Happy Mother’s Day, Sacagawea!

SacagaweaI wanted to write a special Mothers’ Day blog post about some truly inspiring Old West mother and sat down to have a brainstorming session. It wasn’t as simple as I had imagined. Old West mother…Let’s see… There was, um… No wait. She never had kids. Then there was… No, she was pretty despicable. What about? No. She’s not quite right. Then it hit me. Sacagawea! Sacagawea is the perfect subject for a Mother’s Day tribute. She’s just right!

Not to Knock Schoolhouse Rock, but…

Sacagawea PortraitResearching Sacagawea has only had one downside. I cannot get that 1970’s Schoolhouse Rock song, “Elbow Room” out of my mind! Do you know that song? of which I speak? It was written as a clever way to teach children about the Westward Expansion of the U.S. Sacagawea had a mention in the little ditty and it has been lying dormant in my subconscious for nigh onto forty years! Now it won’t leave me! Here is a portion of the lyrics in case you want to sing along:

Oh, elbow room, elbow room
Got to, got to get us some elbow room
It’s the west or bust
In God we trust
There’s a new land out there
Lewis and Clark volunteered to go
Goodbye, good luck, wear your overcoat!
They prepared for good times and for bad (and for bad)
They hired Sacagawea to be their guide
She led them all across the countryside
Reached the coast
And found the most
Elbow room we’ve ever had!

Admit it; you’re singing along! Unfortunately, that’s about all that most people know about Sacagawea. But, oh, there is so much more to her story!

The Forgotten Parts

Sacagawea was born Ruth Schoenbaum. (Just kidding. Sometimes I like to see if you’re paying attention.) In reality, Sacagawea, which means “Bird Woman” in Shoshone, was the daughter of a Shoshone chief. She was born somewhere around 1788 in Lemhi County, Idaho. When she was about twelve-years-old, the Hidatsa Indians, enemies of the Shoshones, captured her. She was then sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper. Charbonneau made the young Sacagawea one of his wives. Oh yeah, he sounds like a real prize!

Sacagawea and Charbonneau lived with the Hidatsa and Mandan Indians, in what is now North Dakota, until late 1804. That’s when the Lewis and Clark expedition came on the scene. (Cue the Schoolhouse Rock Music!)

Fort MandanLewis and Clark had built Fort Mandan as a place to plan the next phases of their journey and to interview possible interpreters to accompany them. Charbonneau was hired on to serve as an interpreter when it was realized that he had a wife who spoke Shoshone. Doggone it, that woman he purchased was paying off in spades! Sacagawea agreed to accompany them, even though she was expecting her first child. Seriously, I don’t even think pregnant women or new mothers should be expected to brave Costco, let alone trek into unchartered territory! Sacagawea was one tough gal!

Pomp and Circumstances

Jean Baptiste CharbonneauJean Baptiste Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s son, was born on February 11, 1805. It’s quite likely that she gave birth at Fort Mandan since the expedition didn’t move on until April 1805. Forget about an epidural! Sacagawea was given crushed rattlesnake rattles to speed the difficult delivery. Sakes alive! That alone should have been enough to get her likeness on a coin!

The baby was nicknamed “Little Pomp” or “Pompy” by William Clark and others on the expedition. When the entire crew set off on their historical journey, Little Pomp went along on the adventure. Why, of course! What trek through unexplored territory would be complete without a newborn strapped to his mother’s back?

Lewis & ClarkPlease take the time to really picture this situation. Charbonneau was, well… He wasn’t exactly beneficial to the expedition. Meriwether Lewis wrote that Charbonneau was, “perhaps the most timid waterman in the world.” At one point, someone in the boat with Charbonneau threatened to shoot him if he didn’t get a grip! The man didn’t shoot, but it wasn’t because Charbonneau got a grip. It may have been because Charbonneau capsized the pirogue and everyone was more concerned with rescuing important papers. It was, of course, Sacagawea who rescued the journals and records. . .score one for the ladies, men zero.

On May 14, 1805, the Sacagawea River was named as a way to say, “Thank you for fixing what your imbecile of a husband messed up! You have truly proven yourself to be an asset and he has proven himself to be an… Well never mind.” Okay, so that’s just my personal assessment of the situation. And, please, don’t forget about the tiny, little human strapped to her back!

CameahwaitIn August of 1805, the expedition was confronted by a hostile Shoshone tribe. Sacagawea focuses her sights in on the leader. Could it be. . .no, not really. . .YES, IT IS! It was Sacajawea’s long lost brother, Cameahwait! There is a happy reunion, and fortunately for the expedition, the tide was turned in their favor. (Yes, Walt Disney, it is a small world after all!)

SacagaweaHistorically, Sacagawea has often been represented of as a sort of primitive GPS for Lewis and Clark. In reality, her greatest benefit to the expedition was in showing that the group was friendly. Like his mother, Little Pomp served as a sort of junior ambassador of goodwill when dealing with Native American tribes. War parties didn’t typically travel with a mother and a newborn. If you want to come right down to it, even friendly expeditions didn’t typically travel with a mother and a newborn, but still… They put a positive public relations spin on the outing!

After the Expedition

SacagaweaWilliam Clark became very attached to Little Pomp and Sacagawea (and he tolerated Charbonneau more than Lewis did). Three years after the expedition, it was Clark who convinced Charbonneau and Sacagawea to move to St. Louis, Missouri. The parents agreed to allow Clark to take control of Pomp’s education. Jean Baptiste was enrolled in the St. Louis Academy boarding school.

Sometime after 1810, Sacagawea gave birth to another child. This time is was a daughter, Lizette, who was nicknamed Lizzie. Sacagawea is believed to have died in 1812 from an unknown illness.

In August of 1813, Toussaint Charbonneau relinquished guardianship of Pomp and Lizzie to William Clark. Thank goodness! In case you haven’t been able to read between the lines, I am not a fan of Charbonneau and I hate to think of him being in charge of the children! Not much is know of Lizzie. It is believed that she died in early childhood. There are no mentions in his papers of Clark providing for her education.

sacagaweaAs for Sacagawea… Isn’t it amazing to think that someone who was kidnapped and sold into marriage was so instrumental in forming the basis of our nation? And, she did it all while caring for a baby. It makes me want to go pay for something using only Sacagawea coins!

Happy Mother’s Day, Sacajawea…

Take a couple of minutes to watch this animated version of the Schoolhouse Rock song, “Elbow Room”!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

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