Two young American Indian women provided great service to newcomers to their lands, making a mark on American history that’s still felt today.
When English colonists landed at Chesapeake Bay in 1607, they were in a foreign land, facing unknown challenges. They founded a colony at Jamestown but might well have died without the support and information provided by the Powhatan Indian Confederacy.
One bridge to the tribal culture came through Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan chief Pamunkey and Mattaponi.
In 1613, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English colonists and taken to Jamestown Colony, where they intended to use her as a bargaining chip. They wanted to trade her back to her powerful father for weapons and English prisoners being held by the Powhatan.
While in captivity, Pocahontas drew the attention of colonist John Rolfe, whom she ultimately married in 1614. This union brought about a peace that ensured survival and safety for the English settlers who soon had a firm settlement in their new world.
Nearly two centuries later when Capt. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery into the Upper Missouri River country in the fall of 1804 to locate a campsite not far from the Mandan Villages, they also found support and information from American Indians.
And they became acquainted with a young Lemhi Shoshone girl, Sacajawea, who would play a pivotal role in their continuing expedition.
A Bridge Between Cultures
With her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, Sacajawea was included in the Corps of Discovery expedition when it departed from the Mandan Village winter camp to continue west in the Spring of 1805, seeking a route to the Pacific Ocean.
She would aid the Corps in many ways most importantly in interpreting with the Shoshones to obtain horses. Her background made her a bridge between cultures.
Her participation with the Lewis and Clark Expedition made her one of the most recognized women in American history.
Yet, no one knows exactly what she looked like. There are no letters, journals or other writings that she created herself.
There is not even a clear understanding of how to spell or say her name (Sacagawea, Sakakawea, Saca tzah we yaa, Bird Woman, Grass Woman, Boat Pusher, Boat Launcher, Porivo).
As a child, she was taken from her Shoshone family and later lived with the Hidatsa. She became a mother to Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau in her early teens and carried him halfway across the continent and back.
Traveling with Lewis and Clark, she pointed out key landmarks, gathered wild food and even saved important documents and equipment when one of the boats they used swamped in the Missouri River.
Her contributions to the expedition ensured success for President Thomas Jefferson’s vision of exploration and expansion of the nation.
Did They Help Or Hurt?
Today, both Pocahontas and Sacajawea remain key figures in the story of American Indian — indeed American — history. But they are also sometimes criticized for their actions in helping western expansion because it forever changed tribal cultures.
The connection to the Powhatan Indian Confederacy through Pocahontas allowed the English to become firmly established in America.
The aid and translation services Sacajawea provided to the Lewis and Clark expedition almost certainly helped the American military expedition succeed in reaching the Oregon country and the Pacific Ocean.
This venture would spawn the American fur trade and ultimately fuel the western expansion that forced tribal nations into conflict and in most cases out of their homelands.
The life of Pocahontas is well documented. The life of Sacajawea is one of myth and mystery.
Connection To Wind River
One of the biggest questions of Sacajawea’s life has direct connections to Wyoming and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
A Shoshone Indian woman, wife of Charbonneau, died Dec. 20, 1812, at Fort Manuel along the Missouri River some 50 miles downstream from the location of the Mandan Villages in present North Dakota.
That woman was described by John Luttig, a clerk for Manuel Lisa’s Missouri Fur Co., as “the best Woman in the fort.” But he did not provide her name.
It did not take long for many to believe that woman was Sacajawea, but others weren’t so sure and her legend started growing immediately.
More than a century later, Wyoming Historian Grace Raymond Hebard accelerated the mystery of Sacajawea when she wrote a biography of the Indian woman.
Hebard based much of her information about Sacajawea’s later life on interviews and information gathered during the 1920s as she researched her book. Significantly, she interviewed people who were living on the Wind River Reservation in the latter part of the 1800s.
The stories from people like Chief Washakie’s daughter Egna Peahrora, Fincelious G. Burnett (who served as the Agricultural Minister on the Wind River Reservation) and Dr. James Irwin, the Indian agent on the Wind River Reservation, informed Hebard about the old Indian woman.
The Lost Woman
In her book, Hebard said Sacajawea left Charbonneau sometime around 1812 and traveled south, eventually finding a home with the Comanches, where she married a man named Jerk Meat and had children.
After his death, the woman left the Comanches and they gave her a new name, Wadze-wipe, or Lost Woman.
For a long period of time there is no record of where she was, but eventually, Hebard wrote, she made her way to Fort Lupton on the South Platte River and then continued north to join Chief Washakie’s people in Wyoming, where she lived the remainder of her life.
According to Hebard, once Sacajawea settled in with Chief Washake, she was reunited with her son Jean-Baptiste, who had by then studied in St. Louis, traveled in Europe with Duke Paul of Württenberg and become a trader working first for Auguste Chouteau and then for Bent, St. Vrain & Co.
Hebard wrote that Sacajawea also met with Bazil, the nephew-son she had adopted in 1805 when she traveled with Lewis and Clark, and they lived together or at least in proximity of each other for the next 30 or so years.
Andrew Bazil, the son of Bazil and grandson of Sacajawea, told Hebard that both his father and grandmother were present on July, 3, 1868, when Washakie and other headmen for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe took part in a “Great Treaty” negotiated at Fort Bridger in 1869, where they gave up territory in that area in exchange for a reservation in another region of their homeland, the Wind River Basin, where Fort Washakie would be established as an agency headquarters.
Other informants also told Hebard that Sacajawea attended that treaty council. One was Chief Washakie’s daughter Egna Peahrora, who called Sacajawea Porivo and told Hebard, “I know that Porivo took part in the council at Fort Bridger because I was right there and saw her in the council myself. She had a part in the meeting, and she spoke in the meeting.”
In 1883, the Rev. John Roberts took charge of the mission on the Wind River Indian Reservation, a position he would hold for the next 50 years.
He became known as White Robe, a name bestowed by Chief Washakie. This mission leader was therefore at Fort Washakie and entered into the parish records the death of the woman believed to be Sacajawea on April 9, 1884.
Reverend Roberts identified the old woman as Bazil’s Mother, noted that she was 100 years old, had been a resident of the Shoshone Agency and was buried at the Shoshone Agency in the old cemetery at the base of the Wind River Mountains.
Candy Moulton’s new book “Sacajawea: Mystery, Myth, and Legend” is available from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press.