The uncertain story of Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark’s “pilot” west

Above: One of the best known representations of Sacagawea is a detail from Edgar Samuel Paxson’s mural at the Montana State Capitol.   Ethnologists say, however, while artistically dramatic, Sacagawea’s  gesture is culturally inaccurate.

Time Before Now, December 1812James Madison became president in March, unpopular from the start, beset by infighting and bad luck. In addition, Madison’s vice president, George Clinton, died of a heart attack in April.  The Presidential anthem, “Hail To The Chief,” was first published in April, two months before the start of nation’s second war with Great Britain.  And Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm published “Rumpelstiltskin.”  One of 85 other stories in “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” (right) first edition.   By the seventh edition four decades later, the book had expanded to include 211 popular folk tales.

December 20, 1812

On this day, 24-year-old Sacagawea, the woman explorer William Clark called “the pilot,” is believed to have died at Fort Manuel in present-day South Dakota.

Artist’s depiction of Fort Manuel, 1812

Perhaps the country’s best know, least documented, most misrepresented Native American heroine, nearly everything about the young Shoshone, is up for debate including her death.  If one accepts the majority opinion by historians, she was born in the vicinity of Montana’s Salmon River sometime between 1787 and 1790. She was idnapped from a fishing camp at age 12 along with at least one Shoshone girl and possibly several others. Her captors, members of Hidatsa tribe on a seasonal buffalo hunt, were some 800 miles from their home along the Missouri River in North Dakota.

Representative Hidatsa village in North Dakota

Scant records indicate that in 1804 she was sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, a less than heroic fur trapper. Sacagawea may not have had a choice in the matter or alternatively, chose Charbonneau (left) over her circumstances among the Hidatsa.  He’d landed among the tribe, unable to find work after being cashiered by the fur trading North West Company, for raping a young Saulteaux girl in Manitoba.

Then in his mid 40s or perhaps 50s, Charbonneau already had a young Native American wife named Otter Woman.  Some researchers believe she may have been kidnapped with Sacagawea in Montana.   Claiming he was fluent in the “Snake” (Shoshone) language, Charbonneau was able to talk his way into the Lewis and Clark expedition, moving to Fort Mandan with his two young wives.

Historically accurate reconstruction of Fort Mandan

The captains became unhappy with Charbonneau over the winter but when they departed Fort Mandan in the Spring of 1805, Sacagawea and Charbonneau left with them.  Otter Woman, however, did not.  Her story largely disappears save a single vague mention by Clark in his  journal on November 4, 1804, indicating he and Lewis agreed to include Charbonneau and a single wife.   “[A] french man by Name Chabonah, who Speaks the Big Belley language visit us, Clark wrote, “he wished to hire & informed us his 2 Squars were Snake Indians,” we engau [engaged] him to go on with us and take one of his wives to interpet the Snake language.”   

Clark’s entries during the expedition’s 3-year odyssey provide the most reliable information about Sacagawea. A heavily embroidered Lewis and Clark saga by Eva Emery Dye (right)  in 1902, however, was accepted as authoritative for a number of years.  Dye’s romanticized image of Sacagawea as an “Indian princess” was largely manufactured.  Perhaps well-intentioned, meant to aid in the cause of women suffrage, it did neither history nor Sacagawea any favors.

The actual account of the young woman’s perseverance needed no embellishment,  By today’s standards, she was an adolescent victim who was trafficked to an abusive husband.  Nearly dying after the birth of her son, Jean Baptiste, in the winter of 1805, she began a 3,000-mile trek scarcely two months later.  She fell ill again the following June.  Merriwether Lewis successfully treated her with “laudnum” and “cataplasms of barks” both times.   Modern medical experts believe Sacagawea suffered from gonorrhea, probably contracted from Charbonneau which may have resulted in her death seven years later. 

Both Lewis and Clark apparently attempted to discipline Charbonneau for his treatment of the young woman.  On June 16, Lewis reported in his journal he had “rebuked Sharbano” for carelessly allowing Sacagawea to consume dried fish and raw apples after prescribing a recuperative diet following her second illness.  In addition, Clark wrote two months later that he strongly “checked Shabano” for “striking his wife” during their dinner.  

Even Sacagawea’s name provokes controversy.  It’s unclear whether it is Shoshone, loosely translated as “Boat Puller” or Hidatsa meaning “Bird Woman,” and details of her life post-expedition are equally murky.  A consensus of the most reliable scholars is that she died at Fort Manuel, her death contemporaneously recorded there.  Clark’s records indicate that certainly by about 1825 she had died.

