A Bittersweet Homecoming

As the corps finally makes contact with the Shoshone Indians, interpreter Sacagawea reunites with her family

After Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the Indian interpreter and guide Sacagawea is probably the most famous member of the expedition. Her contributions were praised by the captains; William Clark wrote to Sacagawea’s husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, in 1806: “[Y]our woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her....” As August began, 200 years ago, the corps was still searching for Sacagawea’s tribe, the Shoshone, or Snake, Indians, and the horses the expedition members so desperately needed.

August 1, 1805 [Sgt. Patrick Gass]
We set out early in a fine morning and proceeded on till breakfast time; when Capt. Lewis, myself and the two interpreters went on ahead to look for some of the Snake Indians.

August 8 [Capt. Meriwether Lewis]
The Indian woman recognized the point of a high plain to our right which she informed us was not very distant from the summer retreat of her nation on a river beyond the mountains which runs to the west.... she assures us that we shall either find her people on this river or on the river immediately west of it’s source.... as it is now all important with us to meet with those people as soon as possible, I determined to proceed tomorrow with a small party to the source of the principal stream of this river and pass the mountains to the Columbia; and down that river untill I found the Indians; in short it is my resolusion to find them or some others, who have horses if it should cause me a trip of one month. for without horses we shall be obliged to leave a great part of our stores, of which, it appears to me that we have a stock already sufficiently small for the length of the voyage before us.

August 11 [Lewis]
After having marched...for about five miles I discovered an Indian on horse back about two miles distant coming down the plain toward us....I got nearer than about 100 paces when he suddonly turned his [horse] about, gave him the whip leaped the creek and disapeared in the willow brush in an instant and with him vanished all my hopes of obtaining horses for the preasent.

August 13 [Lewis]
We set out very early....when we were so fortunate as to meet with three female savages.... I informed them by signs that I wished them to conduct us to their camp that we wer anxious to become acquainted with the chiefs and warriors of their nation.

August 14 [Lewis]
I concluded to spend this day at the Shoshone Camp and obtain what information I could with rispect to the country.... The means I had of communicating with these people was by way of Drewyer who understood perfectly the common language of jesticulation or signs which seems to be universally understood by all the Nations we have yet seen.... [I told the people that] we would then remain sometime among them and trade with them for horses, and finally concert our future plans for geting on to the ocean.

August 17 [Lewis; Biddle edition]
On setting out at seven o’clock, captain Clarke with Chaboneau and his wife [Sacagawea] walked on shore, but they had not gone more than a mile before captain Clarke saw Sacajawea, who was with her husband one hundred yards ahead, began to dance, and show every mark of the most extravagant joy, turning round him and pointing to several Indians, whom he now saw advancing on horseback, sucking her fingers at the same time to indicate that they were of her native tribe.... We soon drew near to the camp, and just as we approached it a woman made her way through the croud towards Sacajawea, and recognising each other, they embraced with the most tender affection. The meeting of these two young women had in it something peculiarly touching, not only in the ardent manner in which their feelings were expressed, but from the real interest of their situation. They had been companions in childhood, in the war with the Minnetarees they had both been taken prisoners in the same battle, they had shared and softened the rigours of their captivity, till one of them had escaped from the Minnetarees, with scarce a hope of ever seeing her friend relieved from the hands of her enemies.... [When trade negotiations were ready] Sacajawea was sent for; she came into the tent, sat down, and was beginning to interpret, when in the person of [Chief] Cameahwait she recognized her brother: she instantly jumped up, and ran and embraced him, throwing over him her blanket and weeping profusely: the chief was himself moved, though not in the same degree. After some conversation between them she resumed her seat, and attempted to interpret for us, but her new situation seemed to overpower her, and she was frequently interrupted by her tears. After the council was finished, the unfortunate woman learnt that all her family were dead except two brothers, one of whom was absent, and a son of her eldest sister, a small boy, who was immediately adopted by her.

Seven years after her reunion with the Shoshone, Sacagawea and her husband turned up at Fort Manuel, a trading post near present-day Bismark, North Dakota, where Toussaint had found work as an interpreter with the Missouri Fur Company. Journalist Henry Brackenridge wrote that Sacagawea was ill “and longed to revisit her native country.” She never got the chance. On December 20, 1812, John Luttig, the fort’s chief clerk, wrote in his logbook that Sacagawea “died of a putrid fever she was a good and the best Women in the fort.” She would have been about 25. She left behind two biological children: 7-year-old Jean Baptiste and 4-month-old Lisette.

The following year Luttig, possibly representing William Clark (for whom he had worked), petitioned the Orphans’ Court in St. Louis for guardianship of Jean Baptiste and Lisette. (By then, Toussaint was presumed dead, having not been seen for six months.) Luttig’s name was eventually crossed out on the petition and replaced with that of Clark, who, at the very least, paid for Baptiste’s education. (Baptiste later traveled to Europe, where he remained for six years. Upon returning to the United States, he worked as a trapper with Jim Bridger and Kit Carson.) Lisette’s fate, and that of Sacagawea’s nephew, is unknown.

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