Monday, February 11, 2013

The Baby Who Went Exploring

One of many idealized versions of Sacajawea with her baby guiding Captains Clark and Lewis.

On February 11, 1805 Captain Meriwether Lewis recorded in his meticulous Journal the birth of a baby boy to the young wife of Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trapper living with the Hidstsa.  Lewis and Captain William Clark were wintering their Corps of Discovery at Ft. Mandan in present North Dakota before their planned push to the Pacific that spring. 
The young woman, Sacajawea, had been born among the Agaidika tribe of Eastern Shoshone along the Snake River in present day Idaho and kidnapped by raiding Hidstsa at the age of 12.  By 14 she was the second wife of Charbonneau. 
Her husband spoke most of the languages of the tribes on the Eastern Slope of the Rockies and her knowledge of Shoshone or, in Lewis’s terms Snake, was critical because the expedition was relying on trading among her people for horses to take them further west after crossing the Great Divide.  And their combined knowledge of the terrain was important, although the woman was never considered a guide.  The two captains could only communicate with her through her husband. 
She and the baby accompanied the expedition when it set out in April.  By May she had earned the leaders’ admiration when her quick action saved Lewis’s Journals and other important equipment after a canoe capsized.  They named a near-by creek in her honor. 
In August the company finally contacted the Agaidika.  To everyone’s astonishment the Chief turned out to be Sakajawea’s brother Cameahwait.  Needless to say, the good will created by re-uniting the family greatly eased negotiations for horses. 
She continued with the party to the Pacific and her knowledge of edible plants helped save the men from starvation. 
On the return trip she identified a key pass over the mountains, Gibbons Pass and later advised them to take the shortest direct route through Bozeman Pass. 
She and her husband stayed for three years at Ft. Mandan before she accepted Clark’s offer to visit him at St. Louis.  Clark adopted her son, Jean-Baptiste called Pompy, and provided for his education.  A daughter, Lizzette was born about 1810. 
She and her husband were living at Manuel Lisa’s trading post on the Missouri where a clerk recorded that she died of “putrid fever” on December 20, 1812, aged about 24.  Lizzette was killed in a Blackfoot attack on the fort soon after. 
The resolute young woman entered the realm of folk tale and romantic myth and was adopted by Suffragists as an icon for womanly strength and independence.  She was portrayed by blue eyed Donna Reed in the 1952 film Far Horizons.  In 2000 the U.S. Mint began production of a dollar coin with an idolized portrait of her with her infant son.

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