History Features

They Called Me Janey

Settling the score on Sacagawea’s known names.


“Your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocean and back, deserved a greater reward for her attention and Services on that rout than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans,” William Clark wrote to Sacagawea’s husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, three days after the crew dropped them off at the Mandan village.

Such sincere respect and admiration of Sacagawea has survived more than two centuries. Sculptures and memorials placed across the West honor her to this day. Yet even something as simple as her proper name can still be cause for debate.

By birth a member of an Idaho band known today as the Lemhi Shoshoni, the interpreter for the Corps of Discovery was named Sacagawea by the Hidatsa, who had captured her “five years since,” according to Lewis’s July 28, 1805, entry. “Sacaga” means bird, and “wea” means woman.

Captains Clark and Meriwether Lewis never spelled her name Sacajawea. Nicholas Biddle, the editor of the 1814 narrative of the journals, did. So we have Biddle to thank for two centuries worth of the faulty Sacajawea spelling.

Another variant, Sakakawea, has no tie to the journals but is based on the 1877 dictionary, Ethnography and Philology of the Hidatsa Indians, which defines “tsa-ka-ka” as bird and “mia [wia, bia]” as woman. Yet such usage ignores what the compiler of the dictionary himself wrote: “In my dictionary I gave the Hidatsa word for bird as ‘Tsakaka.’ Ts is often changed to S, and K to a, in this and other Indian languages, so ‘Sacaga’ would not be a bad spelling....”

Even if you did know that Sacagawea was the proper spelling, some still are not aware of the interpreter’s nickname, Janey. She was referred to as Janey when Clark recorded her vote for a winter camp at Fort Clatsop on November 24, 1805. He...

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