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By Patrick Springer, Published January 09 2005

Sakakawea: Myths abound about origin, death of woman who aided Lewis & Clark

Sakakawea ambled into recorded history one "clear and pleasant" morning in a way that endeared her to an explorer still getting acclimated to the harsh plains weather.

Sgt. John Ordway noted in his journal that two American Indian women visiting the Lewis and Clark Expedition's winter camp, still under construction, came with welcome gifts - four buffalo robes.

"I Got one fine one myself," Ordway wrote on Nov. 11, 1804, at Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota. "Chilly this evening."

Fittingly, Sakakawea wasn't mentioned by name. She was one of two Indian wives of a French-Canadian fur trader who Lewis and Clark had recently hired as their interpreter.

Nobody knew then that the teenaged expectant mother would become a celebrated member of the Corps of Discovery - with 21st century fame rivaling that of the two captains who led the expedition to the Pacific Northwest, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Once almost forgotten, Sakakawea thrives today as an icon, embraced over the years as a symbol by women's suffragists, feminists, American Indian activists and tourism promoters.

"I think Sakakawea has come to represent so many things to so many people and organizations," said Amy Mossett of New Town, N.D., who has portrayed Sakakawea throughout the country for 17 years.

"Because we know so little of Sakakawea as a person, as a human being, people have come to shape her to fit a need," said Mossett, a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes that hosted the explorers while they were in North Dakota.

No known written descriptions of her physical appearance were made during her lifetime, but her likeness is stamped on to coins and cast into statues, often with her infant son on her back, sometimes pointing majestically to the west.

Few concrete facts about her life before and after the expedition survive. Her enigmatic past is a blank page that Hollywood screenwriters, novelists and propagandists have filled creatively to shape her image.

Sakakawea's role in the expedition, still debated by historians today, had its beginnings during the explorers' long winter stay 200 years ago near Mandan and Hidatsa villages on the Missouri River, not far from where Washburn, N.D., is today.

She'd been living with the Hidatsa, who had villages across the river at the Knife River Indian Villages, now a national historic site where depressions from earth lodges still dimple the landscape.

Historians believe Sakakawea was a Shoshone who had been taken captive five years earlier by a Hidatsa raiding party when she was 11 or 12 years old, perhaps while her tribe was hunting buffalo.

Her Shoshone heritage, in fact, probably was the reason a pregnant female was picked to join an expedition of rugged men, most of them soldiers, for an arduous journey into the unknown.

During the long winter at Fort Mandan, the last outpost of the known world on the trek upriver, Lewis and Clark began focusing on how they would cross the mountains further west.

They knew that passage could require horses, which they didn't possess. That, in turn, might require dealing with the Shoshone, a tribe American fur traders and explorers hadn't yet encountered, but had been described by the Hidatsa.

In fact, Sakakawea's past life in the Missouri River's headwaters region in Montana would set the stage for one of the expedition's most dramatic encounters on the trip to the Pacific Coast.

The trip west

On Feb. 11, 1805, Sakakawea gave birth to her first child, a son named Jean Baptiste.

Her labor had been difficult. At a fur trader's suggestion, Lewis administered a native remedy: crumbling a dried rattlesnake rattler and mixing it into a potion.

Ten minutes later, Sakakawea gave birth. "Perhaps this remedy may be worthy of future experiments," Lewis wrote in his journal, "but I must confess that I want faith as to it's efficacy."

About three months after Jean Baptiste was born, Sakakawea's husband, Touissant Charbonneau, proved his ineptitude at the helm of a pirogue, especially one equipped with a sail.

His clumsiness surfaced most memorably one spring day, as the expedition progressed upriver in Montana.

A sudden gust of wind grabbed the pirogue he piloted. Instead of turning against the wind, he erred by turning with it.

The boat almost capsized, quickly filling with water almost to the gunnels, or outside rim of the pirogue's sides. The captains, both standing on shore, watched in horror as irreplaceable items floated into the flowing river, including journals, maps and navigational tools.

Sakakawea, seated in the bow, probably with her baby strapped to her back in a cradleboard, maintained her calm and quickly grabbed many of the buoyant objects before they could float away.

"The Indian woman to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, and with any person on board at the time of the accident, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard," Lewis wrote the next day.

In some retellings of the episode, Sakakawea dove into the river to retrieve sinking cargo, but historians discount that version. Lewis' account doesn't mention her jumping into the water.

