The Historical Sacajawea

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Sacajawea was born in Idaho, perhaps in 1790. She was a member of the Lemhi Shoshone Tribe, who were also known as the Snake People. As a young girl, she was captured by the Hidatsa tribe and taken to North Dakota. Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper, bought, or possibly won, Sacajawea and Otter Women as “wives.” At the time Charbonneau joined the expedition at Fort Mandan, Sacajawea was 16 and pregnant. She had her baby in February 1805, who was given the official name, Jean Baptiste, but Sacajawea called him a Shoshone name, Pomp (First-Born).

Contribution to the Lewis and Clark Expedition

The Lewis and Clark expedition continued westward in April following the Missouri River. In May, Sacajawea salvaged books and supplies from an overturned boat, which won the praise of Clark. This adeptness with boats makes sense; her name, in fact, means puller of boats. In August the expedition arrived in Idaho, and Sacajawea learned that all her family had died except two brothers and a nephew. She did not remain with her family but continued with the party and wintered with them at a camp on the Columbia River.

Charbonneau and Fort Manadan

As a young woman, Sacajawea was considered both wife and property by her husband, who verbally abused her and on at least one occasion struck her, causing William Clark to intervene and stop the physical abuse.Sacajawea had no choice, but to stay with Charbonneau, who was not liked by other fur traders and referred to as “a knave, a sneak, and a scoundrel.” Harold Howard, Sacajawea’s biographer, writes: “Indian girls were generally accorded little respect. It was customary to think of the girls as chattels.” Charbonneau had the typical fur trader’s careless attitude toward Indian womanhood.

When the expedition was completed in the summer of 1806, Sacajawea and Charbonneau remained at Fort Manadan. In August, Clark invited the family to come to live in St. Louis, which they did until March 1811. Then, leaving their son with Clark, they returned to the Dakotas.

Two Histories

Two widely different Sacajawea stories then emerge. One history, the most accepted, has Sacajawea dying December 20, 1812. Howard records that John Luttig, the Fort Manuel clerk, recorded, “This evening, the wife of Charbonneau, A Snake squaw, died of putrid fever. She was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years. She left a fine infant girl [Lizette].” Luttig did not record the name of the young woman who died at Fort Manuel, which has led to the supposition that it was not Sacajawea who died but another wife of Charbonneau’s. Shoshone oral history and the work of Charles Eastman assert that Sacajawea traveled through the West and eventually settled and died as an old woman on the Wind River Reservation on April 9, 1884.