A guide by any other name

by Victoria James

We don’t know when she was born, or when she died — was it April 9, 1812, at age 25, or perhaps Dec. 20, 1884, aged nearly 100? We don’t even know her real name, but the Shoshone woman who accompanied Lewis, Clark and the Corps of Discovery has a fair claim to being the most celebrated woman of color in the history of the United States.

News photo
This 1884 photograph shows a Shoshone woman, Mary Enos, with her baby in a cradleboard. The Shoshone woman who guided Lewis and Clark made a similar carrier for her newborn child.

You’ll find her image on the $1 coin issued in 2000; there is a statue of her on Capitol Hill, as well as in both the places she is said to have died. She’s been the subject of television documentaries, and pages and pages of the February 2003 issue of National Geographic. Yet almost everything we “know” about her is uncertain.

Take her name. Lewis and Clark called her “Sah-ca-gah-we-ah” and Indian tribes have quarreled ever since over whether this is derived from sacajawea, Shoshone for “boat pusher,” or from two Hidatsa words, sacaga meaning “bird” and wea meaning “woman.”

The facts are these: She was born in a Shoshone village in present-day Idaho, around the years 1786-88. At the age of 13 or so, she was captured in the Three Forks area of the Missouri River (she later recognized the spot when the Corps of Discovery passed through) by Hidatsa Indians from the Knife River who carried her off to their villages near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota.

The Hidatsa sold her to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Indian trader. When Lewis and Clark, who hired Charbonneau as the expedition’s interpreter, learned that he had a Shoshone “wife,” he was asked to bring her along, even though she was pregnant. Her language skills would be required to procure a guide over the Bitterroot Mountains and purchase horses from the Shoshone.

On Feb. 11, 1805, the woman Clark affectionately nicknamed “Janey” gave birth to a son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, after a long and difficult labor. Other events recorded in the journals of the two captains include her prompt action May 14, 1805, in rescuing “papers, instruments, books, medicine, a great proportion of our merchandize” when, according to Lewis, a boat steered by Charbonneau capsized.

In mid-June she was taken severely ill. Clark, apparently believing that she was suffering from venereal disease, wrote angrily that she was “out of her senses. . . . If she dies it will be the fault of her husband as I am now convinced.”

News photoA statue of the Shoshone woman who guided Lewis and Clark was installed in the U.S. Capitol Oct. 16, 2003 (above), and her portrait decorates the reverse side of the $1 coin, launched in 2000 (below).
News photo

She recovered, and in November of that year the Shoshone woman was granted a say in the siting of the party’s winter encampment. When, in the new year, an advance party proceeded to the Pacific Ocean, “[T]he Indian woman was very impotunate [sic] to be permitted to go, and was therefore indulged,” Lewis wrote on Jan. 6, 1806.

Perhaps the greatest benefit she provided to the expedition was to be proof of its peaceful intent — an Indian war party never traveled with a woman, let alone one with a baby, noted Clark on Oct. 19, 1805.

On the return journey, Charbonneau, the Shoshone woman and their child remained behind at the Mandan-Hidatsa villages. Charbonneau would be paid $500 and 130 hectares of land for his services to the expedition; she would receive nothing.

We do not know if she traveled to St. Louis with her husband the following year to collect his payment. With the end of the expedition, the Shoshone woman exits history and enters mythology. Only one thing is for sure — her afterlife is every bit as eventful as her recorded life.

From the scant references in the journals — which include as much information on the subject of Lewis’ dog, Seaman, and significantly more about the party’s hunting habits — countless Sacagaweas have been constructed. Some are fanciful, others plausible; many are romanticized, some have been deployed to political ends by campaigners for women’s suffrage and advocates of native American interests.

Nothing is more emblematic of the divergent views than the two theories surrounding the woman’s death. From 1905 to 1936 Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard, librarian of the University of Wyoming, recorded testimonies from varied sources — male and female, white and Indian — describing a Shoshone woman who had died on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation in December 1884 aged almost 100. In 1932, she published her findings in a book, boldly identifying the woman as “Sacagawea: A Guide and Interpreter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.”

