Many millions of Native American women have lived and died on the North American continent, and yet until quite recently only two—Pocahantas and Sacagawea—have left even faint tracings of their personalities on history; and, in both cases, these delicate, shadowy outlines have long since been heavily marked over by the crude pencil of legend. Students of either woman have to carefully peel legend from fact, and to discard much overstatement. If this is done with tact and care it is just possible to get, now and then, a few glimpses of the women who once were.
I am not a student of Pocahantas but I might mention one or two parallels between her life and Sacagawea’s: both married older white men, both bore sons, both traveled far from their people, and both died in their twenties. Pocahantas converted to Christianity, got in a big ship, went to England, met James I, died in 1617 (a year after Shakespeare), and is buried at Gravesend.
Sacagawea, traveling in a much smaller boat with her husband and her baby, journeyed west with Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery; she saw, at her insistence, the Pacific Ocean, and what was left of a whale. On the return trip in 1806, traveling on the Missouri River, she was put ashore with her husband, the expedition’s chief interpreter, Toussaint Charbonneau, and their son Jean Baptiste at the Mandan villages in present-day North Dakota, where the Corps had picked them up the year before. Three years later she sent her son to be educated by William Clark. The best evidence suggests that she died at the fort of the fur mogul Manuel Lisa, in South Dakota, of a “putrid fever,” in 1812. The trader John Luttig, who promptly reported her death to Captain Clark, called her “a good and the best woman in the Fort.”
According to their journals, Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea late in 1804, while she was pregnant with Jean Baptiste, whom Captain Lewis helped deliver; the Charbonneaus were dropped off at the Mandan villages in August of 1806, which means that Sacagawea was visible to the eye of history for less than two years. What does history see?
First, it sees that for a young woman to travel across the upper West at the beginning of the nineteenth century with thirty-two men and a baby was no bed of roses. Her nautically challenged husband twice nearly dumped her and the baby accidentally into the icy Missouri River. Because of her infant she and her husband slept in the captain’s tent, a proximity that may not always have been easy. In June of 1805 she got seriously ill—Captain Lewis, who carefully nursed her back to health, suspected some blockage of the menses. She suffered all this while managing a young child and a cranky husband.
Legend has it that Sacagawea was a guide, but this legend is an early-twentieth-century fabrication. She was brought along because …