The ‘Mother’ of Our Nation?
By Tom Morrow
Arguably, the mother of our nation could very well have been a 16-year-old Native American who helped lead the first transcontinental expedition up the Missouri River to the Pacific coast, exploring the so-called “Louisiana Purchase” of 1803.
Evidently, this title of “first” woman of America has some traction because her image is one of only two females ever placed on U.S. currency. Sacajawea was born in May 1788. She was a Lemhi Shoshone woman who, at age 16, met and helped the Lewis and Clark Expedition in achieving their mission objectives by exploring the far reaches of the Louisiana Territory.
In 1804-05, Lewis and Clark’s “Corps of Discovery” arrived at a Mandan village in what today is North Dakota. Knowing they would need the help of Shoshone tribes who lived at the headwaters of the Missouri River, they hired Toussaint Charbonneau, a fur trapper, after learning his wife, Sacajawea, spoke Shoshone. At the time she was pregnant with her first child.
Lewis recorded the birth of Jean (pronounced ‘John’) Baptiste Charbonneau on Feb. 11, 1805. By August of that year, the expedition had located a Shoshone tribe and were trading for horses when they discovered the tribe’s chief was Sacajawea brother.
When Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean, all members of the expedition, including Sacajawea and Clark’s black man-servant, York, voted on the location for building their winter fort.
On the return trip Sacajawea advised Clark to cross into the Yellowstone River basin at what is now known as Bozeman Pass. Later, this was chosen as the optimal route for the Northern Pacific Railway to cross the continental divide.
In 1809, Charbonneau and Sacajawea accepted Captain Clark’s invitation to settle in St. Louis. In 1813, the couple entrusted Jean-Baptiste’s education to Clark, who enrolled the young man in the St. Louis Academy boarding school.
Jean Baptiste shares the spotlight with his mother on the U.S. 2000 “golden dollar” coin. On that coin he’s the infant papoose depicted on Sacagawea’s back. He would go on to play a role in the history of Oceanside. While not very popular among Americans, the 2000 golden dollar replaced the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin of previous years, but neither has been popular. To date, they are the only two women recognized by the U.S. Mint. That might soon change because abolitionist Harriet Tubman currently is being considered for the 20-dollar bill.
Jean Baptiste had a restless and adventurous life with many years of somewhat celebrity status. In 1846, he led the famed Mormon Battalion to California during the War with Mexico. In North San Diego County he was appointed Alcade (Spanish for mayor) for the Mission San Luis Rey in what today is Oceanside. But Jean Baptiste disliked the way Mission Indians were being treated and left to become a hotel clerk in Auburn, California.
When he was 61, Jean Baptiste was on his way to the gold fields of Montana when he became ill with pneumonia and died May 16, 1866, near Danner, Oregon.
Some historical documents suggest Sacajawea died in 1812 of “an unknown sickness,” but Native American oral histories have her crossing the Great Plains after leaving her husband, and marrying into a Comanche tribe. She was said to have returned to the Shoshone in 1860 in Wyoming.
In 1925, Dr. Charles Eastman, a Dakota Sioux physician, was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to locate Sacajawea’s remains. He learned of a Shoshone woman at the Wind River Reservation with the Comanche name of “Porivo.” Some of those he interviewed said she spoke of a long journey wherein she had helped white men. She possessed a silver “Jefferson Peace Medal” from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A Comanche woman named Tacutine told Eastman that Porivo was her grandmother.
According to the interviews Porivo lived for some time at Fort Bridger in Wyoming with her sons Bazil and Baptiste. Eventually, she returned to the Lemhi Shoshone at the Wind River Reservation where she was recorded as “Bazil’s mother.” Porivo, is believed to have died on April 9, 1884.
Eastman concluded that Porivo was, indeed, Sacajawea. On the basis of this claim a monument to “Sacajawea of the Shoshonis” was erected in 1963 at Fort Washakie on the Wind River reservation near Lander, Wyoming.
The belief that Sacajawea lived to old age in Wyoming was widely disseminated through the book “Sacajawea” (1933), by historian Grace Raymond Hebard, a University of Wyoming professor. However, some critics have concluded “(author) Hebard was long on romance and short on facts.”
The National American Woman Suffrage Association of the early 20th century adopted her as a symbol of “women’s worth and independence,” erecting several statues and plaques in her memory, doing much to recount her accomplishments.
When the pioneering and historic accomplishments of Sacajawea are measured, she very well should be considered “Mother of America.”