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Eriksmoen: Much of Sakakawea’s life remains mystery

Sakakawea is the most memorialized woman in American history. Yet, we know very little about her after her 18th birthday.

In fact, the year of her reported death varies by more than 70 years. The most attributed date placed her death in 1812, but there are many who steadfastly state that she lived to the ripe old age of 100, dying in 1884.

Last week we left off with Sakakawea reuniting with her Shoshone friends. While she served as interpreter, Lewis and Clark were able to negotiate with the Shoshone for horses and guides to get their expedition safely over the Rocky Mountains.

The expedition began its treacherous journey at the end of August 1805, and by Sept. 2, all but two of the Shoshone had abandoned them. The next day, snow began to fall. Several horses slipped off the rocky slopes and had to be destroyed. Other horses became too weak to continue the trek. The trip was exhausting for the men, but Sakakawea was also carrying her son, Jean Baptiste, who was less than 7 months old.

In early October, the expedition reached the Clearwater River, which flowed into the Snake River, which then flowed into the Columbia River. They then changed to a river route.

On Nov. 8, they spotted the Pacific Ocean, but because of the rugged terrain and constant rainfall, it made it too miserable to establish a winter camp at that location. Sakakawea suggested that they move to an area where edible roots were available. The expedition traveled about 15 miles northward, where they established camp.

On March 23, 1806, the expedition began their return trip. Besides serving as interpreter, Sakakawea also contributed greatly to the food supply. She knew which roots and berries were edible and spent much of her time gathering them.

Once the expedition crossed the Rockies, the territory once again became familiar to Sakakawea, and she served as primary guide for Clark’s party. Lewis had temporarily set out with several other men to try to find the source of the Marias River.

On Aug. 14, the expedition returned to Fort Mandan. Clark offered to take Sakakawea, Jean Baptiste and Charbonneau with them to St. Louis, but Charbonneau declined, saying he had no way of making a living once he left the area. Clark had become very fond of Jean Baptiste and offered to raise him once he became old enough. Charbonneau found the offer appealing and said they would later meet to discuss the issue further. On Aug. 17, Sakakawea said her farewell to Clark and the rest of the expedition.

Little is known about Sakakawea after she left the expedition at Fort Mandan. There is also much confusion because Charbonneau had two Shoshone wives. It is reported that, in 1806, Charbonneau took both of his wives and two sons to live in St. Louis while he trapped for a fur company. In 1810, he purchased some land near St. Louis from Clark and attempted to farm. Charbonneau sold the land back to Clark a year later.

Charbonneau was hired to help build a trading post along the Missouri River, just south of the present-day North Dakota border.

In April of 1811, it was reported that Charbonneau was on a boat with a wife and son traveling up the Missouri River to begin work on the fort.

On Dec. 20, 1812, the clerk at the fort reported, “This evening the wife of Charbonneau, a Snake (Shoshone) squaw, died of a putrid fever. She was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years. She left a fine infant girl.” If we were certain that this was Sakakawea, which many claim, this would be the end of our story.

What lends credence to the 1812 death of Sakakawea is that, in 1813, Charbonneau signed over legal custody of Jean Baptiste and his infant daughter, Lizette, to Clark. In Clark’s notes, written between 1825 and 1826, he lists Sakakawea as “dead.”

Much of the Native-American oral tradition refused to accept this, claiming that Sakakawea did not die in 1812, but rather that she lived until 1884 under the name of Porivo, a name given to her by the Comanche tribe with whom she lived for many years.

The story was that Sakakawea left Charbonneau and ended up marrying a Cheyenne warrior. After her Cheyenne husband died, she returned to the Shoshone tribe.

To try to clear up this matter, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in 1925, hired Dr. Charles Eastman, a respected physician. After interviewing many people who claimed to have known Sakakawea, then called Porivo, Eastman concluded that Sakakawea did not die until 1884. His findings were corroborated by Grace Raymond Hebard, who published the biography “Sacajawea” in 1933, after 30 years of research.

She came to the same conclusion as Eastman: Sakakawea did not die in 1812.

Whenever she died, we can conclude that Sakakawea was an integral player in the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition. We can only lament that national attention was not drawn to her earlier in the 19th century so that her life could have been better documented.

“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