Pathfinders — Sacagawea


Pathfinders — Sacagawea

I need to add to my series of posts on Pathfinders, Sacagawea, the lone woman who’s story seems to have survived.

The more I read about Sacagawea the more … well, it’s strange … but the more emotional I felt about it.

When you start and read the bare bones account, from Wikipedia, it’s fine, fascinating. This young girl. I MEAN YOUNG. She set out with the Louis and Clark Expedition as a THIRTEEN YEAR OLD!

Now pause for a moment and think of the 13-year-old girls you know.

Now picture her married. Pregnant. A mother. Setting out with a husband known to be abusive with a crowd of men headed across the Rocky Mountains on a path for which no map exists.

Add in the rumors of Sacagawea being won by her husband while gambling. Or possible sold to him.

This isn’t some pretty fairy tale. Well, maybe it is considering all Cinderella went through with that old bat. But Cinderella … well, the shoe fit and she got her prince.

Not Sacagawea

She did all this work, hiked over those monstrous mountains, came near starvation and is credited with keeping the men alive by finding food in odd places. My dubious research says she dug up wild asparagus roots, or something related called camus roots, and pretty much kept everyone from starving with those things.

Anyway, it wasn’t a pretty picture.

But the most blunt thing I read, that also made me hurt, was a statement written by someone very realistic who said so much that we know about Sacagawea, is just plain made up.

The truth is Louis and Clark and their expedition members took a stunning number of notes. By count they wrote more than one million words about this expedition. Very few of them were about Sacagawea.

Sacagawea is mentioned by name seventeen times and her name is spelled eight different ways. There is plenty of debate about her name. Generally, Sacagawea means Bird Woman in the Hidatsu language, (the Hidatsu the tribe is who she was living with when she joined the Expedition-taken captive from her own tribe, the Shoshone) . But there are those who say  she renamed by the Hidatsu or her true Shoshone name was mispronounced by them to sound like Sacagawea…honestly how would they know how to spell her name in English. And Louis and Clark just had to sound it out. Still, you’d think they’d have PICKED ONE NAME AND STUCK WITH IT!

I will note here that Louis and Clark and their corp were notoriously bad at spelling. Their journals are incredibly hard to read. I will additionally note here that until Daniel Webster wrote his first dictionary, no words were really widely spelled alike. Most people wrote by sound with no one judging a word ‘misspelled’. There just was no accepted correct spelling until 1806, when Webster’s Dictionary was first published…and he kept adding words and republishing until 1825. So random spelling was widespread.

What words there are about Sacagawea, are very favorable, about her courage, about how much she helped. About how her knowing the Shoshone Indians and indeed finding her brother and enabling the expedition to trade for horses, once they had to abandon their boats, helped them through the mountains. About those camas roots.

But most of these things are noted in a one sentence reference to her between long intervals of writing about other things.

Women of the West

I have this theory that I can get very passionate about that someone needs to take all the famous men in history and write about their wives. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett had wives. What were they doing while their menfolk went about exploring? I’ll bet they were standing right there beside them, fighting the wilderness, wrestling survival out of the frontier and doing it pregnant and wearing a dress.

I suspect if I set out to research these women, I’d find something similar to what exists about Sacagawea. A few passing notes left behind. I’d have to build my books out of fantasy, make 2 + 2 = 10 by sheer willpower.

So Sacagawea did NOT keep them alive. No, she did NOT single-handedly drag their sorry backsides across the Rockies.

The truth of the Corp of Discovery

The truth of the Corp of Discovery is that this was a pack of incredibly tough men. Louis and Clark did a fantastic job of picking real hardened men who took their job seriously, faced untold hardships, battled on forward through disappointments, danger and pain.

And Sacagawea was right there with them. She was tough. That little baby strapped on her back was tough. That awful Charbonneau, well he might not have been all that tough, but he knew the mountains. He helped. They all worked hard together and managed this incredible journey. Made it to the Pacific…and made back to tell the tale.

