Most elementary school children in our country know who Sacagawea is, but most of them have never heard of Otter woman, whose story begins when Sacagawea’s does.

As young girls living with their people, the Shoshone, Sacagawea and Otter Woman were stolen by Hidatsas who were raiding mainly for horses. Since neither the Shoshone nor the Hidatsa kept written records, and oral histories after all these years aren’t entirely trustworthy, the years they were born (especially for Otter Woman, who is rarely mentioned by anyone) and the year of the abduction aren’t clear. Historians believe that Sacagawea was born between 1788 and 1790, and that Otter Woman was a year or two older, and that the Hidatsa raid occurred between 1799 and 1800.

Some histories write that the girls became the slaves of their captors, but cultural anthropologist Dr. Mary Jane Schneider, who spent her entire professional life studying the culture of the agricultural river tribes along the Missouri in what is now North Dakota, states unequivocally that the Hidatsa never practiced slavery. Children taken by their warriors on raids were adopted by families, often families who had lost a child (early deaths were common back then), and were treated exactly the same way as their other children. It seems that Sacagawea and Otter Woman were adopted by different families, but the village wasn’t so big that they wouldn’t have seen each other and been able to do many things together, like picking berries and gathering roots, or grinding grain and tanning hides. Sacagawea’s name, in Hidatsa, is Tsa-ga-ga Wiya, meaning Bird Woman. While Otter Woman’s name would also have ended in Wiya, I don’t know enough Hidatsa to tell you the first part of her name.

Historians debate about how old Sacagawea was when she married French-Canadian (and possibly Metis, or mixed blood) trader Toussaint Charbonneau, and how that marriage came about. We may never be sure of Sacagawea’s age at marriage; she may have been as young as thirteen, but was probably no older than 16, a typical age for marriage in those days. Regarding the marriage, there are two common stories: one, that her Hidatsa family sold her to Charbonneau, and the other, that he won her in a gambling game.

Again, relying on Dr. Schneider’s years of research, it’s safe to say that neither story is true. Children were loved by Hidatsa; they were considered a precious gift from the spirits, not property to be sold or gambled away. Also, Hidatsa women made the earth lodges that families lived in, and the main woman in each lodge basically owned that lodge; a man could be “put out” by simply leaving all his possessions outside the door, and women were rarely forced into an unwelcome marriage.

Toussaint Charbonneau was no prize. We know from journals and letters that years before, when he was working for the North West Company under Jonh MacDowell along the Assiniboine River, he was stabbed by an elderly Saultier woman as he was raping the woman’s daughter. The woman wasn’t punished, and Charbonneau lost his job and was unable to get another with an established trading or fur company. He began to work as a “free trader” and interpreter, working for whoever would pay him. When Lewis and Clark arrived at the Hidatsa and Mandan villages on the Missouri River in the fall of 1804, Charbonneau had interpreting contracts with two traders: Larocque, from the North West Company, and McKenzie from Hudson’s Bay Company.

One possible reason for Sacagawea to agree to a marriage to Charbonneau is his connections to the white traders. Those connections would have added to her Hidatsa family’s status, and also brought them a larger amount of white trade goods. Another possible reason is that Charbonneau had already married her good friend, Otter Woman, so she knew that she would not be alone. She would be with her friend, who shared her history and her language.

Otter Woman has been written out of history quite successfully, due in part to Toussaint Charbonneau. She is mentioned, although not by name, in one of the diaries of the Corps of Discovery; “today the wives of Charbono [sic] came to the Fort [Ft. Mandan] bringing gifts of buffalo robes.” Note the plural “wives.” Yet later that winter, Charbonneau and one wife, Sacagawea, moved into a tipi inside the palisade of Fort Mandan. In February she gave birth to her first child, a son named “Jean-Baptiste” by Charbonneau, but whom she called “Pomp,” a name very similar to the Shoshone word for “first.”

After the single nameless mention, Otter Woman disappears from all but oral histories, and there’s very little to find there. She didn’t accompany Lewis and Clark (and her husband and sister-wife) to the Pacific and back. It doesn’t appear that she went to St. Louis with Sacagawea and Charbonneau in 1809, where Charbonneau claimed the 320 acres of land promised to each “man” of the expedition. (I find it interesting that Sacagawea, who was much more useful than her husband on that expedition, as an interpreter, a peace maker, a boat handler, and a finder of food that often kept the Corps of Discovery alive, was never granted land or money. Interesting, but not surprising.)

Otter Woman didn’t accompany Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau in 1811, when the two went north again, this time with Toussaint in the employ of the Missouri River Fur Company. While there is debate as to whether Sacagawea died in a fire not long after that, or returned to the Shoshone and died as a very old woman on the Wind River Reservation, there is absolutely nothing known about Otter Woman. Or at least nothing that was shared with whites, or that they considered worth recording.

Did Otter Woman remarry when Charbonneau and Sacagawea left with Lewis and Clark? Did she have any children by Charbonneau? Why did Charbonneau take Sacagawea to Fort Mandan but leave Otter Woman in the Hidatsa village? Was Otter Woman ever able to return to her Shoshone family? Without written records, there may never be an answer to any of these questions. But even though she didn’t accompany the Corps of Discovery to the Pacific, Otter Woman deserves a place in history beside Sacagawea, her friend and sister-wife.


