It is natural enough that history should be mixed with myth, to make it interesting to the populace. But it is uttery unnatural that history or myth should not be interesting to the populace. — G. K. Chesterton

Bird Woman—Sacajawea - James W. Schultz




Up the Big River

Well, spring came on, and at about the time the ice in the river began to break, more Nor'wester traders came to the villages with goods, and this time they came with a message from their chief to my man. If he would quit the Long Knives and do all that he could to hinder them going on west, then he would be taken back into the employ of the Nor'wester Company.

My man considered this proposal. "The trader chief says one thing to me and then another," he complained to me, "and I don't know what to do."

"You have promised the Long Knives that we will go west with them, and you must keep that promise," I told him.

"It is not a matter of promises; it is for me to determine what will be best for me in the long time to come," he answered, and went off without telling me what he intended to do.

He soon came back and told us to pack our things as soon as we could, for he had quit the Long Knives, and we were going to the upper Minnetaree village. Otter Woman and I cried and cried as we gathered our little belongings. I felt as though my heart was going dead within me. I did not want to part from the kind Long Knives chiefs. And my hope of taking them to my Snake people—oh, I felt that this end to all my happy plans would kill me!

It was late in the day when we left the fort, and then, a storm coming suddenly from the north, we rode only to the lower Mandan village and took shelter in the lodge of Black Cougar.

Later on Rock and other Nor'westers came in, and Rock said to my man: "Well, so you have really done as we wanted you to do. You have quit the Long Knives!"

"Yes, I quit them!" my man answered. "How did you do it?" Rock asked.

"I put the blame of our parting upon them!" he laughed. "I said that, if I went with them, it would be as an interpreter and guide only; that I would not, of course, have to take part in the work of their soldier men, and that I should be free to take the back trail at any time.

"'We cannot engage you upon any such terms as that,' the Long Knife chief told me. 'If you go with us, you go as interpreter, of course, and also as one of our soldiers, and so you must do your share of whatever work there will be.'

"'Then must we part, and the parting may as well be now,' I said, 'for, as you can well see, I am getting on in age and am not strong enough to do hard work.'

At that every one laughed, and Rock said to my man: "You old fox! You can always be trusted to get out of a tight hole!"

But I, you can be sure that I did not laugh! That very night, as soon as the visitors were gone, I began to talk to my man.

"Ever since the day you won me in that hide-the-bone game," I said, "I have said to you not one cross word! I have worked hard for you, I have borne you a son. But now, though you kill me for it, I am going to tell you truth: You are a bad man, a lazy man, a liar! You made a promise to those good, kind white men, and you have broken it, and by doing that you have brought terrible shame upon me and upon my son, and when he becomes old enough I shall tell him what a bad man his father is, unless you do what I ask. Now, I want you to go back to the Long Knives chiefs and tell them that you are sorry, that you take back what you said, that you will go with them upon the long trail, and do as they order you to do in all things at all times!"

"Shut your mouth! This matter is none of your business!" he told me.

"I will shut my mouth now, but to-morrow I shall tell you some more of your mean ways, and on the next day, and the next day, and every day thereafter, I shall tell you more and more about your mean ways, while I am making up my mind what to do, something that will make you very sorry. Now, sleep if you can. I don't see how it will be possible for you to sleep. Were I in your place, I should not be able to sleep; thoughts of my badness would keep me awake!"

He did not strike me when I said that, nor even answer me, and so I knew that I really had set him to thinking about what he had done. And I kept my promise: for three days I said something to him at every chance I got, about his meanness in breaking with the Long Knives chiefs, each time promising that I was going to do something terrible, because I could not bear the shame of it.

And at last, on the fourth day, I told him just what that terrible thing was to be: "I am going to give your son and myself to the Under-Water gods!" I told him. "Watch me as you will, sooner or later the chance will come, and into the deep river we go!"

"You would not dare do that!" he said.

"If there was anything worse to do, that I would do in order to wipe out the shame you have brought upon me, and upon this our little son!" I told him.

