A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the real story on Sacagawea?

February 24, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of the lewis and clark expedition, i read their journals, edited by frank bergon, and was surprised to find less than a half dozen references to sacagawea. other than a couple brief journal entries regarding her usefulness, she seemed to be quite a bit player for most of the expedition. my question is, why all the fuss? is her commemorative coin the product of some well-connected female lobbyists? please, tell me i'm missing something.

Okay, you're missing something. It's called a shift key. Also about a hundred journal references to Sacagawea. But you're not missing much when it comes to the big picture.

Sacagawea is remembered as the guide of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Yet of a hundred or more references to her in the journals, fewer than a dozen mention her guiding, and what guiding she did was never pivotal. We can't hold that against her, though. Contrary to popular belief, she wasn't hired as a guide but as an interpreter. Here she was more important, but still not the key to the expedition's success, as she has been called.

That's not to say she was unimportant. By any reasonable assessment, she contributed more to the success of the expedition than most of the men. For the first century after the expedition, her role was unfairly minimized. Around the turn of the last century, she went from unheralded to hyped in the span of a few years, thanks to two groups with their own agendas: white women seeking a paragon and white men seeking vindication. Before we look at how the myth evolved, let's look at the facts and misconceptions.

Sacagawea was a member of the Shoshone tribe living along the present Idaho-Montana border. As a teenager she was captured by a Hidatsa raiding party and taken to their village on the Missouri River in present North Dakota. It was there that a fortysomething French-Canadian trader named Toussaint Charbonneau later won her heart (and the rest of her body) in a game of chance. This "man of no particular merit" as Lewis called him took Sacagawea as his wife, notwithstanding the fact that he already had at least one. They were still living in that village when the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1804-05 nearby.

There is some dispute about the proper spelling and pronunciation of her name. In their original journal entries, the captains always spelled it with a G, but otherwise were not consistent in the spelling. Lewis wrote that it was a Hidatsa name meaning "bird woman." If so, that means that her original Shoshone name is unknown to us. In Hidatsa, Sacagawea can properly be pronounced with either a hard G or a K sound. The spelling Sakakawea (common in North Dakota) seems to be influenced by the mistaken belief that only the K pronunciation is correct. For some reason the spelling was changed to Sacajawea by the editors of the first published edition of Lewis and Clark's journals. This led to the still common pronunciation with a J sound, even though the name is now more often spelled with a G. The J spelling also invited a (probably false) etymology from a Shoshone phrase meaning "boat launcher."

Estimates of her age at the time she met Lewis and Clark vary. The U.S. Mint says 15 and some fiction writers have gone as low as 13, but the figure most commonly given is 16. In fact she may have been several years older. Lewis's journal entries give the clues. The summer after they met, Lewis wrote that when she was captured five years earlier, she had recently married (at 13 or 14) a Shoshone man. That makes 18 or 19, assuming she was captured very shortly after her first marriage. Then take into account the more than half a year between their first meeting and these journal entries, making a range of 17 to 19 when she first met the captains. Expedition member Patrick Gass said her capture might have been as few as four years earlier, which extends the possible age range to 16 to 19. So if the journals are correct, she could not have been 13 or 15, and even 16 is a stretch.

The captains hired Charbonneau for the winter of 1804-05 as an interpreter with the local Indians. He knew French and several Indian languages, but very little English. He would translate from Hidatsa or Mandan into French, then one of the bilingual members of the party would translate from French to English. It wasn't perfect, but it worked well enough to give them an idea of what to expect up to the headwaters of the Missouri. They knew that they would have to portage over the Rockies eventually, and for that they would need horses. When they learned that the Shoshone living around the likely portage sites had horses to sell and that Charbonneau had a Shoshone wife (who also spoke Hidatsa), they hired both to come along as interpreters.

Contrary to popular belief, Sacagawea and her infant son Jean-Baptiste (whom the captains helped deliver) were not the only Indians on the expedition. At least three of the permanent members of the expedition were Métis (part Indian and part French): George Drouillard was half Shawnee, and Pierre Cruzatte and Francis Labiche half Omaha. Several others may have been part Indian.

After they set out in the spring, Sacagawea made herself useful in other ways than interpreting and guiding. When a boat she was in nearly capsized, she saved many important instruments and papers. She often dug roots or caught fish to contribute to their larder, but there was nothing unusual in that. All the men had guns and were expected to hunt for their food, even Clark's slave York.

As they got closer to her homeland, she was able to point out landmarks and sometimes suggest which tributary might lead them toward her people. But they had pretty good maps of the area compiled from information provided by Indians and traders from the Northwest Company whom they met in North Dakota. It was only on the return trip that Sacagawea's guiding was of any particular importance.

