Sacagawea: The Seduction of Mythology, the Paucity of Facts


Thad Carhart, author of Across the Endless River, is a dual citizen of of the United States and Ireland. He lives in Paris with his wife, the photographer Simo Neri, and their two children.

How much do we know for certain about the life of Sacagawea? The answer is: almost nothing. She was born"around 1788." She was abducted by the Hidatsa"when she was about 12." The date of her death is similarly uncertain: the prevailing view is that she died in 1812 at Fort Manuel Lisa on the Missouri, but others contend that she lived well into her 90s and died at the Wind River Reservation in 1884. Even the pronunciation and meaning of her name are still disputed, a reflection of the unknowable transliteration that both Clark and Lewis tried to capture in written syllables.

Lewis & Clark -- The Written Record Shapes All

The most reliable primary documents that have come down to us concerning Sacagawea are, of course, the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, through which she has entered the public imagination as an improbable but key player on the stage of American history. But even the journals, famed as they are, give us only fleeting glimpses of this young woman. She was one of Toussaint Charbonneau's several"squaws", a usage that covered everything from absolute servitude to common law marriage. In historical accounts, she is most frequently described as his"wife", but the fact remains that we have no way of knowing the human contours of their relationship.

The instances of her mentions in the journals are themselves full of dramatic details: a difficult labor for her first child, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, born on February 11, 1805 in the bitter cold far-northern reaches of the Upper Missouri; her dire illness and near death in June of that year, when Lewis dosed her attentively from his meager medicine kit; her vote as an equal member of the expedition about the location of their winter camp once they reached the Pacific; her insistence at being allowed to accompany the party dispatched by Clark to the shore of the Pacific to investigate what meat might be recovered from a beached whale.

All of these scenes have survived in the clear and dispassionate prose of the two captains, and while they offer tantalizing glimpses of how Sacagawea reacted under pressure, they of course come from the pens of those whose business it was to give the expedition shape in daily journals. While history is indeed written by the conquerors, perhaps here it would be more apt to say that history is first written by those who can write. How would she have described the captains? Nothing certain remains from Sacagawea's oral tradition, so the accounts of those whose language included an alphabet were bound to prevail.

Sacagawea, Repository of Legends

Even so, the degree to which the slender and infrequent mentions of Sacagawea in the Lewis & Clark journals have subsequently been weighed down with meaning is astounding. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and gathering steam well into the twentieth, there developed an elaborate literature of wonder, almost of awe, around her being. She has come to represent resilience, courage, patience, loving motherhood, feminine independence . . . the list is virtually endless. It has been said that more images of her adorn public places than that of any other American woman. The latest iteration of her imagined likeness, the young mother bearing her papoose who graces the U.S. dollar coin, is as close as American culture is ever likely to come to an indigenous Madonna and Child.

And yet most of this is pure fabrication, a projection of our own changing needs and perceptions of the past. I am reminded of the elaborate hagiography that has built up in France around Joan of Arc, just enough of it based on the startling and dramatic facts of her life to lay the groundwork for a complete mythology. In that sense, Lewis & Clark is our own founding myth, and the individual actors in its story assume the proportions of legend as we embroider the fragile facts we have with our own imaginings. Sacagawea dances around the edges of the narrative: innocent, strong, pure of heart, and ultimately unknowable, an undying receptacle for our dreams about both past and future. The beaten and abducted young squaw stands alongside the mother of a mixed-race son, the determined woman who saved Lewis & Clark from failure by bargaining for horses with the tribe from which she had been torn. Could any refracted image we fashion to express our hopes be more ambiguous, or more captivating?

©2009 Thad Carhart, author of Across the Endless River

Related Links

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Michael Lance Ritter - 9/6/2010

Hi Mr. Cox.
Thank you for your comment.
The belief that Sacagawea died at Ft. Washakie, where she has a headstone, stands in error. Her fictional life past age 24 was written by a suffragist and political economist (not historian) employed at the U. of Wyoming. Grace R. Hebard's work was based strictly on 120-year-old oral history recorded by a Santee Sioux physician named Charles Eastman, who likely didn't know the Shoshone language very well.

Documentary evidence, which I'll forward to you if you choose, also describes her death at Ft.
Manuel in 12/1812. Heroine that she became to many, her historical contribution was to open dialogue with Shoshone chief Cameahwait as an interpreter to procure horses for Lewis and Clark. They got swindled in receiving 29 weakened animals, but after a time the horses proved invaluable.

Michael Lance Ritter - 9/6/2010

Mr. Carhart, thank you for your fine article.

I enjoy your premise re the "seduction" of mythology. I'd add that to most people mythology means more and is read more than history, which, in fact, often creates and can encourage mythology.

Moving on, I disagree that Sacagawea is mostly "unknowable." She was a servant (or slave) purchased or won by Toussaint Charbonneau and remained so until her death at age 24 at Ft. Manuel in 12/1812.

Indian slavery was common in America, as this intertribal practice started in 1681. Western chiefs even traded daughters for horses! Girls, as with many other cultures, became mothers at early ages -- for practical, healthful reasons.

So surely we can't individually know her, but it's not hard to understand her life since she actually wasn't an exception save for a brief stint with L & C.

Her main value to them was to interface with the Shoshone chief, but as an interpreter she cried and begged for her (likely) clan brother to listen to them re obtaining horses. She didn't arrange anything and the captains actually got swindled, as they only got 29 weak animals, but were able to use them later.

Still, for her place and time, as you note, she easily became the stuff of myth in ways you described. She became a sort of empty vessel that inspired others.

I say long live mythology if it's the primary way people find value and meaning from history -- as long as SOME truth remains.

BTW, I'm the author of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, Man of Two Worlds.

Thomas R. Cox - 9/6/2010

I haven't read the book, but certainly we know more than this entry claims. There are descendants living on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho, and there is a strong oral history tradition among them. Indeed, the model for the Sacajawea dollar was a direct descendant.