When spring came in 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left their winter camp near Mandan and Hidatsa villages on the Upper Missouri River and resumed their search for a route to the Pacific Ocean. The day was Sunday, April 7. Included in the party, Clark noted in his journal, was a French-Canadian trapper and trader along the Upper Missouri named Toussaint Charbonneau “and his Indian Squar to act as an Interpreter & interpretress for the snake Indians.” By “Squar” Clark meant an Indian “wife” acquired by purchase in the local manner. By “snake Indians” he meant the Shoshones, a tribe in the Rocky Mountains important to the explorers in two ways: as a source of horses when the expedition left the river and as one of the tribes Lewis and Clark hoped to recruit for an ambitious diplomatic effort to end intertribal warfare and bring peace to the Northern Plains. That sounds like overreaching and it was, but it was high on the list of what President Thomas Jefferson had sent Lewis and Clark to do.
This Indian woman’s story is complicated from start to finish, but one detail deserves mention at the outset. When Clark hired Charbonneau he had two Shoshone-speaking wives, sisters whom he had separately purchased from their father. Marrying sisters, called sororal polygyny by anthropologists, was a common practice among the Plains tribes at the time. Clark noted that both wives spoke Shoshone, but the older one was too sick to travel when the boats departed.
The younger sister, who joined the expedition, was about eighteen or nineteen years old, and she was carrying an infant son, born two months earlier with Lewis attending, though he wasn’t a doctor. Labor was prolonged and difficult “as is common,” Lewis noted, with first babies. Another French Canadian, René Jusseaume, who spoke a rough but workable English, told Lewis that labor could be eased by breaking up the rattle of a rattlesnake and administering it mixed with water. Lewis said OK, it was done, and the boy was promptly born.
Over the next sixteen months Clark began to call the Indian woman “Janey” and grew fond of her son, but when the expedition headed upriver on April 7, he noted him on the roster only as “Shabonahs infant.” After Clark had learned to sound out and spell the woman’s name, he went back and inked it into his journal entry for the departure day: “Sah-kah-gar we â.”
The standard spelling now is “Sacagawea.” It is said as one word but is actually an amalgam of two words, one for bird and one for woman, in the language of the Hidatsa, the tribe of the man who sold the sisters to Charbonneau. Clark is notorious for his erratic spelling—multiple ways for Charbonneau and Jusseaume. But for the younger sister Clark made a special effort. He learned to pronounce her name, he understood its meaning—Bird Woman—and he tried to spell it correctly.
Among the members of the Corps of Discovery, Sacagawea was the youngest, save her son; she was also the only woman, the only Native American, and the only speaker of Shoshone. Today her Hidatsa name is probably recognized more widely than that of any other member, Lewis and Clark included. More statues have been erected in public spaces in her honor than for any other American woman. Why this is so is one of the mysteries of fame. Sacagawea performed useful service on the expedition and once or twice even pointed the way, but that doesn’t explain the broad appeal of the young mother who carried her infant son across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific and back, a journey second in significance in American history only to Columbus’s. It’s not easy to explain how Sacagawea steals the scene in Lewis and Clark’s journals whenever she’s on the page. But scholars sometimes think too much is made of her, scant her role, and never seriously ask who and what she was, exactly, or consider the ways in which that might matter.
Toussaint Charbonneau was paid $500 for making the trip, Sacagawea nothing. Their journey ended in August 1806 when the expedition left them at the villages on the Missouri River where Lewis and Clark had found them. Charbonneau was about forty, Sacagawea nineteen or twenty. Then what?
Charbonneau lived into his seventies. In the last half of his life he attracted frequent notice from the keepers of diaries and journals as a trapper, trader, and translator on the Upper Missouri before dying in a still-unknown place at an unknown moment: after 1838 and before 1843 is as close as the Utah historian Larry E. Morris can get in The Fate of the Corps (2004), his history of the afterlives of the expeditioners.
