A ceremony at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello recently kicked off the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebration, with events scheduled along the great explorers' route over the next three years. But if the 1992 500th year anniversary of Columbus's landing was any indication, the Lewis and Clark observance will be politically volatile. Many on the Left view them as the vanguard of racism, literal and cultural genocide, and environmental degradation in the West. The person of Sacagawea will be a lightning rod. There's already a small imbroglio over the correct spelling of her name ("Sacagawea," "Sacajawea," "Sakakawea").
The story is familiar to anyone who studied American History in high school (though that's problematic nowadays). In 1805-06, Sacagawea was the young Shoshone (also called Snakes) woman who served as an interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition from the Mandan villages on the Missouri River to her homeland in the Rockies of present Idaho and beyond. Much of today's scholarship views her as an oppressed victim for this service (actually for her whole life), though as the Bicentennial proceeds, Sacagawea's status as a native feminist icon will be overshadowed by two questions that continue to nag like a toothache: When did she die; and where are her remains?
Sacagawea was born circa 1785-90, and as an adolescent was carried off near the Three Forks of the Missouri in present Montana during a raid by the Hidatsas, a tribe related to the Crows, and who lived on the Missouri near the Mandans in present North Dakota. Her Hidatsa captor lost her in a gambling game to Toussaint Charbonneau, a brutish French-Canadian trapper who lived with the Mandans. He married her, and she assumed the then-common cultural role among Indians of wife-property or "squaw," with all its subservient unpleasantness.
Lewis and Clark's "Corps of Discovery" arrived in the fall of 1804, built cabins, and spent the frigid winter of the plains among the friendly Mandans. (So friendly, in fact, that a number of crew members contracted venereal disease from compliant Mandan squaws. Clark's black slave York was especially popular.) During that stay they hired Charbonneau as a "guide," though this is problematic as the trapper was no more knowledgeable of the vastness of the West than any number of itinerant Canadian "voyageurs" then plying the Missouri. No, Lewis and Clark knew a good package deal when they saw it; to get Charbonneau would also include Sacagawea and her considerable Indian linguistic skills and knowledge of the country from which she came.
With Meriwether Lewis as midwife, Sacagawea gave birth to a son (Jean Baptiste Charbonneau) that winter, and in the spring (1805) put the infant on her back as the Corps of Discovery again took to their keelboats to ascend the upper Missouri. After numerous adventures in the following months, Sacagawea located her people the Shoshones, who sold horses to Lewis and Clark for the continuation of their travels.
Sacagawea went on with "the Captains" to the Pacific, where they spent the miserably rainy winter of 1805-06 at a stockade and cabins they built named Fort Clatsop, and where -- according to the famous "Journals" -- she marveled at the "big fish" (a whale beached on the Oregon coast). After further well-known adventures, the expedition returned to the Mandan villages in the summer of 1806, where Charbonneau was released from his duties, and according to his contract was paid $500. Sacagawea got nothing. Sometime later the couple traveled to St. Louis and left the child Jean Baptiste in Clark's care to be educated. At this point Sacagawea fades into the mists of history.
IT IS MOST LIKELY THAT Sacagawea died at Fort Manuel Lisa, a trading post in present South Dakota in December, 1812, at the approximate age of 25. From the journal of one John Luttig , a clerk at Fort Manuel Lisa: "Sunday the 20th….this Evening the wife of Charbonneau a Snake Squaw, died of putrid fever she was a good and best Woman in the fort, aged about 25 years she left a fine infant girl."
Nevertheless, no gravesite exists in South Dakota. Indians were known for burying their dead in remote places, so her body was probably removed far from the fort.
There is another controversial theory that she lived nearly a century, died in 1884, and is buried at Fort Washakie on the Wind River Reservation in western Wyoming. In the next grave lie the supposed remains of her son Jean Baptiste. Or so the Eastern Shoshones who live there would have us believe.
A University of Wyoming historian, Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard, made this claim in her 1932 book Sacajawea (also the preferred Shoshone spelling). The book was mostly based on hearsay and the personal recollections of by-then elderly Shoshones, but caught on with the Indians themselves, and Wyoming boosters. In 1941, a rough granite marker was dedicated at the cemetery by state and tribal officials. And in 1963, an elaborate six-foot granite monument was dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the organization officially sanctioning the Hebard myth.
Besides the 1812 Luttig journal entry, we have a bit more to go on to prove that Sacagawea died young. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Across the Wide Missouri (1947), Bernard DeVoto has a traveling German nobleman, Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, accompanying the famous Indian portrait artist Karl Bodmer. At Fort Clark on the Missouri in 1833, the prairie travelers meet a "geologically old" Toussaint Charbonneau, in the employ of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. DeVoto tells us that Charbonneau, "the widower of Sacajawea" and "ancient as Ramses" (probably about 75), would be around a few years yet, long enough to survive the 1837 smallpox epidemic that killed thousands of Mandans, Arikaras, Sioux, Assiniboines, Hidatsas and Blackfeet. William Clark, writing at length in a journal in 1828 about the fates of some of his Corps of Discovery compatriots, makes this simple, haunting note in his idiosyncratic spelling: "SarcarJawea -- Dead".
JEAN BAPTISTE CHARBONNEAU ("Pomp," as he was affectionately nicknamed by Clark) is easier to follow, and led an interesting life. He attended schools in St. Louis and eventually in Europe, and was a cultured, well-read man who spoke four languages and, according to DeVoto, "recited Shakespeare around wilderness campfires." He returned to the West sometime in the 1830s, and figures in a number of histories of the fur trade and pioneer emigrant eras. He caught gold fever and went to California in the 1850s. A newspaper obituary and death records prove that he died in Oregon in 1866. His grave at Danner, Oregon, was entered into the National Register of Historic Places on March 14, 1973.
Since modern forensic methods like DNA don't apply, and even dental records are many times nonexistent to identify remains of over a century, this mystery will remain with us. We know that there is an old Indian woman buried at Fort Washakie, along with a man next to her. Exhumation -- even if permitted -- would be a futile exercise. In light of the recent Kennewick Man controversy in the Pacific Northwest, it would lay before us a minefield of bitter, culturally-sensitive identity politics. American Indians are viewed on the left as A-List victims.
Our age of political correctness will ensure that the Wind River Shoshones will stick to their story for a myriad of cultural reasons boiled down to simple economics. After all, they wouldn't want to disappoint all those tourists visiting the gravesites at Fort Washakie during these next few Lewis and Clark Bicentennial years.
Tim Thorson, executive director of the nearby Riverton, Wyoming Chamber of Commerce, and president of the Wind River Visitors Council, was recently interviewed by a local reporter about plans for observing the Bicentennial in western Wyoming. "Our biggest challenge is how to promote the history in a culturally sensitive way," he said.
Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.
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