When they found her people near Lemhi Pass on the present Idaho-Montana border, her interpreting skills proved helpful in negotiating the sale of horses. But it's debatable whether a knowledge of Shoshone was necessary to make the purchase. The Shoshone knew the Plains Sign Language, which the Indians of the region had evolved to permit communication among tribes speaking a variety of languages. Lewis called it the "common language of gesticulation universally understood by all the nations we have yet seen." Several members of the expedition knew the sign language and could have arranged the transaction.

More important than her interpreting skills here was her uncovering of a plan by the Shoshone to skip out on the Corps. After reluctantly agreeing to sell horses, the Shoshone decided to leave for a buffalo hunt without making the trade. When word of this plan reached the captains via Sacagawea and Charbonneau, they demanded an immediate sale and got the horses they needed.

It turned out to be no simple portage from the Missouri basin to the Columbia basin. The Lemhi River was a tributary of the Columbia, but not navigable even with canoes. Lewis and Clark learned that they would have to travel hundreds of miles overland to reach a passable tributary. Sacagawea was of no use as a guide here since she had never made the trip. She was of some help in hiring a Shoshone guide, whom the captains called Old Toby. He--not Sacagawea--was the most important guide of the whole expedition. Old Toby led them on the very difficult Lolo Trail over the Bitterroot Range to a Nez Perce village on the Clearwater, a navigable (for the brave) tributary of the Snake. Old Toby didn't take to white-water canoeing and soon left the party, but by then his work was done. His guiding had been far from perfect. He got them turned around, which cost them several days, but it's a good bet they never would have found the way without him. He also told them about a shortcut over the Lewis and Clark Range to the Great Falls of the Missouri, which might have saved them several weeks' travel compared to Lemhi Pass. On the return trip, after they split up to explore, Lewis took that route.

Sacagawea wasn't the only Indian woman important to the expedition's success. While in the Nez Perce village, most of the Corps was sick with dysentery. According to Nez Perce tradition, the Indians wanted to kill the explorers in their weakened state and take their weapons and trade goods. They were dissuaded by a Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis who had once lived at a Spanish mission. If this story is true, the expedition's success owes as much to her as to Sacagawea, or just about anybody else for that matter.

The rest of the journey to the Pacific and the winter spent near the mouth of the Columbia were fairly uneventful. There were no Shoshone speakers here, but there was little need of an interpreter anyway; the locals had already learned all the important English words from passing sailors including "musket," "knife," and "son of a bitch."

On the return trip, Sacagawea's interpreting skills came in handy among the Walla Walla, who had a Shoshone captive. The Walla Walla to Shoshone to Hidatsa to French to English translation must have been awkward, but it worked well enough to buy horses and get directions. They crossed the Lolo Trail again, but this time needed five young Nez Perce guides to find the way. Then they split up to explore further. Sacagawea went with Clark to find the Yellowstone River. It was here she did her most important guiding.

Clark knew from the Indians in North Dakota that there was a fairly easy route between the Three Forks of the Missouri and the Yellowstone. Actually, there are three passes in the area that might have worked. Sacagawea's contribution was to lead Clark over Bozeman Pass. Chances are he could have found his way without help, but she probably saved him at least a few days of hunting around. Clark himself was grateful, saying she "has been of great service to me as a pilot in this country." But you couldn't call her guiding here (or anywhere) indispensable. Even if he wasn't able to find his way to the Yellowstone, he could have turned back to float down the Missouri. He had already sent ten men that way to meet Lewis.

The rest of Sacagawea's return trip to North Dakota was uneventful. Not so for the other half of the expedition. Lewis and some of his men skirmished with a group of Blackfoot Indians. Several of the Blackfoot were killed, but none of Lewis's party. This confrontation, the only deadly one of the expedition, happened before Lewis rejoined Clark, so Sacagawea wasn't on hand. Perhaps if she had been it wouldn't have occurred. Clark once remarked that "the wife of Sharbono our interpreter we find reconciles all the Indians as to our friendly intentions. A woman with a party of men is a token of peace." This role may have been her most important contribution to the success of the expedition. Naturally her fans are not disposed to emphasize this more passive role over her guiding and interpreting.

That brings us to the development of the myth and how she became known as the indispensable guide. For a hundred years, much of the public's knowledge of the expedition derived from preliminary newspaper reports or from spurious accounts written by fakers, neither of which generally mentioned her. The first authentic book-length account was the journal of Sergeant Patrick Gass, published in 1807. The first published edition of Lewis and Clark's journals, a condensed paraphrase edited by Biddle and Allen, wasn't published until 1814 and sold poorly. Gass's journal, as edited by M'Keehan, downplays Sacagawea's role, never mentioning her by name. The Biddle edition also minimized Sacagawea's role to some degree.

Sacagawea didn't start to become a household name until the 1893 publication of another condensed version of the Lewis and Clark journals edited and annotated by Elliott Coues. He emphasized Sacagawea's contributions as a guide and interpreter and was the first to refer to her as a heroine. This is not an indefensible assessment, but Coues perhaps (and some later writers certainly), had an ulterior motive in emphasizing her heroism.

