> Sacajawea > Part 1
by Brian W. Dippie
It is astonishing how much has been written
about Sacagawea given the paucity of hard information on her.
There are few documentary sources apart from the Lewis and Clark
journals, and even the derivation and spelling of her name is
at issue. Should it be Sacajawea, supposedly a Shoshone word meaning
"Boat -Launcher." or should it be Sacagawea, a Hidatsa
word for "Bird Woman"--the commonly accepted version
today- Since attempts at spelling her name in the journals indicate
that the third consonant was hard, it has also been rendered Sakakawea,
the preferred spelling in North Dakota, just as Sacajawea has
been favored in Wyoming, where the legend persists that she lived
to a ripe old age, dying on the Wind River Shoshone Reservation
in 1884 a few years short of a hundred. This was the romantically-appealing
but historically-suspect position taken by Wyoming historian Grace
Raymond Hebard in her influential 1932 biography Sacajawea–a
position uniformly rejected by modern authorities, who agree that
Sacagawea, the Bird Woman, died in her mid-twenties in December
1812, six years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned
What do we know as a matter of historical
record about Sacagawea- Gary Moulton, editor of the definitive
modern edition of The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,
remarks that "the amount written about her far exceeds the
actual information about her life and personality." Indeed,
Moulton can summarize what is known about her in less than a page.
A Shoshone born about 1788, she was captured by the Hidatsa as
a girl of twelve near the Three Forks of the Missouri River, and
was living in the middle Hidatsa village on the Missouri in 1804
when acquired as a wife by Toussaint Charbonneau, an independent
French Canadian trader thirty years her senior. On November 4
that year Lewis and Clark hired the couple as interpreters at
Fort Mandan, their winter quarters on the Missouri River. Clark's
journal entry was succinct: "A french man by Name Chabonah,
who Speaks the Big Belley [Gros Ventre] language visit us, he
wished to hire & informed us his 2 Squars were Snake [Shoshone]
Indians, we engage him to go on with us and take one of his wives
to interpret the Snake language." Sacagawea, Moulton notes,
proved her worth in that capacity "among the Shoshonean-speaking
people in the Rockies," and contributed as a guide "in
the region of southwestern Montana in which she had spent her
childhood." The record also supports her symbolic value to
the expedition. She had given birth to Jean Baptiste ("my
boy Pomp," as Clark would dub him) on February 11 1805, some
two months-before Lewis and Clark departed Fort Mandan to resume
their journey to the Pacific. The fact that a mother and infant
were along "reconciles all the Indians, as to our friendly
intentions," Clark observed in his journal on October 13.
"A woman with a party of men is a token of peace."
This much is certain, then. Sacagawea,
a young Indian mother and her infant boy accompanied "a party
of men" on an arduous journey across the continent to the
Pacific Ocean and back again. In and of itself this was accomplishment
enough to secure her place in history. But over time Sacagawea
became something more than a brave and resourceful woman who shared
all the hardships of the trek. She became an American icon.
Such was not always the case. No picture
exists of Sacagawea, and none appeared in the school readers published
before 1900--hardly a surprise, considering the short shrift usually
given the Lewis and Clark Expedition in nineteenth-century histories.
It merited less than a single paragraph in John Clark Ridpath's
691-page Popular History of the United States of America (1878).
As the centennial of the expedition approached, however, interest
stirred and Sacagawea emerged as an equal partner in discovery,
an inspiration for women everywhere--and, eventually, as the third
member of what became the unmistakable triumvirate of Lewis, Clark
and Sacagawea, infant strapped on her back, as she literally pointed
the way west for the explorers. Sacagawea had stepped from the
periphery to become, by popular reckoning, a key actor in the
drama of discovery. Today she actually identifies the celebrated
duo of Lewis and Clark, who have been pictured as Minute Men clones
in tri-cornered hats and as Dan'1 Boone look-alikes in frontier
buckskins, according to the artist's preference, but are unmistakably
Lewis and Clark when Sacagawea is included.
Fig 1: Sacagawea
stands with Lewis and Clark
As Gary Moulton notes, "illustrators charged with making
a picture to represent 'The Lewis and Clark Expedition' have usually
produced variations on a familiar theme: the two captains, slightly
differentiated by dress, gaze off into the western distance; Sacagawea
stands nearby with her infant, sometimes pointing the way. Clark's
black servant, York, is usually prominent, especially in recent
years, and Toussaint Charbonneau and Lewis's dog, Scannnon (or
Seamen), are frequently present. In the background an anonymous
collection of buckskin-clad figures representing the rest of the
party follow their leaders' gaze toward the horizon or go about
their labors. This familiar picture represents the popular conception
on the expedition . . ."
