About Sacagawea and the Charlottesville statue

During the tours that he gives of the William Clark monument in St. Louis, Jerry Garrett touches on a nationwide trend that has removed from public view statues of historical figures whose actions and lives were not acceptable by today’s standards. In most cases, the removals have been aimed at slaveholders and Confederate sympathizers.

However, as Jerry notes, the 2021 removal of a statue known as “Their First View of the Pacific” struck not at slavery or the Confederacy, nor at Lewis and Clark, but rather at the positioning of Sacagawea on the statue. The statue of Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea—removed from public viewing in Charlottesville, Virginia—shows the young woman in a kneeling, resting or crouching position next to Lewis and Clark—the matter of her positioning all depends upon the interpretation of a viewer.

Some Native Americans and others believed Sacagawea was in a subservient and demeaning position, and have used such descriptive phrases as “totally dehumanizing” and “like a pet.” Some people expressed their views that Sacagawea “looked scared” and was not “shown as a leader,” and that the statue was “misrepresenting the famous Native American woman.”

In contrast, other people contended that her position shows her in action as a tracker and was not subservient. Still, others believed the young mother was merely kneeling in a restful position—”a tired Sacagawea seated on a rock formation, resting, with her baby in a sling over her soldier,” said Bud Clark, a great-great-great grandson of William Clark, in a telephone interview for this article.

Currently, the statue is in storage at the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center in Charlottesville while the city and county determine the statue’s ultimate fate.

Removal of the Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea statue in July 2021 in Charlottesville, Va. Photo by CNN.

Removal of the Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea statue in July 2021 in Charlottesville, Va. Photo by CNN.

Regardless of anyone’s views about the Charlottesville statue, Sacagawea’s right to be on any statue is indisputable. It’s an honor well-deserved, not just due to her presence on the expedition but also for the assistance that she may have provided.

Today, Sacagawea’s true role during her 16 months with the 28-month expedition can be seen, in some ways, as somewhat of an enigma almost as as perplexing as the truth behind where and when she died and where she is buried, and how her name is spelled and pronounced. There are three spellings in use today: Sacagawea, Sacajawea and Sakakawea, each with its own origin and tradition. The most widely accepted spelling is “Sacagawea.” It is endorsed by the U.S. Geographical Board and authorized for its use by federal agencies.

The widely accepted belief today is that Sacagawea was a Shoshone, born probably in western Montana (although some lay historians believe she was born in a tribe in North Dakota and then kidnapped by the Shoshone). According to the widely accepted belief, she was kidnapped in her early teens in Montana and taken to live with the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes in North Dakota. There, she became the mate of Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trader. Charbonneau, Sacagawea and their newly born son joined the expedition in 1805 in North Dakota. She almost immediately began sharing her knowledge of native foods with the expedition, much to the explorers’ nutritional benefit.

The role of Sacagawea, who was not on the expedition’s payroll, has been debated time and again over the last two centuries. Some people believe she was crucial to the expedition’s success. Her presence and that of her son signaled to natives encountered by the explorers that the expedition was not a war party. Other people view her as a member who at times provided interpretation services and a few times recognized landmarks. Some people describe Sacagawea as the “guide” for the expedition. It’s a term that catches the proverbial eye but its accuracy is debatable.

Sacagawea was especially helpful in 1805 when she recognized the land where the explorers searched for the Shoshoni tribe in order to trade for horses for their western trek across the Rocky Mountains. As it turned out, most unexpectedly, Sacagawea was the sister of the Shoshone leader. This helped immensely in negotiations for horses. Meanwhile, today’s label as “guide” appears to have evolved from a July 1806 journal entry written by Clark when he and a small party of explorers searched for the Yellowstone River. He wrote that Sacagawea had provided a great service as “a pilot” who pointed the correct way. In today’s world, “pilot” is a little-used synonym for the most popularly used “guide.”

Read an informative article written about James P. Ronda’s excellent book (Lewis and Clark Among the Indians) to learn about Sacagawea’s significance during the expedition. The article also talks about her role as a guide.

Why was Sacagawea Included on the Statue?

“Their First View of the Pacific” statue.

Sacagawea’s inclusion on the bronze Charlottesville statue came as a surprise back in the day.

Bud Clark, who has researched the statue’s background, says the sculptor, Charles Keck, was selected by Paul Goodloe McIntire, a stockbroker, investor, and philanthropist from Virginia, to create a Lewis and Clark statue to be gifted to the city of Charlottesville. The statue was erected in 1919.