He made no answer to that, nor even looked at me. He sat there in the lodge a long time, thinking, thinking, and then he went out. When he came back he did not tell me what he had done: he had got one of Black Cougar's sons to go to the Long Knives chiefs and say to them that, if they should again ask him to go with them, he would probably agree to do so. That came out when the boy returned, and, entering the lodge, told him that the white chiefs had given him no answer. At that he became very uneasy. I could see his hands tremble as he filled his pipe. He looked at me and then at the fire, time and again, and at last he said to me: "Well, have your way! You can go to your white chiefs and tell them that I am ashamed that I left them, and that I will go with them and do as they say in all things."

Oh, oh, how glad I was when he told me that! I wrapped my son well and put him upon my back and ran out of the lodge. A horse was tied near by. I never asked who owned it, nor if it was gentle. I just took it and rode as hard as I could go down to the fort and was let into the white chiefs' room. Their half-Indian man, Drouillard, who was a good sign-user, was there. In signs I gave him my man's message, and he told it to the chiefs, and they laughed and shook hands with me and told me to tell my man to come back, that the little trouble with him was now forgotten. And they told me, too, that I was a good woman, and that they liked me very much. They were so kind that they made me cry a little, and I was so happy that I just could not eat the food they had their black man set before me. As soon as I could I went out and got on the horse, and hurried back to my man and told him what the chiefs had answered. He said nothing, but went out and had the horses brought in, and back we went to the fort. And so that trouble ended.

The ice now went out of the river, and every one worked hard preparing for the start westward. The whites had built some small boats during the winter, and these were now made waterproof. Otter Woman was crying most of the time, because she could not go with us, and I comforted her all that I could, promising again and again to deliver to her relatives all the messages that she gave me for them. And over and over she told me that, as soon as her child was born and she became able to travel, she would run away from the Minnetaree village and try to find our Snake people. I advised her not to think of doing that. I told her that, if she escaped the many bears and many war parties that were sure to be along the way, she must, anyhow, die from want of food. But up to the time we parted she insisted that she would make the attempt, for she would rather die on the trail than remain with the Minnetarees without me at her side. On the morning that out man took her to the upper village, she went almost crazy when we parted, and I was so distressed that I became sick for a time.

Upon my man's return to the fort the boats were all loaded. We had two large ones and six small ones, and we abandoned the fort and headed up the river. At the same time that we started, Long Knife and Red Hair sent their very large boat down the river in charge of some of their men. It was loaded with many skins, bones, and other things, presents for the great chief of the whites. Counting in my son, we were thirty-three people in our eight boats. I was given a place in one of the two large ones.

As we went on and on up the river, sometimes making a long distance between the rising and the setting of the sun, I was, at times, I believe, happier than I had ever been in my life, for each day's travel brought me so much nearer my people whom I so much longed to see. Then at other times, whenever I thought of what was before us, I would become very unhappy. I would say to myself that we could not possibly survive the dangers we should be sure to encounter along the way. I may as well say it: my good, kind white chiefs were not cautious; they were too brave, too sure of themselves. From the very start they and their men would foolishly risk their lives by attacking all the man-killing bears that came in sight of us. At night they would build great fires that would be sure to attract to us any wandering war party that might be in the country. After we passed the mouth of the Yellowstone and entered the country of the Blackfeet, I begged my chiefs to be more cautious. I asked them to stop always a short time before dark and build little cooking-fires, and then, after our meal, to put out the fires, and then go on until dark and make camp in the darkness. But they only laughed at me, and answered: "We have good guns and know how to use them. Big fires are a great comfort to us, so we must have them."

I often said to myself: "Strange are these white men! Strange their ways! They have a certain thing to do, to make a trail to the west to the Everywhere-Salt-Water. Why, then, are we not on horseback and traveling fast and far each day? Here we are in boats, heavily loaded with all kinds of useless things, and when the wind is bad or the water swift, we make but little distance between sun and sun! We could have got all the horses that we needed from the Earth House tribes, and had we done that, we should long since have arrived at the mountains. Yes, right now I should probably be talking with my own people!"