But for the much earlier death of Charbonneau’s Snake wife, Morris can pin down the cause, day, and place—“putrid fever” on December 20, 1812, at Fort Manuel Lisa, a trading post downriver from the Hidatsa villages where Clark had hired Charbonneau because his wife spoke Shoshone. That death date for Sacagawea has not been seriously challenged by scholars for seventy years or more because two brief diary entries recorded twenty months apart seem too clear and explicit for error.
But the death date matters. The standard 1812 date describes a short life with a sad ending. A new date proposed by Sacagawea’s descendants and other interested members of the Hidatsa tribe suggests a longer life of broader drama and significance—fifty-seven years longer. The Hidatsa argument arrives in Our Story of Eagle Woman: Sacagawea: They Got It Wrong, by the Sacagawea Project Board of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. No single author is named or thanked within. The book is a tribal effort led by five Project Board members who are all relatives of Sacagawea: Calvin Grinnell, Bernie Fox, Gerard Baker, Carol Newman, and Wanda Fox Sheppard (who died after its publication). The research and writing of the book was organized by Sheppard’s brother and his wife, Dennis and Sandra Fox. Additional research was contributed by Professor Michael Welsh of the history department at the University of Northern Colorado. These eight and other volunteers share a belief common among Native Americans that they have something important to add to their history.
Our Story of Eagle Woman is the clearest and best example of a book written in this spirit that I have seen. Its claims are specific, broad, hard to resolve, and above all numerous: that Sacagawea had a Hidatsa name because she was Hidatsa; that except for travels with Charbonneau, she lived the whole of her life among the Hidatsa on the Upper Missouri; that late in life she had three additional children, all daughters; that her brother, Cherry Necklace, was a notable leader and religious figure; that after 1845 she lived with her brother in a traditional earthen lodge in Like-a-Fishhook village, near the trading post known as Fort Berthold; that her life there was intimately connected to the Hidatsa in all the village ways of the time; that she lived into her eighties; and that she was fatally wounded in 1869 by Sioux Indians—very likely Hunkpapa belonging to a war faction led by Sitting Bull—while traveling with a group on its way to a trading post upriver near Fort Buford.
Every detail of this expansion of the standard story is certain to be debated to exhaustion, but here, too, one detail in particular should be kept in mind from the outset: Our Story of Eagle Woman, drawing on tribal records and the family traditions of Hidatsa elders, asserts that Sacagawea’s father, Smoked Lodge, was Hidatsa, but that her mother was a Crow named Otter Woman or Comes Out of the Water. The Crow and Hidatsa were closely related tribes, but not the same. Having a Hidatsa father and a Crow mother opens a question of what Sacagawea was, exactly.
The revisions proposed by the Project Board begin with a name change: a claim that Bird Woman’s name was actually Eagle Woman—Maeshuwea or Maeshuweash—which proved too difficult for whites to pronounce. But Bird Woman is not wrong in any meaningful sense, and it is a name used frequently throughout Our Story.
The Project Board’s new material supports an extended personal history collected a hundred years ago, on May 29, 1923, by a US Army officer with an interest in the Northern Plains Indians. Captain A.B. Welch had just finished delivering a Memorial Day speech to a gathering of the Old Scout Society on the Fort Berthold Reservation when he was approached by Bulls Eye, one of the old-time scouts, who said:
I want to talk with you now. We have heard about some white men who wrote about my Grandmother. Her name was T(Sakakawea)ish [Welch’s spelling]. These white men came along here about a hundred years ago. They made a mistake with the interpreter. He could not speak the Indian well and told it wrong. He could not talk English either. He talked French. It has been wrong ever since that time. T(Sakakawea)ish was not a Shoshoni. She was a Hidatsa.
First on Bulls Eye’s mind that day was his grandmother’s tribal identity—not Shoshone, Hidatsa. But more important, in my view, were the date and circumstances of her death, which Bulls Eye described to Welch later in the day. Welch had asked the old scout to bring others familiar with the story to ensure he got the details right, and Bulls Eye arrived with seven leading men of the village including one, Arthur Mandan, who would later become the first tribal chairman of the Hidatsa. He was fluent in Hidatsa, Mandan, and English and often interpreted for early ethnographers like Alfred Bowers, the author of an authoritative ethnography of the Hidatsa, and Martha Beckwith, a folklorist who identified Bird Woman as a sister of Cherry Necklace in a 1937 work on Mandan and Hidatsa myths.
