Situation, Homonyms

Page 1 of 3

The Situation

Breathless Moment

Sketch of Sacagawea trying to escape from a flash flood

C.M. Russell (1903), for Olin Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark

The famous Western artist Charles M. Russell (1864-1826) painted this scene showing Charbonneau and Clark helping Sacagawea escape the water rising in that "deep rivene" above the Grand Fall of the Missouri.1 The young mother is clutching her four-month-old infant son, who is securely bound in a Plains Indian cradleboard. That is what most writers and artists have assumed Lewis was referring to with the word bier. But since she was captured by Hidatsas at about age 12, and passed through puberty among them, it is believed that Sacagawea was prepared for adulthood–and motherhood–according to Hidatsa ways. Therefore, most Hidatsa elders have long maintained she would have wrapped her baby in a shawl and carried him facing forward over one of her shoulders, as shown in the coin below, and in the statue of her on the Capitol grounds in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Sacagawea Commemorative Coin

Minted in 2000

Sacagawea on the one dollar coin

On June 29, 1805, having lost some of the field notes he wrote ten days earlier on his search for a portage route around the five falls of the Missouri River, Captain Clark set out to retrace his steps and fill in the blanks. York, Charbonneau, and Sacagawea with her five-month-old boy, Jean Baptiste–later nicknamed "Pomp"–went along as sightseers. A sudden downpour drove them to shelter under some overhanging rocks in a deep, dry coulee, which suddenly became the conduit for a flash flood that nearly swept them all into the river just above the first, highest and deadliest of the five waterfalls.

With his typical nonchalance, Clark himself documented the most terrifying moment of all: "the woman lost her Childs Bear & Clothes bedding &c." Lewis filled in the details:

the bier in which the woman carrys her child and all it's cloaths wer swept away as they lay at her feet she having time only to grasp her child.

A footnote in the most recent edition of the Journals defines bier [and by inference, "bear"] as "the cradleboard in which Sacagawea carried her child on her back."


Noah Webster, the father of American lexicography, who published his first dictionary in 1806, the year of the Expedition's return, defined bier as "a wooden hand-carriage used for the dead." In his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), he traced this bier's etymology to the Latin feretrum, from fero–"to carry."

The latest Merriam-Webster's takes the etymology of bier back to the 12th-century Middle English word bere, from Old English b[AE]r; akin to Old English beran, to carry, and similarly defines it as "a stand on which a corpse or coffin is placed."

What's more, the four-volume Dictionary of Arts and Science (sic) that the captains may have carried on the expedition defined bier as "A wooden machine for bodies of the dead to be buried."2 Certainly that's the kind of bier Charles Floyd's body might have been borne upon to its grave on the bluff.

None of the journalists, however, used the word in that sense. Lewis used bier eight times, invariably in that spelling. Clark used it three times, and Ordway once, spelling it, in keeping with common practice, as they heard it: b-e-a-r, or b-e-a-r-e. But in every instance except the near-tragedy at the Falls, its meaning is established either contextually or by the insect's identity (which Lewis always spelled musqueto).

This bier, then, is a bar or net serving to keep mosquitos from one's personal blood supply, as in (see any recent Webster's) "mosquito bar." Lewis bought some "Muscatoe Curtains" and "8 ps. Cat Gut for Mosquito Curt" back in Philadelphia, and on May 2, 1804, sent sixteen "Musquitoe nets" from Saint Louis across the Mississippi to Clark at Camp Dubois. It seems probable that they were meant to supplement the supply he had purchased in Philadelphia, inasmuch as the Corps of Discovery had increased to twice the number originally planned for. In mid-June of 1804 Sergeant John Ordway tells us that Lewis gave the men "Musquitoes bears" to sleep in, and we know they all still had them on the 21st of July, when Lewis remarked that without their "musquitoe biers" his men couldn't have gotten sufficient rest to do the work they faced. It appears that the captains didn't buy any for the engagés, anticipating the Frenchmen would use their usual repellent, "voyageurs' grease." Correspondingly, the loss of the baby's mosquito net would have been serious enough to warrant mention. Indeed, a year later, on the morning of August 3, 1806, William Clark remarked with concern and sympathy that "The Child of Shabono has been So much bitten by the Musquetor that his face is much puffed up & Swelled." And no wonder! Jean Baptiste's had been swept down the Missouri River more than a year before.

1. This is one of three paintings Olin Wheeler commissioned from Charley Russell. It was published as a grayscale halftone in Wheeler's two-volume Trail of Lewis and Clark, in 1904. The location of the original watercolor is not known. The same painting appeared as the frontispiece of Stories of the Republic (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1912). Charley Russell created about 20 paintings and drawings specifically related the Lewis and Clark expedition, more than any other artist of his time. Elizabeth A. Dear, The Grand Expedition of Lewis & Clark as Seen by C.M. Russell (Helena, Montana: C.M. Russell Museum, 2000), 3-7, 19.

2. Published in London in 1753 (2nd ed., 1764), it was known as Owen's Dictionary, after the publisher, John Owen.The full title is A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Science; comprehending all the branches of useful knowledge, with accurate descriptions as well of the various machines, instruments, tools, figures, and schemes necessary for illustrating them, as of the classes, kinds, preparations, and uses of natural productions, whether animals, vegetables, minerals, fossils, or fluids . . . by a Society of Gentlemen. Clark may have been alluding to this in his post-expeditionary memorandum listing articles he forwarded to Louisville: ". . . a Hat Box containing the 4 vols. of the [he struggles mightily with the word!] Deckinsery of arts an ciences." See Gary Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (12 vols., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-1999), 8:419; Donald Jackson, "Some Books Carried by Lewis and Clark," Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society, vol. 16, no. 4 (October, 1959) 11-13.