Monday, December 20, 2010

The Death of Sacagawea?

The details of her short life are scarce, and the only proof we have that she might have died on this day in 1812 at the age of 25 is a vague entry in the log of a fur trader named Henry Brackenridge at the Fort Manuel Lisa Trading Post: '…the wife of Charbonneau . . . died of putrid fever.' Then again, the entry could have been referring to her husband's other wife, Otter Woman; or else she might have had enough of him calling her 'squaw', and her husband lied about her death to cover his shame at having been deserted by her.

PhotobucketEither way, like Pocahontas - her forbear in the forbearance of white men - Sacagawea's contribution to the European conquest of her homeland has often been neglected, especially by those whom it benefited most. Yet as the only female member of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's Corps of Discovery (serving as their translator, along with her husband, a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau) the young Shoshone would prove time and again that she was the only woman for the job that only a woman could do; for a young woman with a baby to be traveling safely with a group of white men was to serve as a powerful emblem of their peaceful intentions to every tribe they encountered over the next two years.

Joining the expedition at a Hidatsa village near the present-day Washburn, North Dakota, in November 1804, after giving birth (to Jean Baptiste Charbonneau) Sacagawea and her family moved into the temporary Fort Mandan; by April 1805 the group of explorers was ready to set out across the Rocky Mountains. In May of that year, after her quick reflexes saved the journals of Lewis and Clark from a potential watery grave, they named the Sacagawea River after her.

It was in August, though, that Sacagawea's presence would come in handiest; as the expedition neared the Columbia River, they found a tribe with whom they wished to trade. It turns out the chief of that tribe was Sacagawea's long-lost brother, Cameahwait, whom she hadn't seen since she was stolen from their village when she was 12 (circa 1800) and the trade was arranged. Reaching the Pacific Ocean in November 1805, the group wintered at Fort Clatsop, in Oregon.

On the return trip in 1806 Sacagawea suggested that they take a different route, and cross into the Yellowstone River basin at what is now known as Bozeman Pass; after subsequent exhaustive surveys of the entire cordilleran region, hers was the route chosen as the optimal one for the Northern Pacific Railway to cross the continental divide. Following the return of the expedition to where she and her family had first joined it, they remained there for three years, moving to St. Louis in 1809, and thence into the fort where she may have died in 1812.

Still, legends persist... The most persistent of these is that Sacagawea died at Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation in April 1884 at the age of 96, having changed her name from the Hidatsa name she is best known by to the Shoshone name Porivo (meaning chief woman); a monument to Porivo (aka Sacagawea) was erected at her graveside near Lander, Wyoming, in 1963.

Sacagawea lives on in two works of fiction: one written in 1933 by Grace Hebard, the other written in 1984 by Anna Lee Waldo; both are called Sacajawea.
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