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,1 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 she could speak Shoshone; her guiding consisted mainly of identifying Beaverhead Rock, in southwestern Montana, a landmark the captains could probably have figured out for themselves. Luckily the Corps did stumble onto the very band of Snake Indians Sacagawea had been kidnapped from; there’s a moment of happy emotion when she runs into one of the young women who had been abducted with her. There’s also a bit of uplift when it turns out that her own brother, Cameahwait, is the leader of this band; and yet there are always likely to be problems with going home, as Thomas Wolfe was later to declare. The husband Sacagawea had been married to before her abduction had two other wives and didn’t want her. Women enjoyed very little status with the Shoshone, as the Captains Lewis and Clark tirelessly point out. Ca-meahwait, Sacagawea’s brother, was hardly overflowing with family feeling—when it came to selling horses to the whites he drove a hard and at times tenuous bargain.
During the seven months that it takes the Corps to get up the Missouri River, over the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia River, both Captain Lewis and Captain Clark struggle somewhat awkwardly with what to call Sacagawea. For long stretches, in their Journals, she is simply “the Indian woman,” or “Charbono’s Snake Indian wife,” or, more rarely, “the Squar.” There is a certain uneasiness in these references, though. After all, this young woman slept with her husband in their tent; they saw her every day, as she does her best to be helpful, digging up Jerusalem artichokes, gathering fennel, chopping elk bones and boiling out a fine grease. Reluctantly, and never very successfully, they begin to call her Sacagawea, which they spell several different ways. By this time both men have considerable respect for Sacagawea, and Captain Clark really likes her, as will be seen.
Finally they—or is it “they”?—decide on a nickname, Janey: but here’s the catch! The nickname is only mentioned once in the 5,448 pages of the University of Nebraska edition of the Journals. It is used again, by Captain Clark, in the expeditionary correspondence.2
The occasion on which the nickname is revealed—again, by Captain Clark—is itself of some interest. Mired in misery on the north bank of the Columbia, drenched almost every day, the captains decided to take a vote on where to construct a winter camp. All the men voted, including York, Captain Clark’s black servant; and Janey voted, too, indicating that she would prefer to camp where there were lots of potatoes. This sudden granting of suffrage-in-the-wilderness strikes me as pretty amazing, as does the offhand revelation of the nickname. Was the nickname in general use, or was it just Captain Clark’s pet name for a young woman he had come to like? The three members of the Corps who left supplementary narratives and who knew Sacagawea—John Ordway, Joseph Whitehouse, and Patrick Gass—mainly just call her “the interpreter’s wife”; in Gass’s case, “our squaw.”
Be that as it may, Janey voted on the location of the camp, and that was not her only act of self-assertion. In January 1806, reports reached them of a beached whale. Captain Clark decided to take a party to the beach and attempt to secure some whale oil, at which point the fat—or, in this case, the blubber—hit the fire. Clark writes:
The last evening Shabono and his Indian woman was very impatient to be permitted to go with me, and was therefore indulged; She observed that She had traveled a long way with us to See the great waters, and now that that monstrous fish was also to be Seen, She thought it verry hard that She Could not be permitted to See either (She had never yet been to the Ocian.)
After all she had put up with, Janey was determined to see the sights, and did not even have to throw much of a fit to get her way. Not only did she initiate suffrage in the far West, she initiated tourism, even feminism, as well.
That solitary, haunting “Janey” does make a reader wonder. As any student of the Journals will soon discover, William Clark served as Thomas Jefferson’s fashion eye, delivering copious reports on the dress of the various tribes the party met. In some cases the skimpier the female costumes, the more copious Clark’s notes become. Here, for example, is the conclusion of his long description of the bark petticoats worn by the Wahkaikum women:
…The Same materials which Serves as well for a girdle as to hold in place the Strans of bark which forms the tissue, and which Strans, Confined in the middle, hang with their ends pendulous from the waiste, the whole being of Suffcent thickness when the female Stands erect to conceal those parts useally covered from fa-miliar view, but when she stoops of places herself in any other attitudes this battery of Venus is not altogether impervious to the penetrating eye of the amorite….
