Published on January 20, 2011 by John
The Shoshoni (also Shoshone) lived in Idaho, parts of Utah and parts of Northern Nevada, and it is believed that Sacajawea was born in Eastern Idaho in what is now Salmon, Idaho. Everything about Sacajawea is mysterious from the correct spelling and meaning of her name, to the circumstances surrounding her death. Some of what we do have recorded is relayed here.
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At about age 10, Sacajawea was captured by a raiding band of Hidatsa and carried to their camp near the border of North Dakota. Eventually, Sacajawea was sold to a French-Canadian fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau. The Corps of Discovery (as the Lewis and Clark Expedition was officially named) had camped for the winter at Fort Mandan in North Dakota, which is where Charbonneau was also spending the winter with his pregnant wife, Sacajawea.
When winter broke, Charbonneau was hired to guide Lewis & Clark due to his knowledge of the country where he trapped. He was specifically instructed to bring Sacajawea, with her baby boy Jean Baptiste, for a number of reasons. First of all, the presence of a woman and baby would establish the peaceful nature of the party. Secondly a Native translator and negotiator with knowledge of the languages, customs and tribes of the country was essential.
While Lewis’ journals make very little mention of Sacajawea, Clark carefully detailed her contributions to the success of the journey. Her knowledge of the terrain and mountain passes saved weeks of travel time. Her ability to speak and negotiate with Native tribes allowed the expedition to keep fresh horses and food all along the way. When food was scarce, Sacajawea gathered and prepared roots, nuts, berries and other edible plants in order to provide tasty nourishment.
Clark was so taken with Sacajawea, and so concerned about her welfare at the hands of the abusive and wife-beating Charbonneau, that he proposed taking the infant boy to St. Louis to be raised in safety. For her efforts in making the expedition successful, Lewis & Clark named a river “Sacajawea” in her honor.
From here, history becomes cloudy. It is known that Sacajawea did take her son to Clark in St. Louis (as promised) where he was raised as Clark’s own. She did leave Charbonneau and spend time in St. Louis. One account says that she died of “putrid fever” (smallpox, tuberculosis, scarlet fever??) at age 25, and even Clark’s account of the members of his expedition mark her as dead.
Native accounts, however, especially Shoshoni oral history, have Sacajawea marrying several more times, having a number of children, and meeting up with her son Jean Baptiste in Wind River, Wyoming. This woman (called Porivo) had intimate knowledge of the Lewis & Clark expedition, spoke French, wore a Jefferson Medal around her neck, was a political speaker who spoke at the meeting which led to the Ft. Bridger Treaty, was credited with introducing the Sun Dance Ceremony to the Shoshoni, and was an advocate of agriculture as a necessary skill for the Shoshoni. Porivo died at age 96, and was buried in the white cemetery at Ft. Washakie as a final show of respect for her efforts in behalf of both Lewis & Clark, and her own people.
Dr. Charles Eastman, who had been hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to locate Sacajawea, opted for the Native history as being the most accurate. After extensive research, Eastman determined that Porivo was, indeed, Sacajawea and a monument was erected in her honor at her gravesite. However, Sacajawea’s story will change depending upon the account you’re reading, the part of the country you’re in, and the heritage of the author of the story. After the passage of so much time, it is unlikely that her movements after she left St. Louis will ever be known with certainty.
What is known with certainty is that Sacajawea was responsible for raising the Native American woman to a new level of respect and admiration.