Writing Women Back Into History — Otter Woman

March 13, 2010

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.


25 Responses to “Writing Women Back Into History — Otter Woman”

  1. Thanks for writing Otter Woman back into our consciousness, even if not much of her story is known (to whites). I had no idea she existed, and now when I think about Sacagawea, I’ll imagine her sister-wife too. And perhaps someday you’ll write more about her, even if all you have are those tantalizing scraps to dream her story into being….

  2. Lori Orser said

    Thank you for the comment, Susan. I came across a couple of scraps about her when trying to write a story about Sacagawea before Lewis and Clark, and clearly was intrigued. Maybe I will write more about her one of these days. She too has a story!

  3. I didn’t know anything about Otter Woman. So many lost stories…. Thanks for sharing this one!

  4. Otter Woman is new to me. also. Thank you for sharing what you know of her story. I think Susan offered a good idea – a fictionalized story of Otter Woman that might be woven from the scraps of her life that you have gathered.

  5. Great story, Lee. Isn’t it amazing how some stories get lost and then they tap another on the shoulder to tell it. Thanks for listening to that story. I’m with the other responders…I hope you write more of this story. BTW, Bodacious Bo sends greetings to you Kimiko. Bo loves bones too! Jane

  6. Otter Woman sounds vagely familiar, but I have a friend who is an avid Lewis and Clark fan. When she lived in Kansas, she would tell me about every scrap of info she discovered, so I may have heard of Otter woman from her. Anyway, very interesting. I enjoyed reading it. Eunie

  7. Alice Trego said

    I absolutely loved reading about Otter Woman here, Lori. I hope you write more about her soon. I find the lives of strong Indian women intriguing, as well — after all, they have stories of their own and want us to know about them.


  8. leescott58 said

    I’m not sure that much more factual information can be written about Otter Woman. But there’s wonderful potential for a historical novel about her life, isn’t there?

  9. Joanne said

    I may know what happened to Otter woman. A fur trader named Joseph Robidoux founder of Blackhills fur trading company and St.Joseph, Mo.had an indian “wife” named Otter woman. The timing and place seems right. They had a daughter Mary Many Days Robidoux. Then Otter woman drops out of history. Robidoux marries Angelique.

  10. leescott58 said

    Joanne, I’d love to know the source for your material; this is a fascinating hint I haven’t found, and I’d like to read more!

  11. leescott58 said

    In digging around a bit, Joanne, I found that Robidoux founded the Blacksnake Hills Trading Post, not Blackhills (which would be confusing to those living in South Dakota, perhaps). I’ve only found references to a first wife who died, leaving Robidoux with an infant son, then a second wife, the Angelique you mention. I’m still searching and hope that you’ll answer the email I sent you! Thank you for the lead!

  12. leescott58 said

    Further research revealed quotes about Robidoux having children by many “Indian” women. Either he (aka Joseph Robidoux III) or his son (Joseph Robidoux IV — there are also nephews and cousins named Joseph Robidoux, making things even more confusing) is said to have married an “Otoe” woman ca. 1840. Possible confusion with tribe/nation “Otoe” and individual named Otter? Maybe. Otter Woman apparently plays a role in the novel “Sacajawea” which I haven’t read because first, if the author couldn’t even get the woman’s NAME right, what else is wrong? And second, she proposes a romantic relationship — or at least feelings of romance, and this is what I’m told, I repeat I haven’t read the novel — between Sacagawea and Wm. Clark. I think Clark liked and respected Sacagawea — especially in comparison with her useless husband — but I doubt that he viewed her as a romantic partner. Who knows? He clearly wouldn’t have put that in his journal, nor would the men (although possibly in later gossipy lurid memoirs?), but it’s possible that he really missed his family, and the presence of a young woman and a baby brought back warm and happy memories for him. At this point I’m not thinking that Robidoux and Otter Woman are connected, at least not without a lot more evidence. One possibility arises; the Wind River Shoshone have a grave marked as Sacagawea’s; they claim she came back after the expedition, and raised her orphaned nephew Bazel (spelling uncertain), and died at the advanced age of 106. If they’re right (although Anderson and Schroer, 1999, call it a “regrettable circumstance” resulting from oral histories, misunderstandings, and confused memories — in other words, they are so not right, according to these two), is it possible that Otter Woman was the “wife of Charbonneau, a Snake [Shoshone] squaw” who “died of a putrid fever” at Fort Manuel in 1812? Leaving the “fine infant girl?” (who later arrived with Jean-Baptiste at St. Louis; both were taken into the guardianship of Clark… so it seems more likely the one who died in 1812 truly was Sacagawea.) It does get confusing; so long ago and so few written records, especially about women, and more especially about Native women. Still, Otter Woman had a life, and she shouldn’t be erased from history!

