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Exhibits > Sacajawea > Part 1

Part:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Illustration Credit

Sacagawea Imagery
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 home.

    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 . . ."

 

Fig 2: 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 the continent.

    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 left off:

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.

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