We also have good reason to believe that Mandan’s father knew Sacagawea during her last years. The presence of Mandan and the others attested to Bulls Eye’s standing in the Hidatsa world and offers evidence that his story of his grandmother was common knowledge throughout the tribe. When all were seated the old scout began his story:
My name is Bulls Eye. I am of the Hidatsa. I have seen fifty-eight winters…. My father’s name was Lean Bull. He was Hidatsa…. My mother’s name was Otter Woman. She was of the Hidatsa too. I was four years old when she was killed by an enemy. She died sitting up against a wagon wheel. The name of my mother’s mother was Sakakawea. She was my grandmother. (Welch note: The two fingers to the mouth sign was given—blood relationship sign.)…
My grandmother, Sakakawea, had a brother whose name was Cherry Necklace. He lived with our relatives in Montana. These people are called Absarokee [“Absaroka” is the spelling used now] or the Crows, sometimes. But they were Hidatsa a long time ago….
When my grandmother was seventeen years old, her father gave her to a white man. The white man was my grandfather. His name was Sharbonish (Charbonneau)….
This white man and Sakakawea had several children. The first one was a man child [Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, delivered with the aid of Meriwether Lewis]. The second was a woman child. They named her Otter Woman. She was my mother (Here the sign for birth was given). The third child was a woman child also. Her name was Cedar Woman.
In other meetings over several years Bulls Eye gave Welch further details about his early life, some based on the stories told to him as a child and young man by Cedar Woman, his mother’s sister, who died around 1895 when he was in his thirties. He recounted his memories of the fight in 1869 near Fort Buford in which his mother bled to death leaning against a wagon wheel, and of his grandmother, who was shot in the side but managed to walk him to safety. “We walked over the hills and prairie to the trader’s store,” Bulls Eye told Welch. “I got well and lived. Sakakawea, my grandmother, died at the trader’s place, seven days after that.”
The Sacagawea Project Board refers to this account as “the Bulls Eye story,” and it is not easily dismissed or explained away, but it was almost completely forgotten after 1923, and the new book has so far been ignored by scholars. The Hidatsa fear their work is overlooked because they are Indians, and they may be right. But just as likely is the sprawl of the Bulls Eye story, offering, with little warning, a counterhistory on so many points at once. Which end of this thing do you tackle first? The best place to start is with the 1812 death date. The long-accepted argument for that is not strained but it is thin. It rests on two diary entries and a single word jotted down by William Clark a dozen or more years later.
The first diary entry was recorded by a young traveler, Henry Brackenridge, on his way up the Missouri River in April 1811 with a group bound for a new trading post built by the noted Indian trader Manuel Lisa:
We had on board a Frenchman named Charbonet, with his wife, an Indian woman of the Snake Nation, both of whom had accompanied Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, and were of great service. The woman, a good creature, of a mild and gentle disposition greatly attached to the whites, whose manners and dress she tries to imitate, but she had become sickly, and longed to revisit her country.
The “Indian woman of the Snake nation” is not named but is unmistakably Sacagawea.
Second in the chain of proof is a diary entry some twenty months later by John Luttig, the chief clerk at Fort Manuel Lisa, on December 20, 1812: “This Evening the Wife of Charbonneau a Snake Squaw, died of a putrid fever she was a good and best Woman in the fort, aged about 25 years she left a fine infant girl.” Charbonneau had two Snake wives. One of them died in 1812, but which one? The standard telling of the Luttig story ends with the single word that Clark, sometime in the years between 1825 and 1828, wrote next to Sacagawea’s name on a roster of expedition members: “Dead.”
I call the 1812 argument thin because it offers no evidence for where Charbonneau and his two Snake wives were between April 1811 and December 1812 or for which Snake wife died in 1812, because it cannot tell us when or why Clark concluded that Sacagawea was dead, and because it overlooks the fact that Clark in 1813 wrongly believed that Charbonneau was dead. If he was wrong about Charbonneau, was he perhaps wrong about Sacagawea as well? Finally, there is the element of doubt introduced by the figure of Charbonneau himself, who had many wives. Lewis and Clark knew two, and a third was noted by Sergeant Patrick Gass at a Christmas party in 1804 that “continued in a jovial manner till 8 at night; and without the presence of any females, except three squaws, wives to our interpreter.”
