What became of Sacagawea after the expedition that made her famous? A scholarly consensus long held that that she died young, of “putrid fever,” in 1812—“a short life with a sad ending,” as Thomas Powers puts it in the Review’s June 8, 2023, issue. In contrast, Powers writes, “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.”
Powers has been exploring episodes of contested history for the Review for forty years, as varied as the development of the CIA, the career of Bob Dole, the plot to kill Hitler, the vision of Crazy Horse, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, the art of the Plains Indians, and the politics of Texas. His books include Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb (1993), The Killing of Crazy Horse (2010), and two volumes published with New York Review Books: Intelligence Wars (2002), a collection of his essays on “American secret history,” and The Military Error (2008), on the war in Iraq. “Knowing what intelligence organizations are like,” he wrote in the introduction to Intelligence Wars, “is an essential tool for anyone who wants to understand what is happening in the world, especially in those arenas where war is never distant.”
We e-mailed this week about the life of Sacagawea, “the long resistance” to claims that challenge historical consensus, and “the importance of getting details right.”
Daniel Drake: There have been historical debates about Sacagawea’s life after the Lewis and Clark expedition for some time—there is a gravestone for her in Wyoming, for example, that suggests she died in 1884—but, if I understand your account, this recent book is the definitive work of scholarship on the question. Prior to reading Our Story of Eagle Woman, what had been your knowledge of and belief about Sacagawea’s life and death?
Thomas Powers: Definitive? No—but Our Story of Eagle Woman opens an important debate among historians of the Lewis and Clark expedition on what we do know, can know, and above all should know about the life of Sacagawea, starting with when it ended. Did she die in her twenties or in her eighties? The short life doesn’t tell us much. The long one, with its heroic beginning, horrific middle, and affecting end, promises to be one of the great American stories.
In 2020 we published an essay by Annette Gordon-Reed about how historians can reconstruct the reality of lives that are otherwise—for reasons of enslavement and genocide, but also discrimination, illiteracy, poverty—only glancingly recorded in archives. “There are limits to how far the historian can go,” she says, and then asks: “What are those limits?” Your essay seems to be, in part, an attempt to think through that question by demonstrating how a writer might actively weigh oral histories against diary entries, ledgers against tribal records. How do you think about this issue?
The problem that Annette Gordon-Reed faced in her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy was not a lack of evidence that Jefferson had fathered Hemings’s children, but the blank refusal of leading historians to recognize and accept as true what the documents said. In the end genetic evidence swept denial aside.
Why the long resistance? Embarrassment and shame were certainly part of it, but it’s also a weakness of humans—of writers along with everybody else—to stick to any claim once it’s been made, and to stick ever more tightly when it is challenged a second or a third or a hundredth time. The claim that Sacagawea died in 1812 dates from a diary entry more than two centuries old. But Sacagawea is a figure of wide public interest—people never stop asking about her. It’s likely that every historian of the Lewis and Clark expedition has defended 1812 repeatedly over the years—sometimes casually, sometimes with trumpets and cannon fire. Why change now?
What implications do you think the evidence uncovered by the Sacagawea Project has for future historiography?
Our Story of Eagle Woman poses the toughest sort of challenge for American historiography—new evidence that contradicts a long-accepted belief. Historians have an obligation to face this challenge seriously, but not to be in a hurry. Sorting things out won’t require esoteric new methods of historical analysis but something simple and familiar, asking the two fundamental questions of all evidence: Who brings this evidence, and what does it say?
The evidence was collected and recorded in the early 1920s by A.B. Welch (1874–1945), an Army officer who retired as a colonel. He had a lifelong interest in the Indians of the Northern Plains, talked to Native Americans whenever he found a chance, took notes, and wrote finished reports of what he had been told. His family has established a website where much of this material can be found: www.welchdakotapapers.com.
The evidence itself is the testimony of Bulls Eye (1865–1928), who identified himself to then-captain Welch as the grandson of Sacagawea and who was present when she was mortally wounded (and subsequently raised by Cedar Woman, his mother’s sister, also a daughter of Sacagawea). His account is filled with previously unknown details—the names of Sacagawea’s father, mother, and brother, for example—which are easily confirmed.
Next comes the search for additional, still unrecognized evidence of what happened to Sacagawea during the missing years, from the end of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806 to her death in 1869. First to turn up has been an account of a buffalo hunt in the late 1860s in which Sacagawea—Bird Woman—was one of six wives in a group of twelve people. The story was collected by the ethnographer Gilbert Wilson (1868–1930) from the Hidatsa Buffalo Bird Woman (1839–1932). One of the six men on the hunt was named Scar—not the Hidatsa named Wounded Face, as I originally thought, but more likely a Sioux from the Standing Rock reservation, born in 1835, also named Wounded Face. But two other hunters on that trip were Long Bear and High Backbone, both nephews of Sacagawea’s. A third was Crow Flies High, a Hidatsa chief who in 1870 led a breakaway group upriver from Like-a-Fishhook village to Fort Buford. Long Bear went along and twenty years later succeeded Crow Flies High as chief. Still later, Long Bear passed on the chieftainship to Bulls Eye.
Gilbert Wilson and Buffalo Bird Woman are known historical figures, not easily dismissed. Buffalo Bird Woman’s claim that Sacagawea was on that hunt, backing up Bulls Eye’s report that she was still alive in the 1860s, are bald facts of the sort that won’t go away. At some point Lewis and Clark historians will have to accept or refute them.
As a journalist who came to history through your writing and research, what do you think the responsibility of the historian—or the teller of history—is? Did you have any kind of “formal” study as a historian, or do you approach it more forensically, as a journalist?
I studied history in college but quickly learned that it was narrative I liked and wanted to write, especially of events that people hoped to disguise, conceal, or deny entirely. As a street reporter in the late 1960s I received a graduate course in the importance of getting details right—not just the spelling of names, but knowing what started first: kids throwing rocks or police firing tear gas canisters.
Your major professional focus has been national security reporting. When did you first become interested in American Indian history, works of which dot your bibliography?
My interest in Indians goes back to childhood. When I was twelve I read Mari Sandoz’s book Cheyenne Autumn, and a couple years later I wrote a forty-page biography of Geronimo. As a journalist in my late twenties and thirties I followed the news from one subject to another—anti-war radicalism came first, then the history of the CIA, followed by nuclear weapons, which I soon learned were wired up in a sort of doom spiral. Two decades of thinking about that were enough. In 1993 my brother and I visited the Little Bighorn battlefield where I spotted a book on the killing of Crazy Horse in the shop at the visitor center. I’ve always been interested in things that are hard to find out, and I began to read into the subject as I’d done years earlier to find out about American efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro in the 1960s.
What are you reading right now?
For the last six months I’ve been reading a five-foot shelf of books on Lewis and Clark and the Upper Missouri tribes. Once you get started on a program of that sort it’s hard to stop. But I like a change. My last detour was through Simon Nowell-Smith’s book about Henry James, The Legend of the Master, and next in line will be Antonio Scurati’s M, a fat novel about Mussolini.