WeWalk: Behind the Scenes of Opening the Way

Opening the Way is a walking tour celebrating women's history in downtown Manhattan. It is a multifaceted new project developed by the award-winning nonprofit organization Women's eNews. The walk honors the achievements of women such as Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida B. Wells -- 21 women in all. This blog has been created to update fans of the walk on its exciting developments and expansion. Please join us in revitalizing history that has been ignored or forgotten!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sacagawea and the Revival of Lost History

Although we honor a number of diverse women in Opening the Way, our Women’s History Walk, we unfortunately lack a Native American historical woman who thrived in downtown Manhattan. But today marks a good opportunity to talk about Sacagawea, the famous Shoshone Indian woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition of western America between 1804 and 1806. She is believed by many to have died on this day in 1812.

Sacagawea was born in Lemhi County in modern-day Idaho circa 1787. At about 12 years old, she was kidnapped by Hidatsa Indians (who were enemies of her tribe) and brought to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages near modern Bismarck, North Dakota, according to PBS News. She was later sold as a slave to a fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, who claimed her as his wife. Her son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau would become America’s youngest explorer.

In 1804, Sacagawea became a legend as the only female member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Corps of Discovery. She traveled with the party as a guide and an interpreter. She “made contacts with Shoshone and Hidatsa people, who considered the presence of a woman a sign that the expedition was peaceful,” notes the Architect of the Capitol.

Sacagawea has been immortalized in numerous ways ever since. The Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural & Educational Center in her hometown of Lemhi River Valley, Idaho offers educational programs and research collections in her memory. She is also remembered through images and exhibits at various sites, and statues, parks, rivers, and peaks that are named after her.

In spite of Sacagawea’s legacy, there are still many questions about her life and disputes over the accuracy of the little information that is available. Some sources say she did not die in 1812, and actually returned home and lived to a very old age, placing her death more than 70 years later in 1884. Even the spelling and pronunciation of her real name strikes controversy, and her own tribe disputes much of the common knowledge given about her. The debates over the lives of important women like Sacagawea and the lack of access to basic historical facts demonstrates the need for programs that reflect the importance of women’s history, and that provide resources for reliable information.

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