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Education and Outreach|American Heritage Center

Wyoming History Day: Skill-building for Letter Writing


Wyoming State Board of Education Content & Performance Standard:

  • Language Arts--Reading
  • Language Arts--Writing
  • Social Studies--Culture/Cultural Diversity
  • Social Studies--Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Social Studies--Processes and Skills

Learner Outcomes:

  • Students will read a letter seeking historical information and the response sent in return.
  • From both examples students will learn that written requests for information can bring results.
  • Students will then draft a letter seeking information on a topic of their choosing.

Related Points of Discussion:

  • How has the role of letters changed over time?
  • What advantages do letters have over other sources of historical information? What are some disadvantages?

Suggested activities:

Have students draft a letter to an individual or organization requesting information about a historical topic. Send the letters out on school letterhead and have the return letters directed to the school. Post responses in your classroom.

Have students collect examples of letters relating to a historic period. These could be family letters or examples found in the library. Students should submit these letters with an analysis of their content, who they were written to, their purpose, and the response they received (if any).

Historical Background:

Letters are important historical records. They can range from postcards and personal letters to business or government memos. Whatever form they take, letters usually provide a close-up look at the ideas and attitudes of their writer(s). Collections of letters can be found in libraries, archives, or even attics. You may also write to a research source for information. This activity will look at the response Grace Raymond Hebard received when she wrote Dr. Charles A. Eastman for information about Sacajawea.

Grace Raymond Hebard was a professor at the University of Wyoming in the first part of the 20th century. She was interested in the story of Sacajewea, the Shoshone woman famous for her role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Sacajewea was the wife of Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trader and trapper, hired by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as an interpreter for their expedition. Lewis and Clark also requested that Charbonneau bring one of his Shoshone wives with him. Charbonneau brought Sacajewea and their infant son, Jean Baptiste.

There are several different views of what happened to Sacajewea after the Lewis and Clark Expedition ended. According to the Encyclopedia of North American Indians many historians believe that Sacajewea died at Fort Manual on the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota on December 20, 1812; they base their conclusions on recorded accounts that suggest the date of her death. In April of 1811 Henry Breckinridge, an author, statesman and lawyer from Pittsburgh, recorded in his journal that the wife of Charbonneau was ill. In December of 1812 the clerk of the trading post wrote in his journal that the wife of Charbonneau had died. And between 1825 and 1828 Clark wrote "dead" next to Sacajewea’s name in an accounting of the known whereabouts of the members of the expedition.

However, there is an alternative version of Sacajewea’s later life. Native American oral traditions maintain that Sacajewea lived well into her nineties. According to these oral traditions, she was eventually reunited with her son, Jean Baptiste, and settled on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, where she was buried in 1884.

Hebard began investigating the life of Sacajawea in hopes of discovering the truth. Among those she interviewed in her search for information was the Reverend John Roberts. Roberts was an Episcopal missionary assigned to minister to the Shoshone and Arapahoes on the Wind River Reservation. After having been on the reservation less than a year, Roberts officiated at the burial of an Indian women reputed to be Sacajewea, guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

After researching the topic on her own, Hebard began correspondence with Dr. Charles A. Eastman. Eastman was a Dakota Sioux who devoted much of his life to learning about the history of his people. Eastman visited many different Native American tribes to interview individuals that might have known or heard of Sacajawea.

Instructions:

Read each of the letters and answer the questions, combining information you already know with what you have learned in your reading.

January 26, 1925
Dr. Charles A. Eastman
C/o Superintendent Hass
Wind River, Wyoming

My dear Dr. Eastman:

Being intensely interested in the life and death of Sacajawea . . . I have attempted to prove that the Sacajawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Sacajawea of the Wind River Reservation are one and identical.

I understand that you may go to North Dakota and interview the people there and particularly Mr. Hilger and Mr. Robinson of Pierre, who are very firm in their convictions that Sacajawea died in North Dakota in the 1812, their basis for such a statement being founded on the statement that one fur trapper made by the name of Luddig who made a statement similar to this: "There died today a squaw of Charbonneau who was his favorite squaw."