Daubs' monumental sculpture combines a standing Lewis, a
seated Clark and a kneeling Sacagawea facing one way, York
and Seaman the other.
Sacagawea's reputation as the expedition's
indispensable guide turns on William Clark's journal entries in
1806 when Charbonneau and his wife and baby accompanied Clark's
party on the return journey. On July 6 Clark noted that in the
valley of the Big Hole River, "the Squar pointed to the gap
[in the mountains to the east] through which she said we must
pass . . . She said we would pass the river before we reached
the gap." And on the 13th he added that she had been "of
great Service to me as a pilot through this Country." Drawing
on Clark's characterization, Sacagawea has been transformed into
the "woman pilot" who steered Lewis and Clark to the
Pacific and then back home again.
The transformation began in 1902 with
Eva Emery Dye's thinly fictionalized novel The Conquest: The True
Story of Lewis and Clark. In a chapter titled "A Woman Pilot"
Sacagawea points out familiar landmarks to the explorers and is
described as "a Princess come home to her Mountain Kingdom."
The woman pilot image was irresistible, and Dye challenged artists
to give it visual form:.
Sacajawea, modest princess of the Shoshones,
heroine of the great expedition, stood with her babe in arms and
smiled . . . So had she stood in the Rocky Mountains pointing
out the gates. So had she followed the great rivers, navigating
Sacajawea's hair was neatly braided,
her nose was fine and straight, and her skin pure copper like
the statue in some old Florentine gallery. Madonna of her race,
she had led the way to a new time. To the hands of this girl,
not yet eighteen, had been intrusted the key that unlocked the
road to Asia.
Some day upon the Bozeman Pass, Sacajawea's statue will stand
beside that of Clark. Some day, where the rivers part, her laurels
will vie with those of Lewis.
Within three years of publication of Dye's novel the first book
devoted exclusively to Sacagawea, Katherine Chandler's The Bird-Woman
of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, appeared as a supplementary
reader for elementary school students. It picked up where Dye
The Bird-Woman was an Indian.
She showed the white men the way into the West.
There were no roads to the West then.
That was one hundred years ago.
This Indian woman took the white men across streams.
She took them over hills.
She took them through bushes.
She seemed to find her way as a bird does.
The white men said, "She goes like a bird.
"We will call her the Bird-Woman."
Her Indian name was Sacajawea.
Fittingly, the book's frontispiece featured
a photograph of a Sacagawea monument that had been dedicated in
Portland, Oregon on July 6 1905 with Susan B. Anthony in attendance
as the main speaker. The Women's Club of Portland had commissioned
the heroic-sized statue the previous year. In keeping with the
club's theme of recognizing women's contributions to Western development,
the artist chosen was Alice Cooper, a Denver sculptor. Her monument
complemented the theme of Portland's ambitious Lewis and Clark
Exposition, marking the centennial of the explorers' arrival on
the Pacific Coast, and served "to record woman's part in
working out the plan of our Western civilization . . . In patience,
courage, and endurance, woman proved man's equal."
Fig 3: Sacajawea,
Alice Cooper, 1905
Cooper created a simple yet dramatic rendering of Sacagawea that
simultaneously emphasized her maternal role and her role as guide
to the expedition. Her baby peers over her shoulder as she, with
upraised arm, points off in the distance. A poem published in
the Oregon Journal accompanied a photograph of the monument:
In yonder city, glory crowned,
Where art will vie with art to keep
The memories of those heroes green,
The flush of conscious pride should leap
To see her fair memorial stand
Among the honored names that be
Her face toward the sunset, still
Her finger lifted toward the sea!
It is possible that other artists anticipated Cooper's finger-pointing
Sacagawea. A print identified as the work of nineteenth-century
illustrator Alfred Russell shows a blanket-wrapped Sacagawea,
her baby riding in a cradle-board on her back, pointing off' in
the distance. But Russell's Sacagawea, turning her conventionally
pretty face towards the two captains and smiling winsomely, looks
suspiciously like the other Indian princesses who were a staple
of early twentieth-century advertising and calendar art.