Charbonneau had two Snake wives while working for Manuel Lisa and later, at Fort Clark in the 1830s, had at least two other wives, tribes unidentified. In February 1834 a German prince, Maximilian of Wied, noted in his diary that his translator at Fort Clark, Toussaint Charbonneau, “was absent again. This seventy-five-year-old man is always running after women.” In October the clerk of the trading post, Francis Chardon, recorded in his journal that
Charbonneau and his Lady started for the [Hidatsa village] on a visit—(or to tell the truth,) in quest of one of his runaway Wives—for I must inform you he has two lovely ones—Poor old Man.
Three years later, as a smallpox epidemic was sweeping through the Mandan and Hidatsa villages in mid-August, “Charbonneau and his family” fled Fort Clark but proved unlucky. “Disease has not yet broke out among [the Hidatsa],” Chardon wrote, “except his squaw, who died four days ago.”
Chardon tells us that a year after that, in October 1838, the eighty-year-old trapper-trader “took to himself…a young Wife, a young Assinneboine girl of 14,” captured in a fight that summer. So many wives, only one with a name.
Charbonneau kept no journal and left nothing like the full account delivered to Captain Welch by Bulls Eye, whose story is not two sentences, plus a word, but an expansive account of the death of his mother and grandmother. With the rest of the material gathered in Our Story it offers a swath of history as substantial as a deposition delivered to lawyers. Outside of the Lewis and Clark journals nothing else comes close to telling us as much about Sacagawea. One way or another, every future history of her life will have to take it into account.
At stake in this inquiry is the truth of two long-standing claims—that Sacagawea was a Shoshone and that she died at twenty-five. The principal argument for a Shoshone tribal identity is the fact that Lewis and Clark believed that’s what she was based on her report that a Shoshone chief, Cameahwait, was her “brother.” This is not a question to be settled in a minute. How Hidatsa address relatives is an extremely complicated matter. Any person addressed as “mother,” “brother,” “father,” “sister,” or “cousin” may be one in our sense of the term, or may not. The Sacagawea Project Board believes that Cameahwait had been adopted by Sacagawea’s father, Smoked Lodge, and that she had learned Shoshone on family visits to the tribe. The book makes its case and invites comment.
But in the meantime it also stresses the problem of translation. Everything Lewis and Clark knew about Sacagawea’s history and identity came from her as reported in Hidatsa to Charbonneau, who passed it in French mainly to René Jusseaume, who gave Lewis and Clark the English version of it. Questions went back by the same route. But Washington Matthews, an army doctor in the 1870s who was the first serious American student of Hidatsa, reported that it was a difficult tonal language like Chinese and that Charbonneau had never learned to pronounce it properly. Jusseaume in turn was said by a British trader of the time, Charles MacKenzie, to speak “bad French and worse English,” and he added that the two Frenchmen argued about the meaning of every word going in both directions. This suggests but does not resolve the tangle of the argument.
The Project Board weighs the matter but settles in the end on the conclusion reached by Sacagawea’s son, Jean-Baptiste, who spent the last few years of his well-documented life looking for gold in California. Soon after he died of “mountain fever” on his way to Montana in 1866, a remembrance appeared in an Idaho newspaper, the Owyhee Avalanche, by a man who had known him since 1852. “Mr. Charbonneau was born in the western wilds,” the writer reported, “in the country of the Crow Indians—his father being a Canadian Frenchman, and his mother a half breed of the Crow tribe.” That view is hard to distinguish from Bulls Eye’s account. When son and grandson agree on the identity of a mother and grandmother it is likely that both were assured of its truth by the same sources.
