Native American History – Sacajawea: The True Story

“The Bird Woman”

Sacajawea (Sak-a-ja-we’-ah), a young indian woman of the great Lemhi Shoshone was born about 1787 in the Snake River Country, what is today southern Idaho. She was to become famous around the world.

Sometime between the age of ten and fourteen, she was captured by a Hidatsa war party, a hostile Minnetaree tribe from the east in North Dakota. Suddenly there was shouting and screaming in the Shoshoni camp. To her horror she saw the Hidatsa warriors killing her people. They rounded up the survivors and took them away to the Minnetaree village. Many weeks later, after a long and dangerous journey, they arrived a the Hidatsa village of the Minnetaree. She was given a new name. Sakaa-ja-wiija, meaning “Bird Woman”.

For more than three years, she worked hard in the Hidatsa village. Then one day, Sacajawea learned that she had been traded to a French Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau. He was nearly three times older than Sacajawea and had lived among the Minnetarees and Mandans for several years.

At about the same time in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson completed the purchase of the Louisiana Territories from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the French for 15 million dollars. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of what was then the United States. Meriwether Lewis, the President’s young private secretary of thirty years old, and his friend Captain William Clark, along with other teams were appointed by the President to explore the vast wilderness west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

They planned to travel up the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains in hopes to find a river which would empty into the Pacific Ocean. On November 3, 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, called “The Corps of Discovery” arrived in Hadatsa territory. They built Fort Mandan across the river from the Minnetarees and Mandan villages.

It was there they engaged Toussaint Charbonneau as an interpreter and guide. Sacajawea had just given birth to her son on February 11, 1805. Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, but everybody called him “Pompey” which meant Little Chief. She went along with the party of explorers, carrying her papoose on her back, anxious and hoping to return to her own people, who ranged from Three Forks, Montana, westward into Idaho. It was not long after Sacajawea, and not her husband, who became the unofficial guide to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Charbonneau was loud, lazy and a rough man.

On April 7, 1805 the expedition left Fort Mandan, near what is known today as Bismark, North Dakota. Sacajawea and her son are mentioned almost daily in the explorer’s famous journal. The Captains and several of their men wrote in meticulous details each days events and discoveries in their journals. They wrote about her sacrifices, perserverance, and heroic deeds. There was hunger and feasting. There was bitter cold in the “Shining Mountains” as the Rocky Mountains were called by the Shoshoni. Carrying her son on her back, Sacajawea led the team of explorers through uncharted terrain. Clad in doe-skin, and the only woman in the party, Sacajawea was unafraid walking hundreds of miles. She saved the men from starvation in the bitter cold winter and healed them with herbs and roots.

She sat in at Tribal Council meetings with the Chiefs, as no Indian woman had done before, negotiating for food and supplies. She spoke several languages and served as interpreter to the Captains. Sacajawea was a quite woman. She seldom complained and as long as she was given a few trinkets to wear, she was happy. She gained the respect and admiration of the men in the expedition.

When the party reached Three Forks, Montana, Sacajawea met her own people and learned that her brother, Cameahwait, had become a Headman of a Shoshoni village. She was able to obtain aid and ponies from her people, without which the party would not have been able to continue.

On October 30, 1805 they arrived on the shores of the Pacific Ocean on the Columbia River. They had passed through many Indian territories on their journey westward. Sioux, Anikaras, Shoshoni, Nez Perce, Blackfoot, Skillots, Flatheads, Chinook and Clatsops to name a few.

At one of their encampments, Fort Clatsops, they met a Chinook Chief Comowool. He was wearing the most beautiful robe the Captains had ever seen. It was made entirely of the skins of white otter. They wanted to trade for the robe as a gift for President Jefferson. But, Comowool would not accept anything the Captains were willing to trade. He kept staring at the blue beaded belt that Sacajawea was wearing. She had received it years before from her mother. Blue beads were like gold to the Indian. He wanted the belt. Without hesitation, Sacajawea handed the Comowool her belt in trade for the precious robe for the Great White Father in Washington.

On March 23, 1806, the Captains gave Fort Clatsop and everything in it to Comowool and started on the long journey home. On August 14, 1806, they arrived back at the Mandan villages, after two and one half years. Charbonneau was paid five hundred dollars, good wages for the time. He was last heard of in 1839, when he was about 80 years old and showed up at the Indian Affairs Office in St. Louis and asked the superintendent for his back pay as interpreter to the Mandans. Sacajawea was paid nothing for her services, she was simply Charbonneau’s wife.

Pompey was sent to Europe to be educated as promised by the red-headed Captain Clark. When he was 18, be became friends with a German Prince, who was visiting America and traveled with him in Europe for six years. What became of Sacajawea remains a mystery.

Most historians agree on April 12, 1811 Sacajawea set out with Charbonneau on a Missouri River expedition. She later settled at a fur trading post, not fare from where she joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition nearly seven years earlier. A fur trader reported her death on December 20, 1812 of fever. But in 1875 a missionary found an old woman among the Shoshoni who claimed to be Sacajawea, now nearly 100 years old. She died near Fort Washakie in Wyoming on April 9, 1884.

We will never know for certain, but we do know that the country Sacajawea helped explore will never forget her. There are more statutes erected in her honor than any other woman in American history, yet Sacajawea had no idea that her leadership would some day inspire awe and admiration. There are at least three mountains, two lakes and twenty-four monuments named after her today.

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