Days later, Sakakawea was mentioned by name in the journals - and the captains named a small Montana river in her honor.

A few months later, in May 1805, Sakakawea had what must be one of the most poignant chance encounters in the history of the American West.

The expedition had reached the Three Forks region of Montana, the headwaters of the Missouri. The explorers needed information from the Shoshone about how to get across the mountains. And they needed Shoshone horses.

When Lewis and Clark met with a Shoshone chief, Cameahwait, Sakakawea stared at the man, who she suddenly recognized as her brother, as she took part in an elaborate translation chain to convert Shoshone to Hidatsa to French to English.

She jumped up, threw her blanket over the chief and embraced her brother, according to an account in the journals.

Lengthy negotiations followed and Lewis and Clark obtained 29 horses and one mule. In exchange, they presented Cameahwait with gifts including a uniform coat, a pair of scarlet leggings, tobacco and a coin with a likeness of President Thomas Jefferson.

After the explorers reached the Pacific Coast, in Oregon, Sakakawea was allowed to vote with other members of the expedition to decide the site of their 1805-06 winter camp.

Sakakawea's vote - for a location with plentiful edible roots - has been hailed as the first recorded vote cast by a woman in the United States.

For that reason, she was embraced by women's suffragists in the early 20th century, and later by feminists pushing for equal rights for women.

Limited role in corps

Despite popular depictions of Sakakawea as a crucial pathfinder, her actual role as a guide was limited.

"She was not their guide and did not point the way," Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns wrote in "Lewis and Clark: An Illustrated History." "Most of the route the expedition followed was across territory as alien to her as it was to the men from Virginia."

Most historians agree her usefulness as a guide came on two occasions: in the familiar terrain of the headwaters region and pointing out a landmark at what has come to be known as the Bozeman Pass on the return trip.

Her more important roles were as interpreter, especially with the Shoshone and other western tribes, and goodwill emissary. The benign presence of a young mother, with infant child in tow, signaled to tribes that the heavily armed expedition wasn't hostile.

"I really see her as being kind of an ordinary person," Mossett said. Her most important legacy, in Mossett's view, is to represent the contributions of American Indians in helping the explorers and many of those who followed.

"Through her, we can present our history and culture in a more serious way," said Mossett, who works for the National Council for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration.

Although historians overwhelmingly agree that Sakakawea was a Shoshone - who was adopted by the Hidatsa after they captured her - the oral traditions of several tribes claim her as their own.

A story has been passed down through generations of Hidatsa that Sakakawea was Hidatsa by birth, not adoption, according to Calvin Grinnell, a historian for the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.

The basis for that tradition stems from testimony once given to the Indian Claims Commission, and traces back to a story told in 1925 by Hidatsa Chief Bulls Eye about a gift exchange between Sakakawea and her brother, Cherry Necklace.

Also, a story recorded in the mid-1980s by the late Helen Wilkinson described Sakakawea as a woman who was "tall, heavy-set and liked to fight," invariably on behalf of a weaker woman.

"It's correct to say she was Shoshone by birth and Hidatsa by culture," said Greg Camp, a historian with the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Mossett agrees. The fact Sakakawea had a Hidatsa name - Bird Woman - attests to the fact that she was adopted, and therefore took up the customs and practices of the Hidatsa, presumably gardening and other domestic chores, she said.

Death in dispute

Even Sakakawea's death is a matter of dispute. Some believe Sakakawea died as an old woman and is buried in the Shoshone's Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

But most historians agree that Sakakawea, who was returned to the Hidatsa villages at Knife River during the expedition's return trip in 1806, died as a young woman.

"She's a tragic figure as well as a heroic figure," Camp said, noting her early death.

A fur trader at Fort Manuel, an outpost owned by fur mogul Manuel Lisa, apparently recorded her death in his journal on Dec. 20, 1812.

John C. Luttig wrote that Charbonneau's wife, a Shoshone woman, "died of a putrid fever." He went on to write "she was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged abt 25 years."

Fort Manuel, now underwater, was near present-day Kenel, S.D., just south of the North Dakota border on the Standing Rock Reservation.

Years later, when Clark was chronicling the whereabouts of expedition members in a journal spanning 1825-28, he briefly noted reports of her passing. Clark, who had raised and helped educate Jean Baptiste after he returned to St. Louis, wrote:

"Sar car Ja we a Dead."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522