The question of when Sacagawea died is simpler—yes or no for two dates. If Bulls Eye is right, his grandmother lived into her eighties and witnessed three great events: the transformation of Native American life on the Northern Plains, an unending war between the river tribes and the Sioux, and the near extinction of the river tribes by a devastating smallpox epidemic in 1837. Before the disease ran its course, half the Hidatsa and 80 percent or more of the Mandan had died. It was this terrible die-off, Our Story of Eagle Woman suggests, that prompted Sacagawea in her late forties to have additional children: Otter Woman in about 1838 and Cedar Woman in 1839. Early tribal records listed no father, but Bulls Eye tells us that it was Charbonneau in both cases. Every Hidatsa woman at the time did the same if she could. In 1845 the remnants of the Mandan and Hidatsa built a new community about sixty miles up the Missouri called Like-a-Fishhook, where Sacagawea’s brother, Cherry Necklace, built two lodges for different wives. In one of them Sacagawea lived during her last years.
Just outside Like-a-Fishhook, in the bottom lands near the river where the soil was good, the women of the Hidatsa and Mandan (later joined by the Arikara) raised corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers in fields they cleared, in the early years, with hoes made from the shoulder bones of deer or oxen, which were replaced by metal hoes as soon as people could get them. How they planted their corn—in little hills about four feet apart, with six or eight kernels poked finger-deep into the sides of the hills—is described in a remarkable book by an early student of the Hidatsa, Gilbert L. Wilson, a Presbyterian minister who lived for extended periods on the Fort Berthold reservation between 1906 and 1918. Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, first published under another title in 1917, was written by Wilson but drawn from the memories and told in the voice of a Hidatsa woman also known as Waheenee, who moved to Like-a-Fishhook in 1845 when she was six. There, after her mother died, she grew up in the lodge of her father, Small Ankle, and addressed both of her mother’s sisters as “mother” in keeping with custom. Perhaps a hundred yards to the east of Small Ankle’s lodge were the two lodges of Cherry Necklace, whose sister, Bird Woman or Eagle Woman, had a garden in the bottom lands touching on the field where Buffalo Bird Woman in her teens tended her corn and scared away crows.
Wilson accumulated an immense body of notes from Buffalo Bird Woman (who died in 1932) and from her brother, Wolf Chief, and her son, Edward Goodbird—material often cited in Our Story of Eagle Woman. Wolf Chief was also an informant of the photographer E.S. Curtis and the anthropologists Robert Lowie and Alfred Bowers, who spent a year (1932–1933) living at Fort Berthold and thirty years later published one of the basic books on the tribe, Hidatsa Social and Ceremonial Organization. These scholars would all have met Hidatsa who had known Sacagawea, but none seemed to take a close interest in her story. The notes of Bowers, in particular, contain a wealth of detail from Wolf Chief about Sacagawea and her family. Bowers might easily have gone on asking questions of Wolf Chief and worked up the answers into an extended narrative like his eight pages of dense text on Wolf Chief’s romantic life, but he held back. Why so much attention to Wolf Chief, but not the Hidatsa woman? My guess is that Bird Woman’s fame stood in the way. Bowers wanted to be seen as a scholar, not a journalist seeking sensation, so he let the story go.
When Bulls Eye is considered in a serious way, the broad narrative of Sacagawea’s life becomes clear, but it is in the journals of Lewis and Clark that the woman herself is seen most clearly. There she is often mentioned and quoted, frequently on the subject of some herb, root, or fruit that the Hidatsa like to eat or use. When Lewis in mid-July 1805 described at length how the Hidatsa made bread of sunflower seeds collected in the river bottoms and ground into a fine flour, it seems likely Sacagawea was his source. Who else among the corps would have known, or thought it important?
But Sacagawea was not just interested and helpful; she was bold. When she wanted something, she had the courage to argue that it was not just reasonable but right. In Oregon one evening in January 1806 she spoke up firmly while Clark was planning an expedition to the Pacific coast the next day to examine the carcass of a whale. Clark had not thought to ask Sacagawea if she might like to go. She made sure he knew. Clark noted in his journal on January 6:
[The] 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 that now that monstrous fish was also to be Seen, She thought it very hard that She Could not be permitted to See either (She had never yet been to the Ocean).