And those medicine packages of theirs, packages big and little piled all around me in the boat in which I rode, how my chiefs valued them! one day a sudden hard wind struck our sail and the boat began to tip and fill with water. More and more it filled, and the men in, it and those on the shore went almost crazy with fear. But I was not afraid. Why should I be when I knew that I could cast off my robe and swim ashore with my little son? More and more water poured into the boat and the medicine packages began to float out of it. I seized them one by one as they were going, and kept seizing them and holding them, and when, at last, we reached the shore, my good white chiefs acted as though I had done a wonderful thing in saving their packages; it seemed as though they could not thank me enough for what I had done. Thinking about it, after it was all over, and when the things had been spread out to dry, I said to myself: "Although I cannot understand them, these little instruments of shining steel and these writings on thin white paper must be powerful medicine. Hereafter, whenever we run into danger, I shall, after my son, have my first thought for their safety, and so please my kind white chiefs."

After leaving the mouth of Little River, or, as my white chiefs named it, Milk River, we went up through a part of the Big River Valley that I had not seen, for, when I was captured by the Minnetarees, we had, after leaving the valley at the mouth of Bear River, struck across to Little River and then followed it down. We were many, many days in getting the boats up this long, winding, and ever swifter part of the river. The farther up it we went the more I looked for signs of the enemy, the Blackfeet, and their war brothers, the Big Bellies, but, look as I would, I could never find even a single footprint that they had made nor any tracks of their horses. I thought that very strange. When we arrived at the mouth of the stream my white chiefs named the Musselshell, some of the men went up it during the afternoon, and, returning, told of a stream coming into it from the plain on the right. My chiefs then told me that it should have my name, as they called it, Sah-ka-ja'-we-ah.

I asked my man to tell them that I wished they would give it my right name, Bo-i'-naiv, Grass Woman.

But he laughed at me, and answered: "Never mind! It doesn’t matter what they call it!"

I thought that it did matter, but I could not at that time speak French more than a few words, and so I was bashful about asking them to make the change.

"It seemed to matter when they named a creek after you," I said. "You were pleased enough!"

"Yes, but I am a man! Important! Women,—their names to things do not matter," he answered. And I said nothing more. What could I say? Nothing.

It was some days after passing the mouth of the Other-Side-Bear-River, the Musselshell, that we arrived at the mouth of a small river coming in from the south, and there came upon a not long deserted campground of the enemy, either Blackfeet or their war brothers, the Big Bellies. There had been a great camp of them at the mouth of the small river, and another opposite it on the north side of Big River. Just below the little river they had decoyed a herd of buffalo to death over a cliff, and wolves were still eating the meat of old and poor animals that the hunters had not thought worth taking. As I looked at the abandoned fireplaces of the camp, I said to myself: "It will not be long before we are discovered by the enemies who were recently here, and when that happens our end will come! Brave though my white chiefs and their men are, they are too few to win a fight with the hundreds of warriors who will come against them!" My heart was very low as we went on up the river. I felt that, after all, I was not to see my country and my people again. I made up my mind that I would not be captured again; before the enemy could lay hands upon me, I would kill my little son, and then myself! I now kept constant watch of the river bottoms ahead, and the tops of the cliffs on each side of the narrow valley, expecting at every turn we made to see the enemy approaching us.

At last we came, one morning, to the mouth of Bear River (Maria's river) and made camp. I was now in country that I knew. Here I had left Big River with my Minnetaree captors, and struck off across the plain to Little River. On horseback it was but a day from here up to the falls of Big River. Look as I would, I could find no fresh signs of the enemy, not a fireplace, not a track of man or horse, and I began to think that we might, after all, reach the mountains without being discovered by the Blackfeet. I prayed for that! Oh, how I prayed the gods to keep the eyes of the enemy from us while we went on and on to the head of the river and over the mountains to my people!