“To the surprise and delight of Mr. McIntire and all concerned,” Bud notes, “the artist, after much research, decided Sacagawea’s role was so significant that she must be included in the sculpture. So Charles Keck added Sacagawea at no additional charge to McIntire, a testimonial to his admiration and desire to honor Sacagawea.”

Bud says many questions about Sacagawea’s value to the expedition remain unanswered today. For examples, he asks: Did the presence of the young Shoshoni girl and her baby boy have a profound positive impact on the success of expedition? Did they warm the hearts and lift the spirits of the Corps of Discovery as only they could? Did the boy melt the hearts of the toughest frontiersmen? He suspects the answers to all three questions to be “yes.” But…

“We won’t find the answer in the black and white words of the journals, but, with our minds eye, we can look between the lines and see the answer,” Bud says. “To fully appreciate the roll of Sacajawea, Pomp (Clark’s nickname for the boy, whose real name was Jean Baptiste Charbonneau), and the family bond that enveloped the Corps of Discovery, we need to read between the lines in the journals, recognizing that the explorers were writing within the constraints of the military protocol of the day, and accordingly, we will not find their personnel feelings openly expressed in the journals.

Bud points to the following as an example:

On August 17, 1806, the Corps of Discovery, on its return journey back to St. Louis, arrived back at the Hidatsa Village, upstream from the Mandan area where Charbonneau, Sacagawea and Pomp joined the expedition. Writing within the constraints of his military journal, Clark penned, in his unique grammatical and spelling styles, this: “…took our leave of T. Chabono, his snake Indian wife and their child who had accompanied us on our rout to the Pacific Ocean…I offered to take his little son a butifull promising child who is 19 months old to which they both himself & wife were willing provided the child had been weened…”

Charbonneau and Sacagawea declined Clark’s offer but said they would bring the child to Clark to raise in a year, after the boy was weaned. After making his journal entry about his offer, Clark moved on to write about the business of the day and wrote no more concerning Sacagawea and little Pomp.

Three days later, off the record and unrestrained by military protocol, Clark—as Bud puts it—“pours his heart out and bears his very soul” in a personnel letter he sent back upstream to Charbonneau.  Bud says the letter was discovered around 1900 mixed in with Julia Clark Voorhees (Clark’s granddaughter) family papers. “Clark’s letter clearly shows his profound respect and admiration for Sacagawea,” Bud says, “and oh my oh my, how he loves his little dancing boy Pomp!”

Here’s the letter that Bud refers to:


“You have been a long time with me and have conducted yourself in such a manner as to gain my friendship, your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatiguing rout to the pacific ocean and back deserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that route than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans. As to your little son (my boy pomp) you well know my fondness for him and my anxiety to take and raise him as my own child. I once more tell you if you will bring your son Baptiest to me I will educate him and treat him as my own child. I do not forget the promise which I made to you and I shall now repeat them that you may be certain, Charbono, if you wish to live with the white people, and will come to me I will give you a piece of land and furnish you with horses cows and hogs.  If you wish to visit your friends Montrall I will let you have a horse, and your family shall be taken care of until you return. If you wish to return as a interpreter for the Menetarras when the troops come up to form the establishment, you will be with me ready and I wll procure your place – or if you wish to return to trade with the Indians and will leave your little son pomp with me, I will assist you with merchandise for that purpose and become myself concerned with you in trade on a small scale that is to say not exceeding a perogue load at one time.    

“If you are disposed to accept either of my offers to you and will bring down your Son your Famm Janey had best come along with you to take care of the boy until I get him.

If you ever intend to come down this fall or next spring will be the best time this fall would be best if you could get down before the winter. I shall be found either in St Louis or in Clarksville at the falls of the Ohio.

Wishing you and your family great suckess and with anxious expectations of seeing my little dancing boy Baptiest I shall remain

Your friend

William Clark

In Summary

Regardless of the Charlottesville kerfuffle, Sacagawea is rightly deserving of her reputation as an important expedition member. And she is deserving of statues. Many observers believe her to be the third most famous member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—behind the popularity of the two captains. But in the hearts and minds of most people, her amazing presence on the expedition gives the story of Lewis and Clark an endearing, historical twist that captivates historians and other fans of the explorers.