But when the expedition ended in 1806 Sacagawea was lost from sight. In the six years that followed she is present on a page only a handful of times, always in the company of Charbonneau. Over the following fifty-seven years there is even less: by my count just two brief moments that give us a glimpse of her. The first is a homely detail in Bulls Eye’s account of his grandmother’s death, quoted in Our Story. He began by explaining to Welch why Sacagawea had joined a group heading for a trading post near Fort Buford:
She had learned to like coffee terribly well. She could not get along without coffee. When she got out of coffee she would travel long distances in order to get a new supply. She saved the coffee from the pots and would put it on her head so it would smell like coffee.
That was Sacagawea at eighty-two. A second story, unremarked till now, describes her when she was a few years younger. It is found in Gilbert Wilson’s second book told in the voice of Buffalo Bird Woman, called Waheenee, after the name she was given in childhood. The book, originally published in 1927, is a coming-of-age story, a portrait of Hidatsa life from the death of Buffalo Bird Woman’s mother when she was six until the birth of her only child, Edward Goodbird, in November 1869, a few months after the death of Bird Woman.
Late one spring a few years before that, in the mid-1860s, Waheenee and her second husband, Son-of-a-Star, joined a group on a buffalo hunt just before corn-planting time. Waheenee’s story spans a dozen pages, with a warm portrait of six Hidatsa women working and talking as the group, a dozen in all, make their way upriver. They have left their horses behind in Like-a-Fishhook, since they were still too weak from winter for heavy work. Helping them move butchered meat and hides are dogs pulling travois. One evening, with dinner eaten, they talk late in the rambling way of campers enjoying their ease around a fire. The six Hidatsa women have come with their husbands: “ten in the party besides Son-of-a-Star and myself.” Buffalo Bird Woman names the other men: Crow-Flies-High, Bad Brave, High Backbone, Long Bear, and Scar.
“I have heard that white men eat turtles,” said Long Bear’s wife. “I do not believe it.”
“They do eat turtles,” said High Backbone, “and they eat frogs. A white man told me. I asked him.”
“Ey! And such unclean things; I could not eat them,” cried Bird Woman.
The shock in the line is the name. Nothing in the tale says, Stop, take note. Why is this name here? To get that the reader has to know that Wilson is one of the four or five great students of the Hidatsa. When he published Buffalo Bird Woman’s story of the spring buffalo hunt, he had known her for twenty years.
Knowing this prompts us to ask questions of the story. Two of the men on the hunt, High Backbone and Long Bear, were sons of Cherry Necklace, Bird Woman’s brother. She was traveling with her nephews. Her garden in the 1860s was in the bottoms along the river at Like-a-Fishhook village, and it touched the field gardened by Buffalo Bird Woman. The back-and-forth of talk around the campfire indicates that Bird Woman is likely the wife of Bad Brave, but possibly Scar, who was commonly known as Wounded Face.
In the course of his research Wilson took several photographs of Wounded Face, his family, and his corn-drying scaffold in 1910. When the musicologist Frances Densmore studied the river tribes for the Bureau of American Ethnology in the early 1900s, she was given seven songs by Wounded Face. She recorded his Mandan name as a single word—Pau, translated as “scar.” I think the meaning is probably closer to “disfigured.” His Christian name was Howard Mandan Sr. He died in January 1921 and was the father of Arthur Mandan, the interpreter and future tribal chairman who went with Bulls Eye in 1923 to tell Captain Welch the story of the death of Bird Woman. In the collections of the North Dakota Historical Society is a photograph taken at a tribal meeting in 1909 of Wounded Face, Old Dog, Long Bear, and Sitting Bear. Forty years earlier, Wounded Face and Long Bear had both been on the buffalo hunt described by Waheenee. Both were sitting by the campfire when Bird Woman cried out, and both would have seen her face scrunch up at the idea of eating frogs.
How do we know this happened? Buffalo Bird Woman was there, she told Wilson, and Wilson told us. It’s even possible that Wilson confirmed it with Wounded Face. This simple story, published by a man careful with facts, might tell us two things about Bird Woman in the 1860s: she was squeamish, and she was alive.
June 8, 2023
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