An entry that year in the diary of a fort employee records the death of Charbonneaus wife, a “Snake squaw” and this could have been Sacajawea.
However, there are other accounts of how Sacajawea did not die but later returned to the Shoshone community at Wind River to become active in tribal affairs. Some Shoshone and even whites in the area reported her as having died at about age 100 and being buried in that area. While there is speculation that this is another woman named Sacajawea, many Shoshone in the area even today treasure her memory and consider her their ancestor.
Like so many other women of the west at the time, both Indian and white, Sacajawea lived a hard, possibly short and aside from the few years with Lewis and Clark, an obscure life. Yet it was what she accomplished in that short period that has assured her place in history