Either from films or our school history lessons, we all know Sacagawea and her contributions to the expansion of the US. History has romanticized how two white men resorted to a good-hearted native woman to lead them in their mission to expand their country to the West. However, there’s something off about this story. Why would she help these strangers invade her land and that of other indigenous tribes? And, why it seems that this story, portraying a good-heartedly and even submissive woman, seems to good to be true?
According to history, Sacagawea was a young indigenous woman who decided to accompany explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their mission to expand to the West, a commission by president Thomas Jefferson. Without her, they would’ve never made it to the West, since her knowledge of the land was key to the company’s survival. However, there are some untold facts about this story.
Sacagawea is thought to have been born around 1788 in the Agaidika tribe, which was part of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe (Idaho). At 12, she and other girls were abducted by warriors of the Hidatsa tribe and sold as slaves to the Mardans (in today’s North Dakota). From here on, the story gets confusing. Some believe she was either sold to or won in a bet by Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trapper. Either way, these indigenous girls, whose names remain unknown, became Charbonneau’s maids and wives.
By 1805, Sacagawea was pregnant and gave birth to her first child, around the time of Lewis and Clark’s arrival to the region. In order to continue their expansion mission, they locals to guide and show them the perils of the land. Wanting to be part of the adventure, Charbonneau offered to help, but the explorers knew he wasn’t really what they needed. They accepted his offer as long as he would take one of his wives, especially, the one that had been taken from the West, Sacagawea. So in fact, she never volunteered; she was just an asset for their task.
Her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was born in 1805 and nicknamed “Pompy” by Clark, who had a very strange interest and care for the child. With the baby carried on her back, Sacagawea and the entire crew set off towards the West. During the journey, which took almost an entire year to be completed, she proved to be a great interpreter, an amazing diplomat, and even saved them from starvation and the inclement weather more than once, allowing the entire team to safely reach the Pacific Ocean.
In Lewis and Clark’s journals, she’s often mentioned as the native woman who guided them, though never with the admiration and respect she deserved. If it weren’t for this quote from one of Clark’s letters to Charbonneau senior after the expedition, we would have never known how big she was for US history: “woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans (sic).” Since Clark had a special love for “Pompy”, he offered Charbonneau to move her in with his family in St. Louis-Missouri.
The official version of this story states that Sacagawea died in 1812 of an unknown disease (putrid fever according to some documents) and that Charbonneau gave full custody of both children to Clark (she gave birth to a little girl named Lizette years before moving to Clark’s). This story remain like this for almost a century until Sacagawea became a role model for the suffragist movement in the US.
This craze for her made historians go back to this historical episode in order to find out what had really happened to her and where and how she died. Many interesting discoveries came along, such as the possibility that she might not have died of that strange and unknown disease.
In 1925, Dr. Charles Eastman (a Native American physician) was sent by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to look for the remains of the great Sacagawea. He traced her steps following Lewis and Clark’s journals, visiting remaining Native American tribes and interviewing the eldest members for records. He discovered there had been a Shoshone woman living in a Comanche reservation that went by the name of Porivo (meaning chief woman). She said she had gone through a long journey helping white men, and they recall she had with her a Jefferson peace medal, which was the very same Lewis and Clark received after the expedition.
According to this version, Sacagawea left Charbonneau when he decided to give Clark full custody of her children. She had escaped and crossed the Great Plains until she reached a Comanche tribe. She eventually married the chief (thus the name Porivo), and started over as a free woman. It’s also believed that by 1860 she decided to go back to the Shoshone tribe until she died in 1884, at the age of 96.
Dr. Eastman concluded that Porivo was the famous Sacagawea, and in 1963 a monument was erected at Fort Washakie in the Wind River Reservation–Wyoming. This theory has been questioned a lot, but it’s the one that makes more sense for many specialists on Native American history, especially when evidence about her death is so unreliable and mysterious.
Perhaps we might never know what really happened to her, but what we know is that the romanticized story we were taught at school doesn’t really add to the fact of how indigenous people, especially women, lived at that time (and even today). Yes, she was strong, determined, and really smart, but we can’t forget that all in all, she was nothing but a pawn in a white men’s game.
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