One man died. Based on the sketchy notes taken, it’s believed Sgt. Floyd probably died of an appendicitis attack, get that? He didn’t freeze or starve or die in battle or fall off a cliff. Poor guy, he was probably really tough too, but he didn’t make it.

I want so much more for Sacagawea than to die at age 25 of a stupid fever. I almost hunger for her to be more. To have survived.

Sacagawea’s ages on this timeline are approximate. No one really knows. It is known that Jean Baptiste lived to travel in Europe and knew several languages. Louis was his godfather and kept his promise to Sacagawea to give her son a fine education.

There are oral histories that are very weak, that say she lived to be 100 years old. There are markers by her burial site in Wyoming when the truth is almost certainly that she died and was buried in an unmarked grave in North Dakota.

And the real tricky part here is, those few words written about Sacagawea, with two very minor exceptions that support her death at age 25, were all that was ever written about her until one hundred years later.

All the oral history, including that she married a second time, had more children, reunited with her son Jean Baptiste and lived until 1884, was only ‘discovered’ on the centennial celebration of her amazing fete of endurance and courage.



Creating a fable about Sacagawea

Clark nicknamed Sacagawea’s son Pompy or Pomp and refers to him in notes occasionally by those names. He named a pillar of rocks after Pompy and this memorial sign refers to the still visible name ‘W. Clark’ dated 1806.

Yes, I want more for her. So much more.

But it is very doubtful she lived until 1884…a story that was ‘discovered’ in 2004. There was certainly a woman who lived to be 100 who many, on looking back, believed could have been Sacagawea. But these were the long ago memories of elderly people remembering a long dead member of their tribe. And these folks may well have believed this woman was Sacagawea, but they may have wanted that to be true as badly as I do.

Whatever happened to her after this expedition, she belongs in this list of Pathfinders.

By creating a fable about Sacagawea, I think we diminish what she really did.

As if surviving, guiding, and feeding the Corp of Discovery wasn’t enough.

As if walking, boating, riding a horse from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean wearing a dress, carrying a baby on your back, a baby she’s certainly breastfeeding and diapering and probably trying to get to sleep at night, wasn’t enough.

I think we need to let the story we know, the story that is written down about Sacagawea be enough, because….it is.

To get your name in the drawing for a signed copy of Long Time Gone leave a comment about Sacagawea or any woman in history you’d like to know more about.

Long Time Gone-Click to Buy


Long Time Gone

The Boden clan thought their problems had ended with the death of a dangerous enemy, but have they truly uncovered the real plot to take their New Mexico ranch? Rancher Justin Boden is now in charge. He is normally an unshakable and rugged man, but with his brother, Cole, shot and in mortal danger, even a tough man faces doubts. And it doesn’t help that Angie DuPree, the assistant to the doctor trying to save Cole, is as distracting a woman as Justin ever laid eyes on.

With her and the doc’s timely skills, Cole looks to be on the mend, and Justin and the rest of the Bodens can turn their attention back to the dangers facing them. It’s clear now that everything that’s occurred is part of a much bigger plot that could date back to a decades-old secret. Can they uncover all the pieces before danger closes in on them, or is the threat to the ranch even bigger than any of the Bodens could imagine?

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Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series

42 thoughts on “Pathfinders — Sacagawea”

  1. Enjoyed reading your post. Admire Sacagawea and all the women that lived in the past. We have it so easy right now and many times we forget that and complain and whine. I cannot even imagine the hardships and sufferings these women went through.
    Sacagawea to be 13 years old, pregnant, without a mother to help, out in the middle of nowhere – that was some hard living. How did she make it? What were her thoughts? Faith? So many questions.

    • Mary this is so true of ME. Good grief, if the air conditioner breaks I’m so unhappy. If the water or electricity goes off we are almost helpless.
      What a tough situation.

    • And I kept circling around that, her thoughts, her faith, how she FELT. Good grief she was kidnapped from her tribe. It sounds like she was sold or as good as to Charbonneau. How did she FEEL?
      Did she accept her life?
      Did she want to kill her husband in his sleep?
      Did she dream of escaping the expedition once she saw her brother?