The waters were further muddied, however, with an unlikely tale of a 102-year-old woman who died on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation in 1884.  

In 1924, Santee Dakota physician, Dr. Charles Eastman (right) was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to search for Sacagawea’s grave.  Elderly Native Americans told Eastman of the Shoshone woman name Privo who claimed to have been associated with the expedition.   

Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard, (right)  professor of Political Economy at the University of Wyoming, developed the theory that it was actually Otter Woman who died at Fort Manuel and that Sacagawea survived to a great age.  First  promulgated in 1907, it was published in her 1932 biography, “Sacagawea.”  Enter more skeptics, however, who theorize it may have actually been the reverse, that it was possibly Otter Woman who died in 1884. 

Researches at the South Dakota State Historical Society discount the Hebard story, calling it a case of mistaken identity created by a reliance on hearsay evidence.  The Society’s scientists cite an entry in the journal of John Luttig, clerk at Fort Manuel, stating  the “wife of Charbonneau, a Snake Squaw [common term at the time to denote indigenous women] died of putrid fever. . . she was a good and best Woman in the fort, aged about 25 years she left a fine infant girl.”  

Adoption documents dated August 13, 1813, were entered into the Orphan Court in St. Louis, Missouri, awarding William Clark guardianship of “Tousant (Jean Baptiste) Charbonneau, a boy about ten years, and (Lizette Charbonneau), a girl about one year old.”  Missouri adoption law required both parents must be deceased.  

At the time, Toussaint was mistakenly believed to have been  killed in an attack on Fort Manuel in 1812, perhaps by the Hidatsa.  It may have been wishful thinking.  Roundly disliked throughout the upper Midwest, Charbonneau in fact, survived another 30 years.  He managed to remain on the government payroll in one capacity or another until shortly after the 1838 death of his patron, William Clark.  Buried at Fort Mandan, North Dakota, in 1843, he was 76.

Baby Lizette apparently died by her first birthday and is believed buried in St. Louis.  Clark, despite reportedly shameful treatment of his slave, York, acted in good faith with regard to Jean Baptiste, whom he called Pomp,” providing him with an excellent education at the Jesuit St. Louis Academy.  

At age 18, Jean Baptiste met Duke Friedrich Paul Wilhelm of Württemberg (left) at a Kaw trading post in Kansas. Young Charbanneau’s role as either the Duke’s friend or employee is not certain.  He lived at the duke’s palace in Württemberg for nearly six years,  however, learning both German and Spanish. 

His connections with the Duke apparently ended when he returned to America.   During a vagabond life on the frontier, Charbonneau (left) served as a translator, guide, military scout, prospector and trapper.  He died in 1866 of pneumonia at age 61 near Danner, Oregon, en route to the Montana gold fields.  

No fewer than seven states lay claim to some portion of the Sacagawea legacy; North and South Dakota, Missouri, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington State.  A monument  at Mobridge, South Dakota built with pennies donated by local school children was erected in 1929 as a lasting memorial. (Right)

The location of the original Fort Manuel where she died, however, is now in the flow easement of the Oahe Reservoir and often flooded in periods of high water.  Archeological excavations in dry times have never located a grave site conclusively proven to be Sacagawea’s, indicating perhaps a scaffold burial in the Native American tradition.  While the true story of Sacagawea has remained elusive, she has become a fixed symbol of heroism for the nation.

The Sacagawea Interpretive and Cultural Center, 700 Main Street, Hwy. 28, Salmon, two miles East of downtown Salmon on Highway 28, is located in the 70-acre site surrounded by the Beaverhead Mountains and the Continental Divide.  Currently open by appointment only, the center explores the shared adventure of Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery as well as the history and culture of the Agaidika Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.  

Sacagawea Park is open year round featuring Sacagawea Memorial Trail and Native American dwellings and interpretive signs.  Admission is $5 for adults, $12 for families and children under 6 are free.  For more information go to,  call (208) 756-1222 during summer or Salmon City Hall, (208) 756-3214 or write 200 Main Street Salmon, Idaho 83467.  

The Lehmi County Museum, just six minutes north on Idaho 28 offers exhibits of Native American artifacts and photographs and details the area’s settlement era and the discovery of gold in the 1860s .  Open 10 to 3, Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday.  Admission is $2 and children under 12 are free. For more information go to, call (208) 756-3342 or e-mail

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.