After the Indian wars, Sacagawea and other "good Indians" ironically became symbols of the rightness of manifest destiny and white displacement of the Indians. Here was an enlightened Indian maiden, the thinking seems to have been, who recognized the superiority of the white race and the inevitability of subduing the west. That this unusually perceptive Indian helped achieve that goal just goes to show that the conquest of the west was best for the Indians too, even if they didn't know it yet. This racist line of thinking is no longer emphasized, but it did play a part in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century lionization of "good Indians" like Sacagawea, Pocahontas, Squanto, and Massasoit.

In Sacagawea's case, the women's suffrage movement played an even bigger role. The writer who did the most to advance the Sacagawea myth was Eva Emery Dye in her popular 1902 novel The Conquest (misleadingly subtitled The True Story of Lewis and Clark). Dye's purpose was to show, contrary to anti-suffragist propaganda, that a woman could be strong, self-reliant, and capable and make great contributions to society without losing her femininity and maternal affections. She was right about that, but she left us with a lot of misinformation about Sacagawea in the process.

For example, Dye was the first to call Sacagawea the key to the expedition's success, claiming that without her expert pilotage the expedition would have been lost. Dye was also the first to call Sacagawea a princess. This seems to be a misinterpretation of the fact that her brother Cameahwait happened to be a leader of the Shoshone. But the Shoshone (like other North American Indians) had no concept of royalty, as Lewis's journals make clear. The "Indian princess" stereotype turns up a lot in misleading history, and even more in third-rate television and movie westerns. The stock Indian princess saves the white hero from her less enlightened brethren, and is often depicted as being tall, beautiful, and freakishly light-skinned. Think of Sacagawea as portrayed in the 1955 film The Far Horizons by that great Native American actress, Donna Reed.

Dye's novel sparked a wave of writings about Sacagawea, including both historical fiction and fictional history. For example, the idea surfaced in 1916 that before she died, Sacagawea converted to Christianity. This unsupported claim was first made in a fundraising pamphlet for a campaign to erect a statue of Sacagawea in North Dakota. Perhaps they thought the god-fearing people of North Dakota mightn't part with any of their hard-earned cash to raise a statue of a heathen. I don't know.

Paganism aside, the real Sacagawea was less than a perfect model for the suffragists. She remained with a man (Charbonneau) who beat her and practiced bigamy. Another convenient myth fixed that. In 1907, Grace Raymond Hebard asserted that Sacagawea died in the 1880s in Wyoming when she was well into her nineties. More importantly, Sacagawea took charge of her own destiny by leaving Charbonneau after one too many beatings. This take-charge version was once widely believed, but manuscript evidence has turned up since that indicates she really died in South Dakota in 1812 of "putrid fever" at about age 25. Worse, she stayed with Charbonneau till the end. The woman Hebard wrote about (but never met) was a real person who apparently claimed to be Sacagawea, a sort of Old West Anna Anderson.

So how did she get on the dollar coin? Since the previous dollar coin featured a woman (Susan B. Anthony), Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin decided that its replacement should also commemorate a woman. He passed the buck to an advisory committee to decide which one. They considered several ideas submitted by the public: including the controversial (Eleanor Roosevelt), the uninspiring (Martha Washington), and the obscure (Bessie Coleman). They whittled the choices down to Sacagawea (reasonably famous, apolitical, and unthreatening) or an allegorical Liberty (or the Statue of Liberty). Their final choice was an uncontroversial but wishy-washy compromise: "Liberty represented by a Native American woman, inspired by Sacagawea." Inspired by, because nobody really knows what Sacagawea looked like, Donna Reed notwithstanding. The rest is history. Or numismatics.

To sum up, Sacagawea was important as a peace symbol, fairly important as an interpreter, and modestly helpful as a guide, but probably not what you could call indispensable. She was certainly not the most important guide; Old Toby was. She was one of the most important interpreters, but Labiche and Charbonneau deserve approximately equal credit in that department. If you want to call her a heroine, though, you won't get any argument from me. How many of us would dare set out on a journey of thousands of miles with a two-month-old infant strapped to our backs? I'd hesitate to do it in an air-conditioned chauffeured limousine, let alone under the primitive conditions she faced.

Still, for my money, Sacagawea isn't the greatest hero of the Corps of Discovery - Pierre Cruzatte is. Just before Lewis and his party reunited with Clark's on the return trip, there was a little hunting accident. Pierre Cruzatte, the one-eyed, nearsighted, fiddle-playing, French-speaking, half-Indian boatman, accidentally shot Lewis clean through the right buttock. He's my hero because he got to do what so many of us have only dreamed of: He ripped the boss a new asshole.

Further reading:

The Making of Sacagawea: A Euro-American Legend (1996) by Donna J. Kessler

Sacajawea (1971) by Harold P. Howard

The Lewis and Clark Journals: An American Epic of Discovery: The Abridgment of the Definitive Nebraska Edition (2003), edited by Gary E. Moulton

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