To my surprise, after my white chiefs had made medicine with their strange instruments, we did not go on. One of the chiefs went up Big River and the other up Bear River, each with a few men, leaving us to be easily killed by the enemy should they discover us. Red Hair, who went up Big River, was gone from us three days, and Long Knife, who went up Bear River, did not return until the evening of the fifth day. After his return we remained there still another day, drying our things after the heavy rain that had fallen, hiding some of them in a hole the men dug in the ground, and leaving one of our boats on an island. And why, do you think, they were gone so long up the two rivers? They were all that time learning which of them was Big River, the one that they wanted to follow! And there I was; I could have told them which one it was, and they had not asked me! When my man told me what they had been doing I scolded him, and asked him to tell Long Knife and Red Hair that I was very sorry they had not told me what was their trouble, for I could have saved them these five days of wandering. He would not do it. "I can't. They would then blame me for not having asked you about it," he answered. Ah, well, that is one great fault in men: they think that women are so foolish that it is a waste of time to question them about anything!

On our last night at the mouth of Bear River, I fell sick. While I slept, some Blackfeet or other enemy ghost, wandering there, had found me and put its badness into my body. As we went on up the river I became more and more sick day by day, and began to think that I was about to die. If I did, then my little son, lacking the milk of my breast, would die, too. I said to myself that for his sake I must not die. I prayed and prayed the gods for help. I made sacrifice to them. I begged them to sustain life in me until I could reach their stinking-water spring at the falls and drink its healing water. They did help me. I fought and fought the ghost's evil that was inside me, and at last, when we neared the place, I told my man where the spring was, and sent him to bring me some of the water. I drink and drank it, and by the time we went into camp near the spring I began to feel better. Two days later I was worse again, but I continued to pray to the gods, and drink the medicine water, and finally the evil work of the enemy ghost went from me.

I had thought that when we arrived at the long stretch of falls and swift water in the river, we should abandon the boats and go on to my country on foot. But no! As soon as we arrived at the first of the bad water, the men began at once to cut down a big tree from which to saw round pieces upon which to draw the boats—all but the largest one—the long, rough, and steep way to the almost-still water above the upper falls, and this caused a long delay, many days of hard toil. And while their men worked, dragging the boats upon the log slices up the trail, and carrying the many packages of goods upon their backs, Long Knife and Red Hair made medicine with their queer, little instruments at each of the falls, not once but many times. I could not understand why they did that; it seemed to me useless work. They were making a trail to the west. Well, no boats nor men could go up over the falls, so why not plainly mark the beginning of the trail around them and its end up at the still water and be done with it? That was the one fault with my good white chiefs: they were—I hate to say it—time-wasters.

At last a camp was made above the falls, and one day we in the lower camp started out to move the last of the boats and the goods packages up to it. I went ahead of the party with Red Hair, the black white man, and my man. It was a bad day; low, black clouds everywhere shutting out the blue, and rain falling. We had not gone very far on the trail when there came a terrible wind and the hardest rain that I ever saw. The black white man was on ahead. Red Hair, my man, and I ran down into a coulee and stood under a rock wall that formed its right bank. The rain came harder and harder until it made the day so dark that we could no more than see the other bank of the coulee, not ten steps across from us. I knew that so heavy a rain would soon make a river where we stood, and was about to tell my man that we had best get out of the coulee, when, suddenly, we saw a great flood of it coming down upon us. I had set my little son down at my feet, spreading his wraps upon his carrying-case for him to lie upon, and as I snatched him up, Red Hair and my man seized hold of me and we made a run for the steep bank across the way. Before we could reach it the water began to rise and foam about us, and roll stones that bruised our legs and nearly took us off our feet. And who do you think it was that saved me and my little son? My man? No. By his hard pulling and pushing, Red Hair saved the three of us from being taken by the awful rise of roaring water and stones down the coulee into Big River, and down it to our death in the falls! Can you wonder that I loved Red Hair more than ever? When I was sick he tried to doctor me; he was always doing something for me and my little son; and now he had, at the risk of his own life, saved us from death in the terrible flood. He was a real father to me. From that time on to the end of our long trail I did all the poor little things that I could for him. He was the best man that I ever knew! My man, Charboneau,—I have said some hard things about him. I shall say some more. But do not think that I hated him. He was the father of my child. He was a child himself—for all his bigness and strength, nothing but a child. And so I pitied him, and did all that I could for his comfort, yes, to the very end, although at times it was hard to do.

