This is the story of one slight little Indian woman, aged sixteen, who opened the trail across the continent, for the march of the United States flag.
When in March, 1804, the United States took over that French Province of Louisiana which extended from the upper Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains, a multitude of Indians changed white fathers.
These Western Indians were much different from the Eastern Indians. They were long-hair Indians, and horse Indians, accustomed to the rough buffalo chase, and a wide range over vast treeless spaces.
To learn about them and their country, in May, 1804, there started up the Missouri River, by boats from St. Louis, the famed Government exploring party commanded by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark.
It was an army expedition: twenty-three enlisted men, a hunter, a squad of boatmen, Captain Clark's black servant York, and a squad of other soldiers for an escort part of the way. In all, forty-three, under the two captains.
Their orders were, to ascend the Missouri River to its head; and, if possible, to cross the mountains and travel westward still, to the Columbia River and its mouth at the Pacific Ocean of the Oregon country.
No white man knew what lay before them, for no white man ever had made the trip. The trail was a trail in the dark.
This fall they had gone safely as far as the hewn-timber towns of the Mandan Indians, in central North Dakota; here they wintered, and met the little Bird-woman.
Her Indian name was Sa-ca-ga-we-a, from two Minnetaree words meaning "bird" and "woman." But she was not a Minnetaree, who were a division of the Sioux nations living in North Dakota near the Mandans. She was a Sho-sho-ni, or Snake, woman, from the distant Rocky Mountains, and had been captured by the Minnetarees. Between the Minnetarees of the plains and the Snakes of the mountains there was always war.
Now at only sixteen years of age she was the wife of Toussaint Chaboneau, a leather-faced, leather-clad French-Canadian trader living with the Mandans. He had bought her from the Minnetarees—and how much he paid in trade is not stated, but she was the daughter of a chief and rated a good squaw. Toussaint had another wife; he needed a younger one. Therefore he bought Sacagawea, to mend his moccasins and greet him with a smile for his heart and warm water for his tired feet. His old wife had grown rather cross and grunty.
Chaboneau was engaged as interpreter, this winter, and moved over to the white camp. Sacagawea proved to be such a cheerful, willing little woman that the captains and the men made much of her. And when, in February, a tiny boy arrived to her and Toussaint, there was much delight.
A baby in the camp helped to break the long dull spell of forty-below-zero weather, when two suns shone feebly through the ice-crystaled air.
A thousand miles it was, yet, to the Rocky or Shining Mountains, by the river trail. In. the Mandan towns, and in the American camp, Sacagawea was the only person who ever had been as far as those mountains. They were the home of her people, but nearly three years had passed since she had been taken captive by the Minnetarees.
Could she still speak the Snake tongue? Certainly! Did she remember the trail to the country of the Snakes? Yes! Was there a way across the mountains? Yes! Beyond some great falls in the Missouri there was a gate, by which the Shoshonis came out of the mountains to hunt the buffalo on the plains. It was there that she had been captured by the Minnetarees. Would the Snakes be friendly to the white men? Yes, unless they were frightened by the white men. Would she like to go back to her own people? Yes! Yes!
That was great luck for Sacagawea, but it was greater luck for the two captains. In the spring they broke camp, and taking Chaboneau as interpreter in case that the hostile Minnetarees were met, and little Sacagawea to spy out the. land of the Snakes, and littlest Toussaint, the baby, as a peace sign to all tribes, with a picked party of thirty-one the two captains started on, up the swollen Missouri.
They made no mistake, in the Bird-woman. Of course she was used to roughing it; that was the life of an Indian woman—to do the hard work for the men, in camp and on the trail. But Sacagawea early showed great good sense.
Her husband Chaboneau almost capsized their canoe, by his clumsiness. She neither shrieked nor jumped; but calmly reaching out from it, with her baby tightly held, she gathered in the floating articles. She saved stuff of much value, and the captains praised her.
"She's a better man than her husband," asserted the admiring soldiers.
