The real reason for the public's rejection of the Susan B. Anthony dollar was not that it looked like a quarter. Rather, it was the constant reminder, every time you jingled your coins, of the political and cultural clout of the radical feminists.
Not that Susan B. Anthony, the 19th-century crusader for women's rights, was a bad person to honor. For her, women's rights included the right not to have their babies killed by abortionists, a fact today's radical feminists-who have a far different worldview than their 19th-century sisters-want to keep out of sight. But still, she was turned into a feminist icon, and the U.S. Mint clearly was bowing to feminist pressure in putting Anthony, with her tight lips and her bun, on the basic unit of American currency. The coin was just too annoying.
The public, though, seems to be more receptive to a new Treasury Department attempt to replace the greenback dollar. Though the new coin contains absolutely no precious metal, its gold color at least conjures up associations with pieces-of-eight, doubloons, and actual wealth. The Mint's populist way of distributing it-through Wal-Marts rather than banks-is also endearing.
The picture on the coin is of Sacagawea, the young Indian woman of the Lewis and Clark expedition, with her baby on her back. Featuring a "Native American" scores PC points for the Mint, though pennies and nickels had done that years ago, and featuring a woman at the same time scores even more PC points. But this woman is a mom. Not only that, considering Sacagawea's exploits-traveling thousands of miles through every kind of hardship and danger, while taking care of a baby, and then taking the same trip back home with a 2-year-old-she can stand for the modern mom, who certainly deserves honoring.
Sacagawea, in her actual life and history, stands as a great American role model and a worthy symbol for American patriotism. The same could be said of the other head on the coin, her baby, little Jean-Baptiste (named for John the Baptist), who, though less known, became one of the most colorful figures of the American West.
When Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon I-all the land west of the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains for a mere
$15 million-he really didn't know what he had. The treaty gave the United States all the land drained by the Missouri river, but no one really knew how long the river was, let alone if the land was suitable for settlement. Jefferson gave his brilliant young aide, Captain Meriwether Lewis, a crash course in surveying and basic science and sent him off with Captain William Clark, an experienced frontier soldier, to explore the new American West.
With a company of some 30 men, plus Sacagawea (there is no evidence that she had to pick up after all of them) and later her baby when he was born on the way, the group paddled up the Missouri River. Along the way, they made maps for later settlers to follow, took soil samples for future farmers, discovered scores of animals and plants previously unknown to science, and attempted to make friends with the various Indian tribes. The hope was that at the end of the Missouri River, they would find the Columbia, a waterway to the Pacific coast. What they found instead was a little obstacle: the Rocky Mountains. With a heroic effort, the company crossed those mountains and made it all the way to what is now the coast of Washington state. Then they turned around and came back, blazing new trails and recording data that would prove crucial for later pioneers. The expedition took three years.
Sacagawea was a member of the Shoshone tribe, living in what is now Western Idaho. When she was 12 years old, she was kidnapped by the warlike Hidatsa-Mandans who used her as a slave (thus giving the lie to the current politically correct propaganda that Indians only practiced warfare and slavery because they learned them from the whites). A French trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau bought her out of slavery and took her as his wife.
Lewis and Clark hired the couple as translators. Sacagawea knew Shoshone and Hidatsa; Charbonneau knew Hidatsa and French; another trapper knew French and English. The delicate negotiations with the various Indian tribes were conducted by means of this three-person, four-language translation relay.
Sacagawea was only 17 when she joined the expedition. (Teenagers can now say they are honored by their own coin.) A few months later, she had her baby. Jean-Baptiste, nicknamed "Pompy" by the men, became a great favorite for his playful ways. Indian tribes knew that a woman and child would never be brought on a war party, so their presence helped convince the various tribes that the company came in peace.
But after running up against the Rockies, the company was accosted by a band of Indians. Things were tense. The Indians were suspicious, and the party was in desperate straits. Suddenly, Sacagawea ran up to the chief, who started crying and hugging her. He was her brother! They had not seen each other for five years, since she had been stolen, but now she was reunited with her family. It was a coincidence that would seem far too unreal in a Hollywood movie, but which Christians could see as providential. The Shoshones gave them horses and supplies, allowing the expedition to keep going.
Now that she was on her home turf, Sacagawea was even more helpful. On the plains, the group could feast on the countless herds of buffalo, but in the mountains food was scarce. Sacagawea must have learned a lot from her mother, because she knew what plants were edible, and she arguably saved the group from starvation. She also had childhood memories of the mountains, and she showed the captains trails, including Bozeman Pass, which would become a major route through the Rockies for later pioneers.
In choosing a place to stay for the winter, Captain Lewis put it up to a vote. Sacagawea was given a vote, as was York, Captain Clark's black slave. And as Stephen Ambrose points out, in his excellent book on the expedition Undaunted Courage, it was plucky Sacagawea on the way home who saved the priceless notes and records of the expedition when her clumsy husband caused his boat to tip over.
Though her role is sometimes exaggerated-she was not the only guide, she was never in the position of leader, and Lewis and Clark always knew pretty much what they were doing-"Janey," as Lewis called her, was a valuable member of the company.
On the way back, she and her husband stopped off at their own home near the Hidatsa village and resumed their lives as frontier trappers. Seven years later, she had another baby, a daughter named Lisette. Shortly after, she died at the age of 25.
But there is more to the story: After she died, with their father's permission, William Clark became the legal guardian of both Jean-Baptiste, now 10, and his baby sister Lisette, bringing them into his own family in St. Louis. Clark saw that the boy received a good education. But at the age of 18, Jean-Baptiste went back to the frontier.
There, as the story gets stranger, he happened to run into a group of European aristocrats vacationing in the American West. Prince Paul Wilhelm of Württemberg was astonished to a find a young man who was so highly cultivated in his manners, knowledge, and conversation, and who, at the same time, had such amazing skills as a frontiersman. The prince invited the young man to come back with him to Europe, which he did. Sacagawea's son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, stayed there six years, learned four languages, and became the toast of the European social scene.
But he missed the American frontier, so he left his life with the European upper crust, came home, and began a new career as a Mountain Man. He ranged all over the West, working as a guide and a scout for the pioneers streaming into the land opened up by Lewis, Clark, and his mother. He helped lead the Mormons to Utah, and he became Alcade-a Spanish administrative post equivalent to mayor-of San Luis Rey in California, where he battled the mistreatment of Indians. He finally threw himself (unsuccessfully) into the Gold Rush. He died in 1866 at the age of 61.
The Sacagawea dollar speaks of a time when whites and the Indians actually got along and tried to help each other. It embodies not so much multiculturalism as the older ideal of the melting pot, with young Jean-Baptiste with his mixed blood climbing the social ladder to the very top only to climb right back down, thanks to his fierce American individualism. It symbolizes the wide-open spaces of both the American West and American freedom, and the character trait Mr. Ambrose calls "undaunted courage."
The Sacagawea dollar may have been intended as a sop to feminists and multiculturalists, but it symbolizes instead the greatness of America's heritage.