L-R, Evelyn Scott, Shari Orser, Marlys Orser, Alma Drake

Since March is Writing Women Back Into History month, I thought I’d tell a little story about searching for the full story of my maternal great-grandmother, who died bearing the name “Alma Drake.” She died when I was about 3, so I don’t remember her. My oldest sister, Shari, has a photo, one that appeared in the Pierce County Tribune, the newspaper in Rugby, home to my maternal grandparents, and the Westhope Standard, the newspaper in Westhope, ND, that was founded by my great-grandfather, A.J. Drake, later continued by my great-uncle, Clifford Drake. The photo shows my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and Shari. Shari was born in 1951 (sorry, honey, but hey, nobody you know will read this!) and my sister Nancy was born in 1953; I’m not sure when this photo was taken, but Shari is sitting up nicely and has long blonde hair in ringlets, my mother’s favorite style for her golden daughter. And judging by early photos of my mother, it was her mother’s favorite style for her, too. Four generations in one photo — either Nancy wasn’t born yet, but it looks like Shari is older than two — or she didn’t want to sit still for a photo. I don’t know. It’s quite the photo, though.

I’ve known for as long as I can remember that Alma Drake came from Norway, and that she homesteaded by herself, and that she kept her homestead for a while after she married A.J. (who was apparently much older than she — I’ll get to that), and that my grandmother Evelyn, her first child, was born in the soddy with only “the Norwegian hired girl” to help with the birth. Both my mother and her only sister, my aunt Pat, told me that Alma wouldn’t speak about her life prior to coming to North Dakota; according to her, that was when her life truly began.

About a year and a half ago my sister Nancy and I started looking into geneaology, trying to follow the female lines back. Nancy brought me Alma’s obituary. It said that Alma Brown Drake was born in “Vickersund” in Norway, in May of 1876; that her mother died when she was a baby and her father remarried. The family came to the US in 1884, and settled in the Superior, WI, area. When Alma was 17 or 18, she and a brother moved to Bottineau, ND, which is in the same county as Westhope. It’s still not clear to me if Alma worked as a waitress in a cafe in Bottineau, or if she and her brother owned a cafe there. I have yet to find a city directory, or anyone who can tell me about Bottineau, ND, in the 1890s. I do have, from my grandmother Evelyn Scott, Alma’s brother’s Psalm book. It’s in Norwegian, and was printed in Norway. In gold on the front of it is printed “E. Brunes.” Inside the front cover, in pencil, is “E. Brown, West Superior, Wisc.” Emil? Elling? We’re not sure. It may be that they homesteaded side by side. Alma became a US citizen in 1901, and in that same record, from Bottineau County, were two other people with the last name “Brown.”

My sister Shari said we’d never be able to trace anything in Norway, because obviously “Brown” was a “made-up” name the family took when they arrived in the US. “Brunes” on the cover of the Psalm book says otherwise. The Norwegian government has a wonderful website. I found Vikersund (famous for some type of extreme skiing, as well as a small train museum) and learned that it is in the parish of Modum. That was a critical discovery because the parish records are available on-line, going back into the 1870s and further back in some places. The on-line baptism records for Modum parish are photocopied from the original book, and the spikey Norwegian letters are very hard to read, but I found that Alma Kristina Ellingsdotter, born in the 1876, and baptized in September of that year. Her parents, Elling Ellingson and his wife Karin are in the record, as are the names of her sponsors. The Ellingson home is listed as Brunes Farm.

It was at about that time that Norwegians began to give up the tradition of using the father’s name as the last name of the children (Ellingson, Ellingsdottir, etc.), and while some chose to keep one family name, like Ellingson (or Anderson, Pederson, Olson, etc. etc. — the ND phone books are full of them!), others chose to use the name of the place they lived, like Brunes Farm.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a death record for Karin, nor a marriage record for Elling and his next wife, or anything about the parents of either of them. We do have a picture of a young Alma and a rather unattractive older woman, and on the back is “Alma and her stepmother.” I don’t know if she was a wicked stepmother or not, but it does seem that Alma was in a hurry to get away from her family and start a life of her own.

She married A.J. Drake around 1898 or 1899, and my grandmother was born in 1900. A.J. had learned the printing trade in Minnesota, where he worked with his father. Either his mother or his grandmother (sorry, can’t find the notes in my heaps of paper…) was named Amy Collins, and some of our Drake cousins have traced her ancestry back to a colonist from England who arrived in North America (Massachusetts, I believe) in the 1600s. A. J. was older than Alma; he died of an apparent heart attack while visiting one of their children in Roundup, MT, in 1932. Alma never remarried. She lived with my grandparents, Evelyn and Bud Scott, for several years, including part of my mother’s childhood, and then moved into a nursing home in Westhope, where she died in her 90s.

So, now I know where she came from, and I would love to visit Vikersund some day and look at their records, see if Brunes Farm still exists, and if I have distant cousins there (I have Orser-side cousins in a different part of Norway, but that’s another story). I want to know more about her mother, and how she died — possibly complications from childbirth? Or was it some other illness? I don’t know. I also want to know about the restaurant in Bottineau, and who Alma’s brother was — did he marry? When did he die? Did my mother know him (she passed away in 1993, so I may never know). I might be able to research some of that after I finish the Spooky South Dakota manuscript.

But at least I know where Alma “Brown” came from, and who her parents were. I’m rewriting the family tree, one leaf at a time. (Giving credit where it’s due, much of this was done by my sister Nancy, although I was the first to find the baptism record!)