I had thought that, when we got the boats and the goods packages to the head of the falls, we should at once go on. But no! The men were putting a covering of skins upon a boat frame of iron pieces which had been brought along for that purpose, and at last, when they finished it, they found that they had wasted their time: water leaked into it faster than they could bail it out! So then, in place of it, more small boats had to be built, and that took more of our time. I began to think that winter would set in before we could reach the mountains. Away up the river two cottonwood trees were found from which two boats could be made, and Red Hair took some of the men there and set them to work. The rest of us were several days moving to the place, and a part of the way I went on foot with Long Knife and another. Before we got to camp fear struck me again, for we came upon a recently deserted camp-ground of the enemy, either Blackfeet or Big Bellies. In the center of it they had put up a great lodge to their gods, the poles of which were cottonwood trees so large and heavy that I could not understand how they had managed to raise them. That night, in my sleep, I saw the enemy warriors making sacrifices to their gods there in the lodge, and saw them, too, dancing in it and waving fresh Snake scalps that they had taken. When day came, and I sat 'and looked at the mountains, as I had been doing for some days, I said to myself: "No, my people, you are nowhere there on those slopes! The enemy have camped here, they have hunted you out, killed some of you, and driven the survivors back across the range, there again to starve!" I was very sad-feeling that day and for days afterward. I no longer watched the valley and its slopes for the possible appearance of my people, sneaking out from the mountains to kill a few buffalo. I watched instead for the enemy, expecting them to appear at any time and charge into our camp and kill us all!

At last the two new boats were finished, and we loaded the old and the new ones, and again set out upon our way into the west. We were now in country that I well knew,—every bottom and bend and slope of it; and memories of what had here happened, and there, in my girlhood days, made me laugh at times and at times cry. That is, I did so at first. Then I took strong hold of myself: "If you act this way," I said, "Red Hair and Long Knife will think that you have gone crazy!" Thereafter, no matter how I felt, I gripped the boat hard and hard shut my teeth, and so made myself appear as calm as a little lakelet on a windless day.

As we made our way up into the mountains the river, of course, became more swift and our progress more and more slow. More than ever I hated the boats; at times it was hard for me to keep from leaving them, from taking my little son upon my back and hurrying on in search of my people. At every camp we made I looked for signs of them, and then, one day, we came to a place where they had been camped. Oh, how glad I was when I saw that campground, for I had feared that they were all dead, had all been killed by the people of the plains. But, no! As usual, they had been out after buffalo during the winter, and with the coming of summer had made their way back into the mountains. I could tell by the growth of grass around the fireplaces that they had camped here in early spring. I wondered how far back they had gone. I feared that they had gone through the pass and then away down to the south; if they had, we should never see them.

One evening, soon after we had come upon a second old camp of my people, Red Hair and Long Knife held a long council with some of the men. My man was in it, but after it was ended he did not tell me what it was all about. I did not learn until the next day, after Red Hair and his black white man and two others had left us, that it had been decided they should go on ahead to try to find my people and make friends with them. I was very angry when my man told me that: "Why am I here but to do that very thing!" I scolded. "Should my people see Red Hair and his men approaching them, they would run and hide from them; perhaps lie in wait for them and kill them. But if I were with them, it would be different. I would travel far in the lead, and make myself known to my people as soon as I sighted them, and then all would be well with us!"

It was on the following day, or maybe the day after that, that we saw a great smoke rising from a mountain-slope far ahead of us, and as it rose up and up into the blue, my heart almost went dead within me. "There! Now you have done it!" I scolded my man. "By not telling me what you were counseling about with our chiefs, it is you who will be to blame for whatever happens! That big smoke is a sign smoke of my people: it warns all who see it that enemies have been discovered, and that all should retreat at once back into the mountains. It is your fault! Had I gone with Red Hair, this would not have happened!"

"Woman, just you mind your woman business and I will mind my man business!" he answered.

I could say nothing more. I felt too sad, too sick to talk.

