Q: What piece of US currency is linked to the French-Canadian fur trade?
A: The Sacagawea dollar! Her baby, peeking over her ear, is half French-Canadian. His father is Toussaint Charbonneau. The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06 wouldn’t have had its success without her, or him.
Recently I read “Sacagawea’s Child,” about the life of Jean-Baptiste (Pomp) Charbonneau. It clarifies a little bit about Sacajawea and a lot about Toussaint. Here’s how recent scholarship shifts my viewpoint.
Sacagawea: Slave, gambling chattel… ? What’s true?
Was Sacagawea kidnapped?
True. Sacagawea was captured at age 10-13 from her Lemhi Shoshone tribe by Blackfeet or Hidatsa. (Along with Sacajawea, four boys and several girls and women were also captured and many braves were killed.) Carrying off members of other tribes was one way to replace members of the family who’d died. If the captive was adopted — to take the place of a particular family member — they’d be treated as though they WERE that person.
Was she a slave?
Probably it’s a myth — the Hidatsa did not practice slavery. Their culture valued people. Instead as an adopted member, she’d be protected by Hidatsa traditions.
Was she won by Toussaint in a gambling game? Or bought?
We don’t know the circumstances of how the two came to know each other or how she became his wife. According to other Hidatsa traditions, a prospective husband gave the family gifts as a dowry in order to take their daughter as a wife. Gifts might include 2 horses, 1 flintlock, some calico fabric or the equivalent. Only suitors who were seen as assets were encouraged to marry into the tribe. If a woman was not happy in the marriage, she could return to her father’s protection.
True. Sacagawea was about 15 when she married Toussaint, who was about 35 years old, not 50+. At the time, those were reasonable ages for marriage in both cultures.
The second wife?
Yes. Native American men in those tribes who had the means to support more than one wife could so. Sacagawea was Toussaint’s second wife. He was already married to Otter Woman, another Shoshone woman.
The head fur trade agents, men from the gentleman class, also took Native wives, forging alliances with their tribes. Fur traders had access to trade goods and, to the Indian tribes, seemed to be good providers. A fur trader’s wife might have an easier life in material ways than other Native women.
An easier life?
One example is that Sacagwea’s son Jean-Baptiste was born in Fort Mandan, built by the Corps of Discovery members, not a tribal dwelling. He was barely 2 months old when they embarked on the historic venture. Clark in particular was taken with “Pompey” and, when he became very ill, dosed him with an onion poultice and cream of tartar. Clark also encouraged the Charbonneau family to come to St. Louis afterwards.
But a captive’s life wasn’t easy. Besides overcoming her own grief and fear, she had to learn the ropes very quickly — different language, different culture, different people to please …
How is her name spelled and how is it pronounced?
We don’t know much. Charbonneau told L&C that his wife’s name meant Bird Woman. L&C mention her 17 times and use 8 different spellings.
- Clark wrote Sahkahgarwea,
- Sarcargahwea, and
- while Lewis spelled it Sahcahgahwea,
- Sahcargarweah, and
- Sahcahgar Wea.
But each time with a hard G sound, not a J. Which has come to be Sacagawea. The only written versions of her name come from L&C, so that’s what US documents use.
The Hidatsa of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota prefer Sakakawea, from “Tsa-ka-ka-wia.” (Sakaka = bird; wea = woman).
But she was Shoshone!
That might mean her Hidatsa captors tried to pronounce the name in their dialect, substituting sounds that did not exist in their language.
Shoshone call her Sacajawea “Saca tzah we yaa.” The “tz” sound could be more like a “j.”And scholars dispute Sacagawea as a Shoshoni word — the alleged compound would be incomprehensible to a native speaker of Shoshone. “Saca-tsaw-meah” means boat puller or boat launcher.
But the pronunciation of soft J sound has persisted.
Did she die as a young woman on the upper Missouri in 1812 or as a centenarian on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming?
In 1811, Henry Brackenridge, a fur dealer at Fort Manual Lisa Trading Post on the Missouri River, noted in his journal that Sacagawea “had become sickly and longed to revisit her native country.” On Dec. 20, 1812, he recorded that the wife of Charbonneau, age 25, “had died of putrid fever” and had left a infant daughter.
Toussaint Charbonneau signed over formal custody of his son, then aged 10, and daughter Lizette, about 1 year, to William Clark in 1813, who listed Sacagawea as dead in his notes from 1825-26.
But stories from Wind River continue to ignite hope that she lived to old age.
What about her husband, Toussaint?
There’s enough to write a separate post. Wait for it.
Final Thoughts: Read more about the fur trade
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