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An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: A Singular Woman’s Name—Sacajawea

Oct 10, 2018 by

Sacajawea

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Most history books mention the name of Sacajawea.  What is she most known for?

Most Americans will undoubtedly recognize the name of the famous Native American female Sacajawea, and would probably know that she had something to do with the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. If their teachers went into depth about the Lewis and Clark expedition, Americans might remember learning that Sacajawea played a crucial role in the one potentially violent confrontation that the explorers had as they made their way westward.

As the story goes, when the party reached present-day Idaho in 1805, they ran into members of the Shoshone Tribe that seemed on the verge of attacking the explorers. At that moment, Sacajawea came forward to talk to the Native American chief, revealing herself to be his long-lost sister. Because of this, the chief ordered his braves to stand down, and offered to help Lewis and Clark by offering horses in trade. An examination of the journal kept by Lewis, however, reveals that the meeting in question had no such confrontational moment.

Sacajawea did indeed meet a brother that she had not seen in years that day in 1805, but she did not have to appeal to him to spare the expedition. It appears that accounts of the expedition written years later embellished this incident to make it seem more dramatic.

Lewis and Clark did indeed have a few anxious moments in their encounters with Native Americans, most notably in September of 1804 with a band of Teton Sioux in present-day North Dakota, but Sacajawea did not play the role of peacemaker in any of them. Rather, her importance to the expedition came from other factors that we will address shortly.

2. How did she get involved with the Lewis and Clark expedition?

Most historians believe that Sacajawea was born in 1788 in present-day Idaho. In 1800, a band of Hidatsa Sioux kidnapped her, and took Sacajawea to one of their villages in present-day North Dakota. A year later, a French-Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau purchased her and another young Native American woman, and they became his wives.

In 1804, Lewis and Clark made their winter encampment near where Charbonneau lived with his wives, and over the next few months the explorers learned from him that Sacajawea spoke Shoshone. Knowing that they would have to travel through that tribe’s land, they offered to hire Charbonneau as an interpreter if he would bring along Sacajawea.

Charbonneau agreed, and he and Sacajawea (who had recently given birth to a son) joined the expedition when it broke camp in the spring of 1805.

3. In terms of the Lewis and Clark expedition, why is she important?

As previously noted, many history books contain accounts that suggest Sacajawea helped save the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. Historians today do not accept that story, but do feel that Sacajawea may have saved the party on numerous occasions without incident. This stems from the fact that Native American war parties did not include females, which meant that when Lewis and Clark came into contact with Native Americans, those groups recognized that the explorers did not represent a threat. In this manner, Lewis and Clark most likely avoided hostilities merely through the presence of a woman and her child.

4. Did she play any other important part in the entire endeavor?

When President Thomas Jefferson chose Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition into the recently acquired parcel of land known as Louisiana Territory, the US Army captain knew that he would need to keep an account of his travels. Although his primary goal involved gathering geographical and cultural information, Lewis and his second-in-command William Clark decided to include scientific observations in their records.

In May of 1805, many of the journals that the two had meticulously kept ended up in the Missouri River after one of the boats transporting the expedition overturned. Immediately, Sacajawea jumped into the chilly water and retrieved the precious cargo. Without her quick action, these records would never have come to the attention of President Jefferson or the American people.

5. After the Lewis and Clark expedition, do we have any information as to how she spent the rest of her life?

Historians differ on what eventually happened to Sacajawea. Some believe that she lived well into her nineties, and died in 1884 on a reservation in Wyoming. Most historians feel, however, that she died much earlier than that.

It seems that after the Lewis and Clark expedition returned to its point of origin in St. Louis in 1806, Charbonneau and Sacajawea returned to present-day North Dakota. At the invitation of William Clark, the two moved to St. Louis in 1809.

There, Charbonneau and Sacajawea gave him custody of their son. A year later, she gave birth to a daughter. Although the records at that point become vague, it seems likely that the three of them went back to present-day North Dakota. According to two accounts (one from William Clark), Sacajawea then died in 1812. In all likelihood, we will never know what exactly happened to her after she and Charbonneau left St. Louis.

6. What have I neglected to ask?

Whether from history books or the fact that the United States put an image of her on a one dollar coin, most Americans today know that a person named Sacajawea helped shape the nation by aiding the Lewis and Clark expedition. Interestingly, nineteenth century histories of the United States contain almost no references to her, and very few of Lewis and Clark.

It wasn’t until the centennial of the expedition, with the accompanying World’s Fair held in St. Louis in 1904, that the story of their exploits became widely publicized. Thus, while many of the women we have examined in this series have faded into obscurity over the years, Sacajawea (like Betsy Ross) is much better known today than she would have been 150 years ago.

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