  2. Mary- wow, what a wonderful article, she was definitely a great lady in our history. I agree her being 13, to think of today’s 13 year old girls, there is no comparison. Thanks for all the info. I’d love to know more about many ladies who helped discovered our western USA. Right now I can’t think of which one, but many I’m sure have stories we’ve never even dreamed of living. You have a great day.

    • Tonya, I did read that Daniel Boone’s wife, with whom he had TEN children (or maybe NINE) thought Daniel was dead when he’d been gone for about two years, captured by Indians. So she married his brother. Had a child with him. Then Daniel came home and it’s said the brother just moved out and Daniel moved back in and he and his wife had some more kids. Daniel raised his brother’s child as his own. (but surely he brother stopped in to this civilized home … for dinner and such)

      • Mary- I loved that history lesson and Daniel Boone. I did not know any of that, thank you so much for sharing and I cannot wait to read more of your tidbits of history information you have a very phenomenal talent at delivering these stories.

          • Mary, there very well may have been. I just can’t imagine what his brother thought as well as Daniel when he returned. And His poor wife, I wonder if she was offered the choice of which brother to remain married too. Back then women didn’t get much day.

  3. I always found her to be fascinating. I did not realize she was that young when she first joined. Thanks for the amazing post.

    • Isn’t that crazy, DebraG? 13 years old? Of course both boys and girls had to grow up fast back then, so maybe it’s not that shockingly young if you don’t look at it through the lens of modern standerds. And STILL!!!!!!!!!!!

    • I keep picturing her trying to dig up camas roots with a baby on her back. Wouldn’t the baby like…fall out if Sacagawea was bent way over? Maybe she got Louis or Clark or even Charbonneau to carry him around…take a turn you know?

    • You know what this made me think of???

      I was listening to an interview with Camille Paglia, a college professor and famed feminist. And she was lamenting how wimpy feminism has gotten. How so many young millenials need safe spaces and speech codes or they feel attacked.

      Paglia said ‘stop being snowflakes and start being Amazons. That’s the kind of feminist I want to see.’

      I think Sacagawea would fit that.

  4. Oh wow, what a sobering post! I have known that history has painted her wrong in so many cases. I had to dress up like her in fifth grade for a book report. Thank you for sharing all the details!

  5. I love your passion for female pathfinders, Mary! Just surviving in that time was remarkable, but to do all that she did is amazing. I wish history did a better job of recording the accomplishments of the women of that time.

    • Karen I remember reading once that Fred Astaire was the most acclaimed dancer of his generation, and yet Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backward, in high heels and wearing a dress.

      That seems to fit with Sacagawea, too. 🙂

  6. So many great details of interest about Sacagawea. Loved reading your write up and agree with your comment about letting the facts speak for themselves about her great deeds instead of making them into legend the way things seem to be done.

    I would love to be the fortunate one selected to receive a signed copy of Long Time Gone. Sounds like an amazing read. Thank you for the chance!

  7. Wow I’m moved to tears! You don’t grow up hearing the truth about her story! What a brace woman! We as children growing up should be taught a closer versions to this! Instead of making everyone else be hero’s!! Thank you sharing this with us! I feel blessed somehow to know the truth!

      • I truly do! I wish one of those other men would have seen her struggles and hardships and cared for her. I’m just a romantic at heart I guess lol. What an awesome young lady!!

  8. Very interesting! I didn’t realize there were so many untruths about her. The older I get, the more I really enjoy history. I wish there was more to read about the wives that have gone before us. I want to learn from them, study them. It fascinates me and makes me want to go move out and live off the land. In fact, we’ve been striving to do that more and more. For me it started with someone recommending that I read a Jeanette Oke book. Then after I’d read all of hers, I stumbled upon Cathy Marie Hake. And then Mary Connealy. And I just can’t get enough. I’d rather wear a skirt and get out and work in the garden or be baking bread. Getting back to our roots. I would love to learn more from our ancestors.