  13. Monica Soderman said

    Thank you for writing about her! I’m glad to know that she hasn’t been completely forgotten. I read somewhere that she probably did have children with Charbonneau, before Sacajawea did.
    Charbonneau was proud to be a full-blooded frenchman, and so he would probably name his first child after himself. I think that a few years before Sacagawea had Jean-Baptiste, Charbonneau had a son with Otter Woman whom he probably named after himself, and then gave Sacagawea’s son his second favorite name Jean-Baptiste.
    This could be another reason why Otter Woman wasn’t taken on the expedition. If her son was a few years older he would probably be another mouth to feed, while if Sacagawea came with them, her child is only a baby and she could breastfeed him, so his food wouldn’t be a problem. He could also ride on her back in the boats, so he wouldn’t be any extra room. Those are some theories I read in a book about her.

    • leescott58 said

      Monica, I would love to know the name of the book you read about Otter Woman. Those are all very plausible reasons that Sacagawea went on the expedition, but not Otter Woman. I’ve been trying to find more information about Otter Woman, but hitting brick walls. If you know more, please let me know. Email me at laurel1@bis.midco.net, OK? Thank you!

  14. Monica Nelson said

    Thanks for the article! I went on a search for Otter Woman because according to my great grandmothers research Otter Woman is my g-g-g-g-g-grandmother.

    Here’s an interesting bit to add to the plethora of information out there. According to a newspaper article by Minnie Woodring (6 April 1978, Wyoming State Journal) my great grandmother Bernice Beulah Burnett (Twitchell) said that her grandmother Maggie Bazil (Large) handed down this story which I will excerpt here. Maggie Bazil (Large) was the daughter of Bazil, who is mentioned here as the son of Otter Woman and the adoptive son of Sacajawea:

    “While Sacajawea was in St. Louis, her sister Otter Woman, who was older and the second wife of Charbonneau, died at Mandan with a terrible fever, leaving two children: Toussaint Jr., and a daughter, Lizette. A fellow by the name of John Luttig became their legal guardian, and as he was unable to take care of the children turned them over to Clark. At this time Sacajawea adopted Toussaint Jr. and named him Bazil. Clark kept the girl Lizette. . .”

    I can post more as I do reading of this big book of articles collected by my great grandma Bernice.

    Best to you all!

  15. Sara said

    I may know what happened to Otter woman. A fur trader named Joseph Robidoux founder of Blackhills fur trading company and St.Joseph, Mo.had an indian “wife” named Otter woman. The timing and place seems right. They had a daughter Mary Many Days Robidoux. Then Otter woman drops out of history. Robidoux marries Angelique.

    • leescott58 said

      I read your comment about Otter Woman and Robidoux; did you look at my comment above about the “Otoe wife” and the timing? I think that Sacagawea’s sister wife Otter Woman and the wife of Joseph Robidoux aren’t the same person, based on my research — granted, it wasn’t months of research, but still, I have a lot of sources since I’m six blocks from the ND State Library and State Archives, and everything related to Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery and Sacagawea and her family, etc. etc., is probably there. Although I’ll grant you, they may not have everything from St. Joseph, MO. I appreciate your comment!

  16. karen captain said

    I am a diagnostic medical sonographer who worked as a medical traveler with a physician who is a direct descendant of Lewis (of Lewis and Clark.) Unfortunately because of the time involved with our patients I never had the opportunity to ask him the questions I wanted. I would like to talk with him again, however, life always takes me elsewhere. Perhaps you can contact him and he may have special remembrances that were passed down through his family. I worked with him at Tannana Valley Clinic in Fairbanks Alaska. He was also a medical traveler and said he planned to return there. Someone there may be able to connect you with him.

    I have had psychics tell me that I was a shaman in a previous life. I really do not know about that but I seem to have some of those abilities. My zodiac sign and medical profession are equated with the Native American zodiac sign of Otterwoman. And I have actually had a real otter show up in my back yard in Florida before a tremendous change in my life occurred. (A native American psychic said this is what the appearance of the otter would mean and she was right!) Good luck, folks. Please keep me posted.