After hard travel, fighting the swift current, the strong winds, storms of rain and sleet, and monster grizzly bears, the expedition arrived at the Great Falls, as the Bird-woman had promised.
She had ridden and waded and trudged, like the rest. She had carried her baby on her back, and had built the fires for her husband, and cooked his meals, and kept right along with the men, and had not complained nor lagged.
At the Great Falls she was not so certain of the best route. This was a strange country to her, although she had known that the Falls were here. The Shining Mountains were in sight; the land of the Shoshonis lay yonder, to the southwest. All right.
The captains chose what seemed to be the best route by water, and headed on, to the southwest. Sacagawea gazed anxiously, right, left, and before. Her heart was troubled. She not only much desired to find her people, for herself, but she desired to help the great captains. "The fate of the whole party" depended upon her—and she was just a slight little Indian woman!
The Snakes did not come down, by this way. It was too far north; it was the haunts of their enemies the Blackfeet and the Minnetarees, of whom they were deathly afraid. They were a timid mountain folk, poorly armed to fight the Sioux, who had obtained guns from traders down the Missouri.
After a time the river narrowed still more, and between rough banks poured out from a canyon of high cliffs, black at their base and creamy yellow above.
"The Gate of the Mountains, ain't it?" passed the hopeful word. Sacagawea agreed. She had heard of this very "gate," where the river burst into the first plains.
"When we come to the place where the river splits into three parts, that is Shoshoni country—my people will be there."
On forged the boats, poled and hauled and rowed, while the men's soggy moccasins rotted into pieces, and the mosquitoes bit fiercely. The two captains explored by land. Hunting was forbidden, lest the reports of the guns alarm the Snakes.
Abandoned Indian camp-sites were found, but the big-horn sheep peered curiously down from the tops of the cliffs along the river, and that was not a good sign. The game was too tame.
Captain Clark the Red Head took the advance, by land, to look for the Indians. Captain Lewis, the young Long Knife Chief, commanded the boats. Small United States flags were erected in. the bows of each, as a peace signal.
The boats reached an open place, where the river did indeed split into several branches.
"The Three Forks," nodded Sacagawea, brightly. "These are the Three Forks. We are on the right trail to the land of my people. Now I know."
The party proceeded at top speed. The southwest fork seemed to be the best, for boating. The stream shallowed. At the next camp Sacagawea was more excited.
"She say here in dis spot is where de Snake camp was surprise' by de Minnetaree, five years ago, an' chase' into de timber," announced Drouillard the hunter. "De Minnetaree keel four warrior an' capture four boy an' all de women. She was capture' here, herself."
Hurrah! the trail was getting warm. The canoes had to be hauled by tow-lines, with Sacagawea proudly riding in one of them and helping to fend off with a pole. She had not been here since she was a girl of eleven or twelve, but she caught more landmarks.
"Pat is w'at ze Snake call ze Beaver's Head," proclaimed Chaboneau, whose feet had given out. "Ze Snake spen' deir summer 'cross ze mountains jes' ze odder side. She t'ink we sure to meet some on dis side, to bunt ze boof'lo. Mebbe fnrder up one leetle way."
Captain Lewis took three men and struck out, to find an Indian trail and follow it into the mountains.
"I'll not come back until I've met with the Snakes," he asserted.
He was gone a long time. The shallow river, full of rapids and shoals, curved and forked and steadily shrank. But although Sacagawea eagerly peered, and murmured to herself, no Indians appeared.
The water was icy cold, from the snow range. This was middle August, in extreme southwestern Montana (a high country). The nights were cold, too. Game grew scarce. Three thousand miles had been logged off, from St. Louis. Unless the company could get guides and horses from the Snakes, and travel rapidly, they would be stuck, for the winter—likely enough starve; at any rate be forced to quit.
By August 16 Captain Lewis had not returned. Captain Clark set out afoot, with Sacagawea and Chaboneau, to walk across country. The Snakes simply must be found.