    • Shelene, it’s inspiring, to see how they worked so hard and overcame so much. To realize the strength a person is capable of.

      You should read Kitchen Priviledges by Mary Higgins Clark sometime. Not historical romance, an autobiography, but that woman worked so hard to overcome so much. Very impressive.

  9. Ever since grade school history where I first learned of Sacagawea, I have been fascinated by her story. What a thrill it would be to read your story about her. Long Time Gone sounds so interesting and you have done much research, that should make for a winner. Thanks for the chance provided to do so.

    • I wish I would write a story about her, Judy. But it would have to be so fictionalized, right? There’s just not that much about her.

      In fact, in my version, I’d probably have Sacagawea slit Chabonneau’s throat while he slept and run off to rejoin her brother!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      That seems more my style.

      Well, maybe I’d make it self-defense.

  10. My North Dakota relatives call her Sakakawea (emphasis on KAK)–I guess they go by one of those other spellings.

    Learning the true stories of strong women is so often bittersweet–Sacagawea has an incredible story of strength, but at the same time, there was a lot of tragedy involved. Granted, one doesn’t become strong by being pampered all one’s life.

    • I have a neighbor who goes fishing at Lake Sakakawea. My Cowboy and I had to look it up because the neighbor pronounced it funny and we weren’t sure if it was about Sacagawea or we misunderstood what he said.

    • Deanna, I just went and read about Jennie Wade. Wow, can you imagine how close they were to the battle? So strange that they didn’t all go to the basement or something!!!!

      With a five day old baby it’d be hard to really run far….although have far would you really have to go to get out of bullet range.

      Poor Jennie!!!

  11. You said it well. Any woman walking through rough terrain, etc with a baby on their back is tough enough without fluffing it up.

  12. I loved your article. Your perspective is right on. Sacagawea did so much and received so little official mention. She was young, but had been taught from birth how to forage and gather. And to be kidnapped by another tribe and married off to the trader. She is an inspiration to our modern girls.

  13. Great post Mary, I have always been interested in Sacagawea and what she went through. She had to have a hard life and I think a lot of the women back then did. I guess we have it easy this day in time.

  14. I would love to hear more about Annie Oakley…she was always a favorite of mine growing up in addition to Sacagawea. Love reading about women from the West in the 1800’s.

  15. I have always loved the story of Sacajawea. Thank you for separating fact from fable.
    I also love your idea of writing about the wives of men in history. Daniel Bone and David Crockett would be a great place to start.

  16. Thanks for such an interesting article about Sacajawea. We have been to her “grave site” in Wyoming. As you say, the truth about her is enough. For her short time on Earth she certainly accomplished much more than could be expected of any young girl her age. The men were much older, hardened, and experienced. I would like to see one of them with their strength and experience carry a child, nurse and care for one in addition to doing all their other chores.
    I would like to find out more about Tamsen Donner, wife of the leader of the Donner party. I have read a fictional account of her journey that was very interesting and heartbreaking. Other women I would like to find out more about would be those who survived the Alamo.

  17. Posted last night but it didn’t go through.
    We went to Sacagawea’s “grave” several years ago. It is really out in the middle of nowhere. The statue and monument are very nice.
    The men on the expedition were all very capable. I would still doubt any of them could have done what this young girl managed during the expedition. I can understand the desire to acknowledge her accomplishments and think she lived a long life.
    I would like to find out more about Tamsen Donner. I have read one novel written from her perspective dealing primarily with the illfated expedition.

  18. This post really sucked me in. Growing up in north Idaho, we studied Sacagawea and the Lewis and Clark expedition in depth. Now I live close to the place where she allegedly saw the rock (Beaverhead) that identified her homeland to her–in fact I can see the rock from the kitchen window. I’ve often thought about Sacagawea, because she was one of the few females we learned about in elementary history classes, other than Narcissa Whitman and Betsy Ross. I hadn’t realized so little was known about her and I want to know more. Thanks for the post, Mary.

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