  17. karen captain said

    Please keep in touch. Thank you

  18. Kelena said

    I have enjoyed the recall of “otter Women” I am a part-Hawaiian carver and I am researching for a carving I am doing for a Cousin who is part Arikara/Ree/Sahnish and her given name is “otter Woman”. In doing the background of the Sahnish I stumbled on this compelling story, Made me want to know more about “Otter Woman”. I did read about Sacagawea and it was said that her real meaning stemmed from the Lemhi shoshoni name boinaiv or “Grass Maiden, but confusion in names, Currently accepted english spellings are “Sacagawea” from the Hidatsa Tsa-ga-ga Wiya lthough in Shoshone it is more known as”Sacajawea”.

    The most common historical recorded spelling of Sacagawea’s name uses a ‘g’ instead of the ‘j’. It has been reported that Sacajawea was an editor’s mistake,* however the Shoshoni people spell the name with the ‘j’ instead. After research, it is clear to me that the name came from the Shoshoni, not the Hidatsa as some have reported. Therefore, the more correct spelling would be with the ‘j’ (Sacajawea). Without any intent to offend anyone, I use Sacagawea since it is most commonly used, abeit wrong to some. Sacagawea’s Shoshone name was Boinaiv, meaning ‘grass maiden’. Sacagawea in Hidatsa means ‘bird woman’ coming from Hidatsa Caka’kawia (Caka’ka meaning bird + wi’a meaning woman). The ‘bird’ seems to come from a mis-interpretitation of ‘boat” when the Shoshoni explained her name using sign language. Lewis’ journal entries also include Sahcargarmeah and Sah-cah-gah-wea.

    A lake in Washington named after Sacagawea is spelled Sacajawea. Since Sacajawea means ‘boat launcher’, perhaps the lake spelling is somewhat appropriate given her river guide ability with L&C expedition. Also, North Dakota has a lake named Sakakawea, the same as they prefer to think of as the correct spelling. The spelling comes from the Hidatsa spelling for Bird being Sakaka (from Caka’ka) and the word wea (from wi’a) meaning woman. The word is often spelled with a double k (Sakkakawea).

    The Shoshoni spelling of Sacajawea is used in places in Idaho, including websites dedicated to the story of her life such as the Sacajawea Interpretive Center. The website page that by far best studies the name is on the Lemhi County Historical Museum in Salmon, Idaho

    Facinating story anyway, shame the exact life of both Sacagawea and Otter women is so varied in History written pages. for my cousin I hope I can incorporate the Sahnish story of Great Father above, the Corn mother,Grandmother of all things the Cedar tree and the grandfather of all things the sacred Rock(Red). Into the sacred bundle for a what we Hawaiians call a “Aumakua” or ancestral spirit guardian. Mahalo/thank you for the read.

  19. leescott58 said

    Thank you for your comment, Kelena. It is enlightening in many ways. I’ve been told by two friends who are Hidatsa and mixed-blood Mandan (they say there are no pure Mandan left, and that may be; since I’m not of that nation I can’t speak for them) that they have had stories passed down to them that the Hidatsa renamed the young Shoshoni girl Bird Woman, regardless of her Shoshoni name, and that they have grandmothers whose grandmothers remember her and Otter Woman, although no one seems to know what happened to Otter Woman. The “Sakakawea” spelling in ND comes from the Three Affiliated Tribes (Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara or Ree — to the best of my knowledge the same people with two different names?), not from the whites in the state. I’ve never seen it with three k’s though! In reading the journals of Lewis and Clark, I have come across SO many different spellings of Sacagawea, and buffalo (boffle is my favorite!), and so many other words that it’s hard to pick one spelling and call it correct. There’s the additional problem that none of the First Nations had written languages in 1804-1806, so spelling comes from white French, American, and English
    people, many of whom didn’t clearly understand the words being said to them, or had no spelling for sounds that were in those languages but not their own. It makes it all very difficult. The fact remains that little was recorded about Otter Woman, so a factual history of her is next to impossible to do. A novel of historical fiction might be the next best thing, but like the novel “Sacajawea,” it would need to be noted as fiction, not fact. Too many people who read that novel thought it was true. (sigh.) Thank you again for your enlightening post!

  20. jeff7salter said

    enjoyed reading this very much.
    I’ve always been interested in history and this slice of native american history is fascinating.

  21. leescott58 said

    Thanks for stopping by, Jeff! I enjoyed your blog and will visit again. If you’re looking for something a little creepy, check my post “The Monkey Trap” about an interesting murder…

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