The toiling boats rounded a great bend, and a shout arose.
"There's Clark! He's sighted Injuns, hasn't he?"
"So has Sacagawea! Sure she has! See?"
"Injuns on horseback, boys! Hooray!"
For Captain Clark, yonder up the curve, was holding high his hand, palm front, in the peace sign. Sacagawea had run ahead, little Toussaint bobbing in the net on her back; she danced as she ran; she ran back again to him, sucking her fingers.
"Dat mean she see her own peoples!" panted Cruzatte the chief boatman, who was a trapper and trader, too, and knew Indians. "Dere dey come, on de hoss. Hooray!"
What a relief! The Indians were prancing and singing. They made the captain mount one of the horses, and all hustled on, for an Indian camp.
By the time that the hurrying canoes arrived, Sacagawea and another woman had rushed into each other's arms. Presently they and the captain and Chaboneau had entered a large lodge, built of willow branches. The Captain Lewis squad was here, too. The men had come down out of the mountains, by a pass, with the Snakes. The Snakes had been afraid of them—the first white men ever seen by the band. Old Drouillard the hunter had argued with them in the sign language and with a few Shoshoni words that he knew.
It had looked like war—it had looked like peace—and it had looked like war, and death, again. Finally, before he could persuade them, the captain had delivered over his guns, and had promised them to be their prisoner if they did not find, down below, one of their own women acting as the white men's guide.
But now all was well. The token of Sacagawea saved the day. The other woman, whom she hugged, had been captured by the Minnetarees, at the same time with herself, and had escaped.
And the chief of the band was Sacagawea's brother. He had mourned her as dead, but now he and she wept together under a blanket. Truly, he had reason to be grateful to these white strangers who had treated her so well.
Much relieved by this good fortune at last, the captains bought horses and hired guides. The Snakes were very friendly; even engaged not to disturb the canoes, which were sunk with rocks in the river to await the return trip.
There was little delay. The mountains should be crossed at once, before winter closed the trails. To the surprise and delight of all the company, Sacagawea announced that she was going with them, to see the Great Salt Water. Somehow, she preferred the white men to her own people. She had been weeping constantly. Most of her relatives and old friends had died or had been killed, during her absence. Her new friends she loved. They were a wonderful set, these white men—and the Red Head, Captain Clark, was the finest of all.
Six horses had been bought. Five were packed with the supplies; Sacagawea and little Toussaint were mounted upon the sixth, and the whole company, escorted by the Snakes, marched over the pass to Chief Ca-me-ah-wait's principal camp.
From there, with twenty-seven horses and one mule, with the happy Bird-woman and the beady-eyed Toussaint, the two captains and their men took the trail for the Great Salt Water, one thousand miles toward the setting sun. Ah, but a tough trail that proved, across the Bitter Root Mountains; all up and down, with scarcely a level spot to sleep on; with the snow to the horses' bellies and the men's thighs; with the game failing, until even a horse's head was treasured as a tidbit.
And the Bird-woman, riding in the exhausted file, never complained, but kept her eyes fixed to the low country and the big river and the Great Salt Water.
Once, in the midst of starvation, from her dress she fished out a small piece of bread that she had carried clear from the Mandan towns. She gave it to Captain Clark, that he might eat it. A brave and faithful heart had Sacagawea.
Struggling down out of the mountains, at the end of September, they changed to canoes. The Pierced Noses, or Nez Penes Indians, were friendly; and now, on to the Columbia and thence on to the sea, Sacagawea was the sure charm. For when the tribes saw the strange white warriors, they said, "This cannot be a war party. They have a squaw and a papoose. We will meet with them."
That winter was spent a few miles back from the Pacific, near the mouth of the Columbia River in present Washington.
Only once did the Bird-woman complain. The ocean was out of sight from the camp. Chaboneau, her husband, seemed to think that she was made for only work, work, work, cooking and mending and tending baby.
