Sunday, January 23, 2011

US: Bird Woman Remembered

Probably more than any other person in America, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau got to watch history being made firsthand without actually contributing to it. Best of all, he got to do this by the time he was 2 years old. But like most 2-year-olds, his story doesn't end there.

Around 1797, eight years before his son Jean was born, a French-Canadian explorer and trader named Toussaint Charbonneau had purchased two captured Shoshone Indian women and taken them as his wives. One was known as Bird Woman, while the other was known as Otter Woman.

Bird Woman gave birth to Jean Baptiste Charbonneau in 1805 at Fort Mandan, N.D. Fort Mandan was the place where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stayed in the winter of 1804-05. In fact, Lewis and Clark hired Toussaint Charbonneau to serve as an interpreter to the Hidatsa Indians, and they allowed him to bring along his pregnant wife, Mrs. Charbonneau (aka Bird Woman).

Toussaint Charbonneau spoke no English and did not speak the Hidatsa language very well, but both his wives spoke it well. As a result, one of the wives -- the one known as Bird Woman -- went along on the Lewis and Clark expedition and was of more value to Lewis and Clark than Toussaint was.

Most Americans have never heard the names of Toussaint Charbonneau, Bird Woman or Jean Charbonneau. Bird Woman, though, became so well-known that she didn't even need to use her last name.

The name by which you know her is Sacajawea.

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