This is not the only time the battery of Venus comes in for mention in the Journals—quite a few of those wild Western women seemed to run around half undressed.
Both captains seem to have stood clear of native women, though Nez Percé legend does claim that William Clark fathered a son by the sister of their great chief Red Grizzly. Whatever the truth of that, it is plain that William Clark had little of the Puritan in him. He was not supposed to touch, but he could look, and he did look.
As for his relations with Janey, I wouldn’t suggest a romance or even a flirtation, but I do think the two had a friendly rapport, part of their bond being Captain Clark’s deep fondness for her little boy. A mother will frequently soften a little toward a man who really likes her child, and Captain Clark just couldn’t get enough of little Pomp.
I believe Sacagawea came to like this man; she showed it by now and then giving him little gifts. Once some bread she had been saving for her son got soaked, so she gave it, instead, to Captain Clark, who ate it gratefully. On another occasion, Sacagawea gave him a nice basket and two dozen weasel tails. It seems unlikely that she would have saved up weasel tails for any other member of the Corps.
How Sacagawea was treated by other members of the company, and what she thought of them, is not easy to discern. With Captain Lewis, who nursed both herself and her son through dangerous illnesses, she seems to have remained businesslike. Lewis, for his part, is mostly neutral about Sacagawea, though he does condescend a bit now and then, suggesting at one point that it would take only a few trinkets to make her happy. It is a pity he didn’t sketch her. He drew an excellent fish and the head of a gull, but left no image of the woman he traveled with for thousands of miles.
My belief that there was a bit of an attachment between Sacagawea and William Clark is bolstered by a remarkable letter that Clark addressed to Toussaint Charbonneau only three days after the Corps dropped the little family off at the Mandan villages, leaving them to struggle on as best they could. The letter is addressed “On board the Pirogue, Near the Ricara Village, Aug 20 1806.” Clark first expresses his worry: “Your present situation with the Indians gives me some concern….” The captain then proceeds to offer Charbonneau the moon if he will bring Sacagawea and their child on down to St. Louis. He offers to furnish him a piece of land, and horses, cattle, hogs. He offers to help him secure an inventory of trade goods if he wants to become a trader. Of Sacagawea he says this:
Your woman who accompanied us on that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocean and back deserved a greater reward for her attentions and services on that rout than we had it in our power to give her at the Mandans….
He then repeats his offer to take “my danceing little Baptiest” and raise him as his own child, urging that if Charbonneau does “bring down your son famm[ily] Janey had best come along with you to take care of the boy until I get him….” It seems that Charbonneau at least knew of the nickname; it was Charbonneau himself who had chosen to get off at the Mandan villages, a busy trade center where an interpreter stood a good chance of making a living.
Now, William Clark was undoubtedly sincere in his concern for Charbonneau’s family. He did educate his “danceing little Baptiest,” and he helped Toussaint Charbonneau many times and continued to help him long after Sacagawea was dead.
Still, that letter, written in a boat off the Arikara village, shows us something more than just a military man who suddenly realizes he has not sufficiently rewarded a subordinate; it shows us a family man who suddenly misses his family, for Sacagawea’s family, for many long and strenuous months, had been William Clark’s family. He missed that little boy, and he missed Janey.
Many years later, in listing the dead of the expedition in his cash book and journal for 1825–1828, William Clark essayed that tricky name one last time:
Sar car Ja we a Dead
How delighted he would have been to know that Janey’s difficult name would live as long as his.
September 20, 2001
See The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton, Vols. 3–8 (University of Nebraska Press, 1983–1993) and my review, “The First American Epic,” The New York Review, February 8, 2001. ↩
See Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783–1854, edited by Donald Jackson (University of Illinois Press, 1962). ↩