by Michael Howell
There is a tree on the side of the mountain above Sula that was about 20 years old on September 4, 1805 when a young Shoshone woman carrying a child and escorting a military expedition sent by President Thomas Jefferson on a peaceful mission to explore the newly acquired lands walked by. That makes it a “witness tree” to the historic passage of the Corps of Discovery as they made their way down the Dividing Ridge to meet the Salish at Ross’ Hole near Sula. This particular tree, which splits into two near the bottom, is called the Sacagawea Witness Tree and is located in the Whitehouse Thicket. There are others.
None of these eyeless witnesses would be known to us if it weren’t for the interest, inquisitiveness, and perseverance of a local engineer by the name of Ted Hall who decided one day to go out and ground truth the survey notes entered into the journal of Captain William Clark. This was no easy task. It took years. But the evidence he helped gather eventually convinced the U.S. Forest Service and the Lewis and Clark Trail officials that the Corps did not enter the Bitterroot Valley by way of Moose Creek as was generally believed. Following his own computations, Hall was led up a dangerous slope that fits the events described in the journals of the hard passage and leads to the undisputed spot on the Dividing Ridge from which the group’s descent begins.
The story of the work and the compilation of the evidence is well told in a couple of books by Hall. The first was “The Trail Between the Rivers” published by Stoneydale Press in 2004, which chronicles the 1805 westward travel of the Corps of Discovery over the 407 miles of land between Camp Fortunate (near Dillon, Montana) and Canoe Camp (in Orofino, Idaho) where they went back to using watercraft on their journey to the Pacific. This was followed by “Lost Trail 1805,” a detailed “ground-truth based” look at the September 3rd and 4th, 1805 days of travel of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, when the Corps of Discovery crossed arguably the hardest part of the Rocky Mountains over “the worst roads that ever horses passed,” according to an original journal entry.
Hall was also the orchestrator of the public presentation at this year’s September 4th celebration at Sacajawea’s Rest Park in downtown Darby.
At Sunday’s presentation, the public got a chance to see the Sacagawea Witness Tree as part of a drone flight video presentation of the entire descent trail, which featured at one point a top to bottom examination of the tall tree and a view of the whole forest from the tip top of the tree that towers over the younger forest all around. The video was produced by local drone pilot Steve Davis with help in editing from his friend John Walker of Jeep Fisher’s Video. The drone flight also takes us to the site of the high mountain spring at their ridge top camp site.
Featured speaker at the event was historian and storyteller Hal Stearns. Stearn’s remarks focused upon the person of Sacagawea and the exceptional role she played in making the Corps’ journey a success.
We don’t know a lot about Sacagawea, according to Stearns, in fact there is no agreement even about her name. How to pronounce it, what it means, and how it’s spelled. Clark himself, according to Stearns, spelled it 14 different ways in his journal. In North Dakota the official spelling is “Sakakawea.” Stearns said that he tries to pronounce the name the way locals do wherever he is talking about her.
It is known that she was born and grew up among the Lemhi band of the Native American Shoshone tribe but was captured by a group of Hidatsa who took her to the Hidatsa-Mandan settlement near present day Bismarck, North Dakota. Around 1803 or 1804, she became the property/second wife of French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau. She was six months pregnant when Clark met her at the Hidatsa-Mandan settlement where she and Charbonneau and her infant child Jean-Baptiste joined the Corps as translators and guides.
Her actions and character are well documented in the Corps’ journals. She proved herself to be extremely capable, conscientious, and played a key role in the Corps’ survival.
After reaching the Pacific, Sacagawea returned with the rest of the Corps and her husband and son—having survived illness, flash floods, temperature extremes, food shortages, mosquito swarms and so much more—to their starting point, the Hidatsa-Mandan settlement, on August 14, 1806.
For his service Charbonneau received 320 acres of land and $500.33; Sacagawea herself received no compensation.
Three years later, in fall 1809, Sacagawea, Charbonneau and Baptiste ventured to St. Louis, where Charbonneau was taking the kind-hearted Clark up on an offer: Clark would provide the Charbonneau family with land to farm if the parents would agree to let Clark educate Baptiste.
The farming didn’t work out, however, and Sacagawea and Charbonneau left Baptiste in St. Louis with Clark—now his godfather—in April 1811 so that they could join a fur-trading expedition.
In August 1812, after giving birth to a daughter, Lisette (or Lizette), Sacagawea’s health declined. By December, she was extremely ill with “putrid fever” (possibly typhoid fever).
She died at 25, on December 22, 1812, in Fort Manuel, located on a bluff 70 miles south of present-day Bismarck. She may have been buried on the Wind River Reservation, occupied by the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, but some scholars dispute that.
Within a year, Clark became legal guardian to both Lisette and Baptiste. While little is known of Lisette’s life, Baptiste traveled in Europe and held a variety of jobs in the American West before he died in 1866. Charbonneau died in 1843.
According to Stearns, there are more statues of Sacagawea than any other woman in our U.S. history. He believes she deserves the recognition. The leader of the expedition certainly recognized her value to the Corps, as well as the value of York, the lone black man in the group. By the time they reached the Pacific and had to make the critical decision about whether to camp north or south of the river’s mouth, both York and Sacagawea were given a vote. It would be a long time before the United States government would allow other women and blacks to do the same.
The South Valley Civic Group (now called the Bitterroot Heritage Group), that helped form the Sacajawea’s Rest Park where the celebration was held, is currently raising money to paint a mural on the north wall of the pocket park. Having received a $750 donation from the Darby Town Endowment fund, they are looking to raise a match for the grant and more. According to Laura Smith, the actual cost may be more like $5,000.
“We want to get as much information as we can crammed into this little park,” said Smith.