July 13, 2017 - Steele, North Dakota
By meriwether, Jul 16 2017 11:28PM
She was just a girl . . . a young Shoshone girl of 16 years, living so far from her Rocky Mountain home along the banks of the Knife River hundreds of miles to the East.
She remembered the day well four years before at the Three Forks of the Big River near her mountain home when the Hidatsa warriors came and took her. She and her friend had been gathering berries for the night’s meal when she saw them. They were upon her as swift as an arrow loosed from a bow it seemed. Her friend made good her escape, but she was their captive. And then they began to ride - for days it seemed - toward the land of the rising sun.
She told the warriors her name was Sacagawea . . . they called her Sakakawea, or Bird woman. In her new home at one of the Hidatsa Villages on the banks of the Knife River she was purchased by the Frenchman Toussaint Charbonneau to be his wife. Her soul was gentle and kind, but Charbonneau treated her and his other wife roughly at times. But she persevered.
She remembered the day, too, a few years on when the white men appeared in their large canoes, and how different these strangers seemed; but they were friendly, and gave many gifts, and she liked them immediately. The two leaders, Meriwether and William, wanted her and her husband to act as interpreters and accompany them toward the setting sun and the Great Western Sea of which they spoke, even though she had just given birth to an infant son.
She would become significant to this Corps of Discovery on their voyage to the Western Lands and back, demonstrating a courage and bravery equal to that of any of the men of The Lewis and Clark Expedition.
There was the time when the canoe she was in overturned and she calmly gathered the captain’s journals and scientific instruments out of the swift Missouri currents while hanging on to her infant son.
Or the time she barely escaped a flash flood with William Clark, her husband, and her baby just seconds from being swept away by a raging torrent.
She fell ill at the Great Falls of the Missouri and almost died of a putrid fever, but the Great Spirit smiled on her and brought about her recovery.
Her spirit soared as they approached her native land in the Rocky Mountains and she was able to point out familiar landmarks to the men of the Corps.
Her value proved inestimable when translating for William and Meriwether with her own Shoshone tribe in The Expedition’s desire to secure horses to cross the mountains. What surprise and emotion overcame her when she realized that the Chief of her Shoshone tribe to whom she was speaking was her own brother.
Not shy about speaking up for herself, she had wanted to see that big fish (a whale) that had washed up on the shores of the Great Waters.
Her presence and that of her baby with The Expedition was a sign of peaceful intentions to other Indian nations who may have been wary of the white strangers.
And her voice - that soft voice around the fire at night, and the cooing of the infant, Little Pomp, must have been a pleasing sound to the men of the Corps of Discovery, and a reminder of home and loved ones who had been so long absent from them.
Returning to the Knife River Villages after their long and arduous voyage, Meriwether and William took their leave of Sakakawea and her family, and there must have been a true sense of sadness without them as the Lewis and Clark Expedition proceeded on down the Missouri to St.Louis . . . and eventually to their homes which they longed to see.
William Clark, writing to Charbonneau, would say the following of Sakakawea: "Your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific [Ocean] and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her.” Charbonneau had received $500 for his services, while Sakakawea received nothing. I think it can be said though that the value of this young Shoshone woman to The Corps Of Discovery was far more than any amount of money.
I had the great pleasure to revisit the Knife River Indian Villages which I had seen on my Lewis and Clark journey back in 2005. When Lewis and Clark arrived in this area close to today’s Bismarck, ND, there were about 5,000 Hidatsa and Mandan people living in five villages - two Mandan and three Hidatsa. Sakakawea was living in one of the Hidatsa villages on the banks of the Knife River which fed into the Missouri. They lived in earthen lodges 30 to 60 feet across constructed of timbers and covered with earth. Each lodge could accommodate about 15 to 20 members of an extended family, including their best horses and dogs - most likely very cozy during the long and brutal winter months. The lodges were so close together, there was barely room to walk between them.
Today, you can clearly see the depressions left in the ground where the lodges once stood. And a recreated lodge gives you a sense of life in a Hidatsa or Mandan village. Standing in the middle of one of the depressions where a lodge once stood, I thought to myself that this could very well have been the lodge where Sakakawea and her family slept, prepared food, played games, and carried on their lives.
Not far from the Knife River Villages is the reconstructed Fort Mandan. This was the fort that The Corps of Discovery constructed in order to shelter during the brutal winter of 1804/1805 when at one point the temperature dropped to 42 degrees below zero! Imagine attempting to stay warm within the fort that you will see in the photos below.
It was during this winter that The Lewis and Clark Expedition forged significant bonds with the Mandans and Hidatsa Indians whose villages were close by: the men of the Corps and their Native American hosts traded, formed friendships, played games, entertained each other, hunted together . . . and the men of the Corps even came to the defense of the Mandans and Hidatsas against their traditional enemies, the Sioux.
It has been so exciting for me to retrace some of the journey that I made in 2005, of course now following their homeward bound journey. I consider this to be one of the epic stories of our American History. So many fascinating and colorful characters, so many exciting tales, and so much hitherto unknown information about the vast expanses and native peoples of the Louisiana Purchase that resulted from the voyage of the Corps Of Discovery.
When the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to St. Louis on September 23 of 1806, hundreds of people lined the shores to catch a glimpse of the explorers who had been given up for lost by almost everyone. They had been gone for 2 years, 4 months, 10 days, and now they were back.
When my buddy Tim and I did our Lewis and Clark re-enactment program for schools, historical societies, and libraries, we always closed the program with this entry from the journal of Sergeant John Ordway because it just expressed so well what the men must have been feeling:
Tuesday 23rd Sept. 1806 . . . . about 12 oClock we arived in Site of St. Louis fired three Rounds as we approached the Town and landed . . . the people gathred on the Shore and Huzzared three cheers . . . the party all considerable much rejoiced that we have the Expedition Completed and now we look for boarding in Town and wait for our Settlement and then we entend to return to our native homes to See our parents once more as we have been So long from them.
Folks . . . what a tale of Undaunted Courage!
So I’m leaving the Lewis and Clark Trail now, and heading due east toward Fargo, and the Minnesota border.
A few miscellaneous notes:
I’m well past the halfway point of this last leg of my journey. I’m now over 1500 miles into it, with possibly 11 to 12 hundred miles to go until I see my front door once again.
Have now received over 50,000 hits on my website, which I’m happy to see. The more the better. Once again, don’t be shy about spreading the word to friends, family, work associates, golf or tennis buddies, etc. about my ride, and more importantly, the two causes for which I’ve been riding. I’ve had a number of donations come in from people who don’t know me, but were just told about my ride by someone on my Updates list. Many thanks to you for spreading the word!
With that in mind, we’re on the road to $31,000 in combined donations to Habitat For Humanity and Save The Children. I say “we” and not “I”, because it is you folks who have made this possible!
I am Proceeding On