In 1925, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, South Dakota, had dispatched Charles A. Eastman, a doctor and a Sioux by birth, to conduct inquiries into the reports surrounding the Wind River woman. He, too, concluded in favor of her identity as the expedition guide, and the State of South Dakota duly erected a monument at the site of her death.

Clark, however, believed that his “Janey” died in 1812. Sometime between 1825 and 1828 he compiled a list of the expedition members, and entered: “Se car ja we au — Dead.”

This is not the sole evidence suggesting that the woman died young — nor is it wholly reliable, as Clark also noted “dead” beside the name of Sgt. Patrick Gass, who was very much alive at the time.

However, a journal kept by one John Luttig, a clerk of the Missouri Fur Company, included the following entry for Dec. 20, 1812: “This Evening the Wife of Charbonau a Snake [Shoshone] Squaw, died Of a putrid fever she was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged abt 25 years she left a fine infant girl.”

Another diarist, Henry Marie Brackenridge, recorded an encounter in 1811 with Charbonneau and “an Indian woman of the Snake nation, both of whom had accompanied Lewis and Clark to the Pacific.” The woman, he wrote, “had become sickly.” And so a logical narrative chain is established in which the Shoshone woman first sickened, then died in 1812.

One final piece of evidence is an adoption document entered in the Orphans Court Records in St. Louis, Mo., in 1813, identifying Clark as the legal guardian of “Tousant Charbonneau, a boy about ten years, and Lizette Charbonneau, a girl about one year old.” The boy, despite the entry of his name, must have been Jean-Baptiste, the Shoshone woman’s son. According to Missouri State law, a child could only be designated an orphan and adopted if the court held papers confirming that both parents were dead.

Ultimately, the date of her death matters less than the process by which a decision on it is made. Some scholars have cast the debate over the Shoshone woman’s death as a clash of cultures. Do we favor copious oral testimony? Or do we opt for fewer, but more “authoritative” written sources? Do we trust Indians telling tales less than white men keeping journals? A female researcher less than a male explorer?

“The story that she lived until 1884 . . . elevates her gender and culture in relationship to the dominant ones,” writes Thomas P. Slaughter. “The historical accuracy of these two versions of her postexpedition life has always been secondary to their mythical truth.”

That “mythical truth” — the Shoshone woman’s significance as a symbol — is the one thing, perhaps, that’s no longer in dispute. Yet even that might have been different.

That the “Sacagawea” of American history is remembered at all is thanks in large part to the actions of an early champion, a female writer of historical novels named Eva Emery Dye. As is made clear by a new biography, “Eva Emery Dye: Romance with the West” by Sheri Bartlett Browne (Oregon State University Press, 2004), the author’s 1902 novel “The Conquest” was for decades considered a definitive account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition — and of its Indian “heroine.”

In the novel, “Sacajawea” is described as “a born linguist” and “save Pocahontas, the most traveled Indian Princess in our history.” When her request to view the Pacific Ocean is refused, “her woman’s determination” is “aroused and she took the rostrum, so to speak.”

For Dye, the Shoshone woman was a feminist icon, but not a fearful one; she was the mother of a mixed-race child, and of a nation. The author campaigned tirelessly for the creation of monuments to her, and gave speeches promoting her role in the expedition — all this allied to Dye’s lifelong involvement in the women’s suffrage movement.

Toward the close of Dye’s novel, “Sacajawea” surveys the land she has traveled through, seeing the “blue Columbia widen into bays studded with Chinook and Clatsop villages; . . . rich prairies enlivened with beautiful streams and lakes.” Dye imagines her looking “with calm and shining eyes upon the fruition of her hopes.”

What would the Shoshone woman think if she looked upon her country today: her face on the silver dollar coin, her statue on Capitol Hill — and the names of Indian tribes and chieftans bestowed upon army helicopters (Chinook), leisure vehicles (Winnebago) and hairstyles (Mohawk)?

That, too, is something we’ll just never know.