"You stay by ze lodge fire. Dat is place for womans," he rebuked. Whereupon Sacagawea took the bit in her teeth (a very unusual thing for a squaw to do) and went straight to Captain Clark, her friend.
"What is the matter, Sacagawea?"
She had been crying again.
"I come a long way, capitin. I carry my baby, I cold, hungry, wet, seeck, I come an' I no care. I show you trail; I say 'Snake peoples here,' an' you find Snakes. You get bosses, food, guide. When Indians see me an' my Toussaint, dey say ' Dis no war party,' an' dey kind to you. When you get hungry for bread, I gif you one leetle piece dat I carry all de way from Mandan town. I try to be good woman. I work hard, same as mens. Now I been here all dis time, near de salt water dat I trabble many days to see—an' I not see it yet. Dere is a beeg fish, too. Odders go see—I stay. Nobody ask Sacagawea. My man he say 'You tend baby!' I—I feel bad, capitin." And she hid her face in her blanket.
"By gracious, go you shall, Sacagawea, and see the salt water and the big fish," declared Captain Clark. "Chaboneau can stay home and tend baby!"
However, the Bird-woman took little Toussaint, of course; and they two viewed in wonderment the rolling, surging, thundering ocean; and the immense whale, one hundred and five feet long, that had been cast ashore. It is safe to assert that to the end of her days Sacagawea never forgot these awesome sights.
In the spring of 1806 the homeward journey was begun. On the Missouri side of the mountains the Bird-woman was detailed to help Captain Clark find a separate trail, to the Yellowstone River.
And this she did, in splendid fashion; for when the party knew not which way was the best way, out of the surrounding hills, to the plains, she picked the landmarks; and though she had not been here in many years, she showed the gap that led over and down and brought them straight to the sunken canoes.
On August 14 the whole company was at the Mandan towns once more. After her absence of a year and a half, and her journey of six thousand miles, bearing little Toussaint (another great traveler) Sacagawea might gaily hustle ashore, to entertain the other women with her bursting budget of stories.
The captains offered to take Chaboneau and Sacagawea and Toussaint on down to St. Louis. The Bird-woman would gladly have gone. She wanted to learn more of the white people's ways. She wanted to be white, herself.
But Chaboneau respectfully declined. He said that it would be a strange country, and that he could not make a living there; later, he might send his boy, to be educated by the captains. That was all.
So he was paid wages amounting to five hundred dollars and thirty-three cents. Sacagawea was paid nothing. The captains left her to her Indian life, and she followed them only with her heart.
Nevertheless, she did see her great Red Head Chief again. Captain Clark was appointed by the President as Indian agent with headquarters in St. Louis. He was a generous, whole-souled man, was this russet-haired William Clark, and known to all the Indians of the plains as their stanch friend.
So it is probable that he did not forget Sacagawea, his loyal Bird-woman. In 1810 she, the boy Toussaint, and Chaboneau, visited in St. Louis. In 1811 they were on their way up-river, for the Indian country. Life among the white people had proved too much for the gentle Sacagawea. She had tried hard to live their way, but their way did not agree with her. She had sickened, and she longed for the lodges of the Shoshonis. Chaboneau, too, had become weary of a civilized life.
Sacagawea at last returned to her "home folks" the Snakes. No doubt Chaboneau went with her. But there is record that he was United States interpreter, in 1837, on the upper Missouri; and that he died of small-pox among the Mandans, soon afterward.
The Bird-woman out-lived him. She and her boy removed with the Snakes to the Wind River reservation, Wyoming; and there, near Fort Washakie, the agency, she died on April 9, 1884, aged ninety-six years, and maybe more.
A brass tablet marks her grave. A mountain peak in Montana has been named Sacagawea Peak. A bronze statue of her has been erected in the City Park of Portland, Oregon. Another statue has been erected in the state capitol at Bismarck, North Dakota.
So, although all the wages went to her husband, she knows that the white people of the great United States remember the loving services of the brave little Bird-woman, who without the promise of pay, helped carry the Flag to the Pacific.