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The Souvenir of Western Women/Sacajawea, the Birdwoman


Sacajawea, the Birdwoman

INTERWOVEN with the history of all people there is a golden thread of romance, but in the annals of no other uncivilized race, perhaps, does this shine so vividly as among the American Indians. This romance, blended with the picturesque figures of chieftains, orators, leaders, heroes, presents a living picture which throws a peculiar charm over the history and the scenes of the exploits of these natives of the Americas.

Among the many about whom is a halo of romance none commands a more intense interest or admiration than the Birdwoman of the Mandans. This little daughter of the wilderness, in whose history centers so much attention at the present time, was of the Shoshone tribe. When about ten years of age she was taken captive by the Mandans, whose territory was on the upper waters of the Missouri River. She became the slave wife of a French voyager, Charboneau, at the age of 15.

Lewis and Clark spent the first winter of their expedition across the continent in the country of the Mandans, where Charboneau and his young slave wife lived. The Captains engaged Charboneau as interpreter; they thought his wife would also be of service when they reached the territory of her people.

In February, 1805, this girl wife, then but sixteen, gave birth to a son, and would have died but for the care bestowed upon her by the explorers. The gentle, engaging little Birdwoman won upon the Captains and their men. Throughout the long journey, burdened with her babe strapped upon her back, she labored with the men, and through her extraordinary efficiency rendered invaluable service. The first time she proved her value through her unusual presence of mind and capability was on an occasion when a canoe, loaded with the journals of the Captains, their scientific instruments and their medicines, was caught in a rapid and was on the point of being overturned. Charboneau, who, with Sacajawea, was in the canoe, held the steering oar. Struck with fear, he set up a howling to his God. At the last moment the boat was saved from overturning, but filled with water and the lighter part of the precious cargo floated out upon the stream. Sacajawea, with her wits about her and with great courage, saved not only herself and baby, but grasping right and left secured the most valuable packages.

Late in the summer the party reached the mountains, where the canoes had to be abandoned and horses obtained, without which it would be impossible to cross the mountains to the headwaters of the Columbia. Since leaving the country of the Mandans there had not been a trace of human beings except in camps deserted months before. As they drew nearer the mountains Indians at a distance were seen, but these hurried away out of sight, avoiding contact.

At a place where it seemed the expedition must be abandoned, the Birdwoman began to dance and sing. The valley into which they had penetrated she recognized as the one from which she had been taken captive years before and now she was among the haunts of her people. Later some squaws were brought in who, abandoned by the Indian men, had fallen into the hands of the explorers. As the poor creatures cowered before their captors, bending their heads as if to receive a death-blow, one, a young girl, suddenly caught sight of Sacajawea, and rushed toward her. She was of the same tribe and had been taken captive with Sacajawea, but made her escape and returned to her people. The two embraced tenderly. It was the very band of the Birdwoman (Shoshones) that had been sighted.

The Shoshone women, acting as guides and intercessors, brought the warriors to Lewis and Clark. At the council which soon followed, Sacajawea began to interpret the speech of the chief, and lo! to her joy, found that it was her own brother's words she was translating. The Indian girl had made further progress possible, as a firm friendship was at once established between the explorers and the Shoshones. Horses and guides were furnished; the Shoshones passed the white men on to the Flatheads, and they in turn to the Nez Perces.

In the councils Sacajawea was always the most important interpreter, but not solely as an interpreter was her presence invaluable. As the party passed from tribe to tribe the sight of Sacajawea with her pappoose riding with the Captains was an assurance that it was not a war party.

Of all the explorers Captain Clark seems to have engaged her especial preference. At Christmas time in the Clatsop camp she presented him with two dozen tails of the white weazel. It is pathetic to read how, at a time when starvation seemed near, with almost too great loyalty to her Captain, she gave him the piece of bread she had somehow kept for a long time, intending it for her baby in case of extremity.

On the return trip the explorers found that the friends made through Sacajawea had remained faithful. The party did not at all times follow the route first traveled; they took new paths and sometimes felt themselves hopelessly lost, but Sacajawea always proved their deliverer. As a little child she had come with her people through this country and with the keen sight of a migratory bird again and again pointed out the way.

When the expedition returned to the Mandan villages in the late summer Charboneau decided to again take up his abode among these people, and Sacajawea remained with her lord and master.

It is with a sense of burning injustice and a pang of regret one reads that Charboneau received for his services $500, and Sacajawea nothing, not even her freedom—a blot upon the memory of Lewis and Clark.

The last mention made of Sacajawea is in 1811, when the traveler, Breckinridge, sailing up the Missouri, records meeting with an old Frenchman and his Indian wife, who, he learns, had crossed the continent with Lewis and Clark. The woman seemed fond of white people, tried to imitate civilized ways in manners and dress, and in general appeared to have aspirations for something higher than slavery. She was, says the traveler, in feeble health.

"When or where this life, so interwoven with the immortal achievement of the Lewis and Clark expedition, came to a close, no one can tell.

After a century the women who trod the plains in the wake of Sacajawea have erected to her memory a bronze statue made of copper from an Oregon mine and designed and executed by a woman, Miss Alice Cooper of Denver, Colorado.

This in part atones the early neglect of the one woman who led the way across the continent through wilds and over mountains, and will stand for generations a monument to woman's strongest characteristics—love, devotion and self-sacrifice—exemplified in this simple maiden of the forest, Sacajawea.