Clarence Stessman was a latecomer to all the interest in Lewis and Clark around the time of the expedition’s bicentennial from 2004 to 2006.

Capt Clark set out after an early breakfast with the party in two canoes as had been concerted the last evening; Charbono and his Indian woman were also of the party; the Indian woman was very impotunate to be permited to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either (she had never yet been to the Ocean).

– MERIWETHER LEWIS, Jan. 6, 1806

 

Clarence Stessman was a latecomer to all the interest in Lewis and Clark around the time of the expedition’s bicentennial from 2004 to 2006.

But after reading “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose, he was hooked. That’s why he wasn’t about to miss another important 200th anniversary – of Sacagawea’s April 1811 visit to Fort Osage in Sibley.

“I noticed later that one of the places they (Lewis and Clark) mentioned was a site in this area that later became Fort Osage,” Stessman said. “I thought I’d drive out there and take a look again, and I noticed a highway sign that mentioned several famous people who had visited Fort Osage. One was Sacagawea.

“It bowled me over. I’d been interested in her part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition far beyond the regular reading of the journals.”

Yet when he got to the fort, there was no mention of the Indian woman, who has for years captured the attention of researchers, historians and Lewis and Clark buffs like Stessman.

Later, while talking to fellow enthusiasts at a Lewis and Clark convention, Stessman learned Sacagawea’s visit to Fort Osage was actually well documented – in “The Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri,” by Henry Marie Brackenridge, about an expedition led by Manuel Lisa, a famous Spanish fur trader, in 1811.

That was the beginning of Stessman’s journey to bring Sacagawea’s story to the fort.

“There are a number of historians who feel she is the most honored woman in the history of the United States. There are more parks and visitor’s centers named after her, more monuments dedicated to her than any other woman in the United States,” Stessman said. “For her to have spent a night at Fort Osage, well, it’s something that should be noted somewhere at the Fort.

“It was important to me to make her presence known out there at the fort.”

­­­———

Sacagawea is “kind of a mystery person,” according to Gordon Julich, superintendent of historic sites for Jackson County Parks and Recreation.

She’s mentioned infrequently in the Lewis and Clark journals, and when she is mentioned, it’s typically as “the Indian woman” or “Charbono’s (sic) wife.” Historians don’t know when she was born or even when she died. Native American groups disagree on how to say her name.

“But we do know she accompanied a Spaniard, Manuel Lisa, on a trading expedition in 1811,” Julich said. “The journal clearly identifies she was a member of that expedition with her baby, who at that time would have been about 6 years old.”

So why all the interest?

Even before he began researching Lewis and Clark, Stessman stumbled across a story about Sacagawea in National Geographic magazine. It recounted how, when Lewis and Clark formed a party to view a beached whale, Sacagawea insisted she go along.

“In today’s society, that doesn’t seem like a big thing, but some historians say Sacagawea was just 14 years old, traveling with a newborn baby, and to stand up to the captains like that? I thought it was really neat. It piqued my interest in her contributions to the journey and how she lived her life,” Stessman said.

In schools and textbooks, Sacagawea is often painted as a guide, a translator single-handedly leading Meriwether Lewis and William Clark west. Most historians take a more nuanced view.

Yes, Sacagawea joined the party with her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, in North Dakota. Yes, she was a member of the Shoshone tribe, valuable as the expedition headed deeper into Indian territory. Yes, she carried her child, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (later a famous explorer himself), on her back during the expedition.

It’s for that historians give Sacagawea the most credit – a woman carrying a child signaled the expeditionary party was not there to make war.

Dan Sturdevant, chairman of the Missouri-Kansas Riverbend Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, puts it like this: “She was the primary person responsible for the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition.”

­­­———

Stessman, also a member of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, took his idea to commemorate Sacagawea’s stay at Fort Osage to the local chapter, where it was met with enthusiasm.

In fact, other members told him to dream big.

“I thought if we put a plaque with some written info up, it would be enough, but some folks thought it would be even neater if we could get a bas-relief of Sacagawea with the information,” Stessman said.

Enter Sabra Tull Meyer, a regional artist based out of Columbia, Mo. She spent seven years working on a sculpture commemorating Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition, unveiled in 2008 in Jefferson City.

But was she the right person to depict Sacagawea?

“We reached out to the Shoshone tribe to make sure it was OK to use a non-native artist to do an image of Sacagawea,” said Julich.

Three groups worked in coordination to bring the plaque to Fort Osage – the Jackson County Parks Department, which owns Fort Osage; the Missouri Riverbend Chapter, of which Stessman is a member; and the Native Sons and Daughters of Greater Kansas City, which helped rebuild the historic fort in the 1940s.

There will be a short dedication ceremony commemorating the bicentennial of Sacagawea’s visit to Fort Osage at 1 p.m. on Saturday, and members of the Potawatomi group Big Soldier Creek Dancers will perform.

Most importantly, Stessman said, Sacagawea’s likeness will be on display when kids visit the Fort Osage Education Center to learn more about the Lewis and Clark period in American history.

“One of my main purposes of doing this whole thing above and beyond that we should honor the fact Sacagawea stayed at Fort Osage is hopefully to get some young people interested in her as a role model,” Stessman said. “Now I can envision kids on a school bus going to Fort Osage and learning about Sacagawea.”