A North Star Dakotan Special Report: Sakakawea "Deserved a Greater Reward," Said Clark
She is perhaps the most famous of all women of the plains. The young Shoshoni woman with her son on her back did indeed travel from the villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa to the Pacific Ocean and back with Lewis and Clark.
Whether she made it possible for the explorers to buy horses from her brother or was able to guide the expedition through uncharted areas has been questioned by many historians. Nonetheless, she did offer invaluable service which Clark, if not Lewis, recognized as essential to the success of Lewis and Clark’s exploration.
Sakakawea has been portrayed in many paintings, as well as in statues and monuments. One of the most famous is the bronze statue of her and her son Baptiste on the capitol grounds at Bismarck. It was erected by the Federation of Women’s Clubs and schoolchildren in 1910. A replica was cast and placed in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. in 2003, marking the bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. There are also many stories and novels about her, some songs, and an opera written by North Dakotans.
The spelling of this famous woman’s name is controversial; the official spelling in the state of North Dakota, Sakakawea, is that of the Hidatsa word for “Bird Woman.” Some have suggested that her name was Sacajawea, the Shoshoni word meaning “boat launcher.” It is likely that her name was not pronounced not the way we North Dakotans now do, but rather as SAH KAH’ JAH WEE’ AH. Perhaps, a better spelling might be “Sacagawea” as has been adopted most widely across the nation, but that would mean that a lot of signs and names in North Dakota would have to be changed, such as Lake Sakawea, the state’s largest body of water.
In their journals, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark refer to her as “the Indian Woman” or “Janey,” perhaps because they had trouble spelling her name. But Clark always spelled the words he heard native peoples use phonetically. In a reference to her in 1828, he wrote he name “Se car ja we au.”
We know that she was born about 1789 to the tribe known as the Shoshoni. The Shoshoni lived in the Rocky Mountains near the source of the Yellowstone River. They often traded horses with the tribes on the Great Plains.
When Sakakawea was eleven years old, she was captured in the Rocky Mountains by a war party of Hidatsa. She lived with them until she was sold as a slave to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader who lived with the Mandan. Charbonneau married her soon thereafter and they lived in the Knife River villages.
While Lewis and Clark were at the villages at the Knife and Missouri Rivers, Sakakawea had a baby boy named Jean Baptiste. Meriwether Lewis reported that her labor was long and intense until Sakakawea was given a dose of two rattlesnake rattles broken up into small pieces. Lewis writes, “she had not taken it more than ten minutes before she brought forth.”
What was Sakakawea’s contribution to the success of the expedition?
One of her important roles was to be a translator, what Clark called an “interpretress with the Snake (Shoshoni) Indians.” She was able to interpret not only the talks with her people, who provided the expedition with horses, but also with other peoples met on the way to the Pacific Ocean. These tribes had captured Shoshoni who had learned their language. They would talk to the leaders and tell Sakakawea what they said. She would translate their translation for Lewis and Clark.
Second, the very presence of Sakakawea and Baptiste on the trip gave a signal to the native peoples that the group had peaceful intentions, because no group traveled with women and children if they wanted to make war. Clark wrote, “The wife of Charbonneau 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.”
Third, Sakakawea did remember landmarks she had seen as a very young child on two important occasions—in the summer of 1805, she recognized places that helped the Lewis and Clark Expedition locate the Shoshoni camps; on the way back from the Pacific, she provided valuable information about the location of a mountain pass (later named Bozeman pass) which the explorers wrote “cheered the spirit of the party.”
On the way to the Pacific, Sakakawea was reunited with her brother Cameahwait, a Shoshoni leader, at a time when the Lewis and Clark Expedition was desperate for help and horses to get over the mountains. As boats were unloaded, Sakakawea recognized her brother and, as the explorers wrote, “jumped up, ran and embraced him, and threw her blanket over him and cried profusely.”
What Happened to Sakakawea and Baptiste?
Some people believe that this woman lived to be 100 years old and that she died in Wyoming in 1884. But other scholars have strong evidence that she died on December 20, 1812, at Fort Manuel in present-day South Dakota. John Luttig, the trader there, wrote in his journal, “this evening the wife of Charbonneau, a Snake Squaw, died of a putrid fever. She was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years.”
Her husband Charbonneau lived to an old age. Until his death, he continued to serve as an interpreter for the government.
Charbonneau and Sakakawea went to St. Louis in 1810 and put their son Baptiste in the charge of William Clark, who sent him to school. Their son became a famous guide and interpreter. He traveled to Europe in 1824 with the German Prince Paul of Württemberg. One of the people he guided was Clark’s own son, Jefferson. Baptiste lived to be 80 years old.
William Clark was much more impressed with Sakakawea than was Meriwether Lewis. Lewis wrote, “If she had enough to eat and a few trinkets I believe she would be perfectly content anywhere.” Clark wrote to Charbonneau after the journey saying “Your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatiguing route to the Pacific Ocean and back deserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that route than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans.”
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.