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Did You Know That?: Mystery enshrouds history of Sakakawea

To me, the best-known woman enshrouded in the greatest amount of mystery in American history has to be Sakakawea.

For the past 200 years, the majority of Americans have been aware that she was a Native American woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on much of their exploratory expedition between 1805 and 1806.

There are only a few things about her with which most historians agree. Even the spelling and pronunciation of her name has taken on many forms. The three most common spellings are Sacajawea, Sacagawea and Sakakawea.

Sakakawea “has had more memorials dedicated to her than any other American woman.” According to my count, 19 life-size statues of her are on display in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Texas, Illinois, Missouri and Washington, D.C.

A glacier, lake, river, mountain, and three mountain peaks were all named in her honor. Her likeness is found on a dollar coin, and her name has been given to a number of ships and to a caldera on the planet of Venus.

Much information about her early life comes from what could be pieced together through journal entries by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, known formally as the Corps of Discovery. However, all of this journal information was not compiled together and published until 1893, long after all of the principals involved had died. Verification and clarification of the details were impossible.

In the journal entries, Sakakawea was rarely mentioned by name. Instead, she is often listed as one of Charbonneau’s squaws (he had two wives in 1805). In one of Capt. William Clark’s journals, she was called “Janey,” apparently an affectionate nickname the captain bestowed upon her. From the entries, we learn that Sakakawea was 17 years old when Clark first met her late in 1804. This would indicate that she was born in 1787 or 1788.

The most accepted accounts state that Sakakawea originally lived along the Salmon River, in present-day east-central Idaho. At the age of 12, she was with a group of other Shoshone Indians, picking berries with the women and children, when they were attacked by Hidatsa warriors. Several of her companions were killed, and most of the others, including Sakakawea, were captured and taken to the Hidatsa village near Washburn.

The next year, Sakakawea was acquired as a wife by a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. Meanwhile, President Thomas Jefferson was preparing an expedition to explore the land acquired from France through the Louisiana Purchase.

Jefferson asked his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to head up the expedition, and Lewis persuaded his friend Clark to join him. The expedition began in May 1804 in St. Louis. By late October, they had reached “the cluster of five villages at the mouth of the Knife River where they planned to spend the winter.”

After constructing Fort Mandan four miles downstream from the nearest village, Lewis and Clark began negotiating with the Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa about provisions and other necessities essential for their long trip.

High on their list of essentials were people who were familiar with the terrain, especially someone who knew about a passage through the Rocky Mountains. They were also looking for someone who could communicate with the various Indian tribes they were likely to encounter as they traveled through Indian country.

Lewis and Clark were informed that Charbonneau had a wife who grew up in this western region, and that she could also speak the Shoshone language. In order to acquire Sakakawea’s services, they agreed to hire Charbonneau as their interpreter and convinced him to live with his wives at Fort Mandan.

At the time, Sakakawea was soon expecting to give birth to her first child, and on Feb. 11, 1805, delivered a son that she named “Jean Baptiste.” North Dakota historian Elwyn Robinson said, “Finding Sakakawea was a master stroke. Perhaps no single act contributed so much to the success of the expedition.”

On April 7, the expedition began its journey up the Missouri River. On the main boat were Lewis and Clark and the three new expedition members: Charbonneau, Sakakawea and Jean Baptiste. On the afternoon of May 14, while Lewis and Clark were ashore, a gust of wind keeled the boat, allowing it to fill with water. The crew stabilized the vessel, but much of the valuable cargo had floated out. “Sakakawea calmly leaned out of the boat and collected nearly everything that had been washed overboard.” In his journal, Lewis credited her with preserving most of the items from the water.

In early August, Sakakawea became excited when she started recognizing certain landmarks. She was close to her childhood home. A few days later, Lewis and his advance party met some Shoshone who took the men to their village. The Shoshone were impressed when they learned that a member of the expedition was a woman who was once a member of their tribe and had been taken captive.

On Aug. 17, Clark and Sakakawea joined the advance party, and she recognized people she knew as a child. The biggest revelation was that Cameahwait, the tribal chief, was her brother.

With Sakakawea serving as interpreter, Lewis and Clark negotiated with the Shoshone for horses that would enable them to complete their journey to the Pacific Coast. Some of the Shoshone also agreed to serve as guides. Because of Sakakawea, what appeared to be a nearly impossible task was now believed to be attainable.

(We will conclude the story of Sakakawea next week.)

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by

Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments

or corrections to the Eriksmoens at