Sakakawea - Charbonneau

Koontz John E John.Koontz at
Mon Nov 8 17:05:38 UTC 2004

On Sun, 7 Nov 2004, "Alfred W. Tüting" wrote:
> from the statement here,
> in what language do you think did Sakakawea talk to her husband? Was it
> Hidatsa too (that, reportedly, Charbonneau didn't speak/understand? too
> well)?

I suppose he must have been able to speak and understand Hidatsa after a
fashion.  Otherwise he wouldn't have fit into the chain of translation,
and he would probably also have been severely handicapped in his trading
activities.  I suppose we would know if communication between Sacagawea
and Charbonneau was actually in pidgin French, since in that event
Charbonneau wouldn't have been an essential element in the chain.
Charbonneau gets a lot of bad press, and may have more or less earned it,
but he must have been a fairly sharp character in a number of ways to make
his living the way he did.  Incidentally, given his later life and the
nature of the Missouri trade, he must have also been able to speak at
least some Dakota, too.

If only for linguistic reasons, it would be interesting to know more about
the language abilities and communication techniques of the early traders,
and especially whether they and the Native Americans they were speaking to
made use of pidgins, since these would have served as conduits for loan
words and the spread of syntactic constructions, etc., especially if they
existed before the European traders started to make use of them.  We do
know some things, since we have word lists accumulated by some of the
traders, and we probably have some specific commentary, too, but this is
not really an area in which I am well-informed.

It's possible that Sacagawea herself may not have been entirely fluent in
Hidatsa at this point, though she'd had about 4 years starting at about
age 12 to learn it.  Her value to the Expedition as a translator was
probably that she could speak Shoshone as well as Hidatsa.  The Expedition
intended to travel through Shoshone territory and buy horses from the

Incidentally, this page refers to Charbonneau as "Troussant Charbonneau,"
but my recollection is that it was Toussaint - "All Saint(s)."  I suppose
he was born or maybe it's christened on November 1?  (Not that I'm
necessarily in position to complain about other folks' spelling, and I'm
fairly slovenly about editing, too.)

More information about the Siouan mailing list