Red Hair and his men were gone from us three days, during which we kept boating on up the river. When we met them, they told us that they had gone as far as the grass-burning, but had seen no Indians nor any fresh signs of them. I said nothing to that. I knew very well that my people had seen them, and had retreated from them without leaving a trail that could be followed. Some days later, after another council, Red Hair again went on ahead with a few of the men, and this time my man went with him. I knew nothing about the council until the following morning when my man took up a blanket and his gun and started off, saying to me: "I go with Red Hair in search of your people! If they are in the country, I shall find them!" Yes, that was all that he said to me! Ever since I had scolded him he had been angry at me. And he was jealous of me: he wanted to be the one to bring about the meeting of the Long Knives and my Snake people. Almost I could have laughed; he was such a little child in many of his ways!

This time Red Hair and his followers were gone from us six days, without having found my people nor fresh signs of them. Both Red Hair and my man had become sick, and in crossing a stream my man had come very near drowning. Also he had got sore feet. Again I almost laughed when he came limping to where I was by the fire and sat down with much groaning, and in a small voice asked me to give him food.

We had this day passed the meeting-place of the three rivers that make Big River, and were camped right where, many summers back, my people were camped when the Minnetarees attacked us. When our evening meal was over I took my little son upon my back and went all over that camp-ground. I found the very stone-ringed fireplace that my mother and my sisters and I had made, the one in which we had built our last fire together, and cooked our last meal for our men and for ourselves. I sat down before it, and touched those stones that my mother and my sisters had placed there, and cried. Where were they, my relatives? Was it possible that they were still alive? Oh, how I prayed that they were, and that I might soon meet them somewhere up there in the great mountains!

We remained in this camp several days, and then, after resuming our way, soon came to the place where the Minnetaree had pursued me into the river and snatched me up before him on his horse. A hundred times I had dreamed about it, awaking with shrieks of terror! A hundred times I had seen the place with my dream eyes, and now I saw it with my awake eyes, and could see no change in it since that terrible day of my capture. No, there had been no change in it. The crumbling bank sloping down to the ford was still there; the wide, swift water on the ford was no deeper; and the timber on the far shore remained as it had been, untouched by fire, unswept by the floods of spring. But I had changed. I was no longer the little girl that had been snatched up out there in the river, and had tried to scratch and bite her captor as she was borne away. Right there I asked myself if I was sorry that I had been captured, and I had to answer that I was not sorry. True, I had suffered much at first, but my captor—all the Minnetarees—had been good to me. True, I had lost my Mandan sweetheart, and I had not wanted to become the white man's woman, but those sorrows were over. During all the winters and summers since I had been carried away from this place I had lived in warm lodges, safe from all enemies, had been given plenty of good food and good clothing, and, best of all, I had become a mother—I had my little son, snuggling warm at my breast. What I had suffered from being taken from my people was nothing to the happiness I had gained through having him. And had I not been captured, I should never have met these great white chiefs with whom I was traveling, and for whom I felt that I would die if that were necessary for their happiness. They were so great, so wise, brave, and good, that at times I felt that they must be more than just men, that they must be gods!

After passing the place of my capture Long Knife took my man and several others with him, and set out ahead to try to find my people. I asked Long Knife to allow me to go, too, but that was not to be. He answered that he would gladly take me along with my man were it not for my little son. With him to carry and care for, he believed that I could not stand the hardships that they were sure to encounter. And so they went on and were absent from us a number of days, coming to our camp again as we were passing the Beaver's Head. They had found no fresh signs of my people. My man was worn out, his feet very sore. I gave him some marrow grease to rub into them.

On the following day Long Knife again went on ahead with three men, taking for one of them the half-Indian, Drouillard, in place of my man, for he, too, was a good sign-talker. Again I begged to be taken along with the lead party, begged harder than ever, for we were now right up in the edge of the country of my people, and I feared that, without me with them to explain that they were friends, my people would attack and kill them. I had known ever since I had seen that smoke signal, some days back, that my people were aware that we were moving up the valley, and that, of course, they believed we were a war party of their enemies. As I entreated Long Knife now to take me with him and his men, I could see that he had a mind to do it. I felt hopeful that he would. And then my man told him that he did not want me to go; that, with my little child, my place was in the boat! That ended it. Long Knife laughed a little, said something to Red Hair, told me that he was sorry he could not take me along, and then departed with his men. I was so disappointed that I cried!