In reading the Journals that were written at the time of the Expedition, we find in more than three statements that Charbonneau had more than one wife during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In as much as Sacajawea was a very prominent person, even way back in 1812 before and after that date, and we find no trader or trapper mentioning her death or the death of a squaw wife of Charbonneau which we think would have been (illegible) had it been Sacajawea. The whole contention by Dr. Hilger and Dr. Robinson is based on the consumation that the wife that died in 1812 was Sacajawea, no mention is made that he had any other wives.

I find in the Journal of Sergeant Patrick Gass, page 63, December 25, 1804, this statement among many other things in mentioning a dance, the following: "without the presence of any females except three squaws, wives to our interpreter who took no other part that the amusement of looking on."

In the Journal of Sergeant John Ordway, page 164, November 11, 1804, "a Frenchman’s squaw came to their camp who belongs to the Snake nation. She came with our interpreter’s wife." This would give Charbonneau two wives.

In the Journal of Private Joseph Whitehouse, page 72, December 25, 1804, speaking of the ushering in Christmas morning with a Christmas dance, "we kept it up in a jovial manner until late at night, all without the company of the female sex except three squaws, the interpreters wives, and they took no part with us only to look on."

With this information we are justly warranted in speaking of Charbonneau’s wives and one might have easily died in 1812, an because we believe by 1812 that Sacajawea had left him and gone back to her people that one of the others might have been his "favorite wife."

I was sorry not to have been able to have seen you and to have gone over my manuscript, but Rev. Roberts and Mr. F. W. Burnette are two of my best witnesses, although Mr. James I Patten, who was an instructional and spiritual advisor the Indians of the Shoshone race from 1871 on, has given me some very helpful personal experiences which he had on the Reservation relative to Sacajawea and her two sons, Bazil and Baptiste, as they both were called way back over fifty years ago when there was no interest nor controversy about their mother, Sacajawea.

I have enjoyed very much reading your books following your literary career and I beg to state that your writings have been a very great help in interpreting the high spirit of the Indian people who used to live in this part of the country.

Respectfully,
Grace Raymond Hebard
318 So. 10th Street

--------------------------

Pierre, S.D.
Feb. 9, 1925
Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard
Laramie, Wyoming

My Dear Dr. Hebard:

Your letter of January 26th, 1925, in reference to "Sacajewea" the Bird Woman, is received. I have visited Fort Wahsakie Wyoming, Elbowoods, North Dakota, and now am here at Pierre. I have carefully consulted the historians of the two Dakota states; also questioned many of the old, old Indians in regard to the tradition of the Indian tribes, among whom the Bird Woman is supposed to have lived and traveled.

So far, I have three corroborated accounts of her traveling from Fort Union on the mouth of the Yellowstone River to the Upper valleys of the Snake River, and finally to Fort Bridger, Wyoming. I have traced her back to the Commanche and Uts. I have one fairly good account of her having traveled with another Indian woman from Portage Des Sioux to Fort Union on the Missouri, but I have lost track of her between the Commanches and St. Louis, Missouri.

I am very sorry that I was not able to visit Laramie while I was in Wyoming, because the time I am allowed is so short, that is, I am asked by the Secretary of the Interior to report before the adjournment of Congress of the present Session. I assure you that I take note of your articles, written some years ago, and if you have anything more that I can use I shall certainly be glad to receive it.

It is almost necessary for me to go to Commanche Reservation and also confer with Miss Drumm of St. Louis, Missouri. As far as the story of Bulls Eyes is concerned, I have eliminated that because is obviously a modern story.

Very respectfully yours,

Charles Eastman


Follow-Up Questions:

  • How did Grace Raymond Hebard’s preliminary research help her in asking questions in her letter to Charles Eastman?
  • Why is Eastman a good source for her research?
  • Summarize Eastman’s responses. What is the most useful information he provides?
  • Modern accounts say that Fort Manual is located in present day South Dakota, but Hebard’s correspondence places Sacajewea in North Dakota at the time of her reputed death. How do you account for this difference?
  • Using the information in Eastman’s letter, what types of sources do you think Hebard looked at for the next part of her research?
  • What do you think is the true story of Sacajewea? Why?

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