The Bird-woman Guide (1805-1806)
Sacagawea helps the white men
Story by Edwin L. Sabin
This is the
story of one slight little Indian woman, aged sixteen, called
Sacagawea 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 Sacagawea, the little Bird-woman.
Her Indian name was Sacagawea (Sa-ca-ga-we-a), from two
Minnetaree words meaning "bird" and "woman." But Sacagawea
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
Now at only sixteen years of age Sacagawea 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 Sacagawea had been
taken captive by the Minnetarees.
Could she still speak the Snake tongue? Certainly! Did Sacagawea
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 Sacagawea 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. Sacagawea saved stuff of much
value, and the captains praised her.
"She's a better man than her husband," asserted the admiring
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 Sacagawea
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 Sacagawea 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.
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. Sacagawea
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'
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
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
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
"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
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. Sacagawea
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
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 Sacagawea
fished out a small piece of bread that she had carried clear
from the Mandan towns. Sacagawea 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 Sacagawea 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?"
Sacagawea 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, Sacagawea 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
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, Sacagawea 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. Sacagawea 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, Sacagawea 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
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
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,
Sacagawea 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
Sacagawea statue has been erected in the state capitol at
Bismarck, North Dakota.
So, although all the wages went to her husband, Sacagawea
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
The Bird-woman Guide (1805-1806)
By Edwin L. Sabin
Lewis and Clark
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