Cuenca’s Sisters of the Coin: How history, a popular currency and the common culture of women cross the bridge of time in Ecuador

Aug 1, 2015 | 10 comments

By Scott Fugit  

It was our first time stumbling off the long, red-eye flight from Houston into Quito’s brand new airport. We cleared customs, picked up our luggage and followed the crowd towards the chl scott logotransport area for the late night taxi ride into the city. I bought a bottle of water and took my change. That’s when I saw her. Amazingly, it was an old friend who had lived near my home back in the USA. We had first met in grade school history class. She looked good, her baby boy was healthy and sleeping quietly, and she had aged little since she was born, around 1790. I held her in my hand and thought, what are you doing almost 4,000 miles from your birthplace in the steep, mountainous country near Salmon, Idaho, USA? It didn’t take long to learn that in Ecuador, among her modern sisters, she was right at home.

Since this young mother’s official arrival in 2000, she is now widely recognized, warmly welcomed, and could be considered Ecuador’s most successful North American expat. Everyone carries her picture, usually more than one copy. Her broad appeal crosses all of Ecuador’s geographic, cultural, political and ethnic boundaries. Like us gringos, locals are always happy to see her, although virtually none of them know her name. She is Sacajawea, the young indigenous Shoshone Indian woman from North America, whose poignant image, together with her infant son, graces the U.S. one dollar coin.

Sacajawea with Jean Baptiste, Cuenca mother and child.

Sacajawea with Jean Baptiste, Cuenca mother and child.

She first arrived during the calamity of the collapsing Sucre, Ecuador’s national currency. Bank closures, falling wages, and skyrocketing poverty rates fueled fear for the economic trail ahead, unknown and uncharted. In 1999 Ecuador’s inflation rate was the highest in Latin America at 60%. The economy shrank by 7%. One prominent Quito economist admitted, “We didn’t have many options.”

Amid protest against the loss of sovereignty, Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar in 2000. Gone was the irresistible temptation to inflate the Sucre to near infinity. Ecuador had little choice but to join “The Beast,” the global dollar empire controlled by large foreign central banks. No longer, an easy target for currency speculators, financial stability and confidence soon returned. Since then, Ecuador’s economic trail forward has been led by the dollar, and those in charge are committed to staying the course. Sacajawea had stepped in as a guide — metaphorically speaking — and was leading the way through the economic wilderness. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Still, the situation has to be just right for an expat to be this successful in a different culture. Somehow, an illiterate, indigenous teenage mother and her one dollar coin has joined an esteemed all male gallery of presidents, patriots and poets on the currency of Ecuador.

Two modern versions of the Sacajawea image, fashion model and road sign.

Two modern versions of the Sacajawea image, fashion model and road sign.

Legends are idyllic, real history is brutal. Captured by a rival tribe as a young girl around 1800, Sacajawea was kept as a slave until she escaped, was re-captured and then purchased by a French fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. He was much older. She was 15. When the Frenchman joined the famous Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition to the Pacific early in 1805, his teenage wife became the only female on their journey west — and into history.  Because it was a scientific expedition, detailed journals were kept. They leave a fascinating account of the young Indian girl’s story. Capt. Lewis first comments on childhood upbringing and nuptial arrangements:

Aug 17, 1805: “……amongst the Indians……the man is the sole propryetor of his wives and daughters, and can barter or dispose of either as he thinks proper…..”
 “……they do not hold the virtue of their women in high estimation, and will even prostitute their wives and daughters for a fishinghook or a stran of beads…….”
“……he frequently trades his infant daughters in marriage to men who are grown…….”

The captain also took a dim view of Sacajawea’s French husband:

Sept, 1805:  “….he has provd himself timid and undependable……” “…. I was out of patience with the folly of Charbono who had not sufficient sagacity to see the consequencies of his actions….”

In modern terms, Sacajawea’s husband was also abusive:

August 20, 1805:”….she is treated with but little rispect……. and compeld to perform every species of drudgery……”

And there’s this chilling bit:

“……this evening Charbono struck his indian Woman for which Capt. C. gave him a severe reprimand…….”

Entrepreneur and facilitator Sacajawea consults with two famous gringo clients. Her payment is still pending.

Entrepreneur and facilitator Sacajawea consults with two famous gringo clients. Her payment is still pending.

Luckily, liquor was not allowed on the expedition. After being hired based on his young wife’s language skills, Charbonneau spent little time concerned with her well-being. She promptly proved her independence and left no doubt among the group: she didn’t need him.

Sacajawea’s native skills proved to be a most valuable asset to the expedition. Respect for this lowly, indigenous slave girl grew steadily in the Corp of Discovery, and was documented in writing by learned, respected men. She had begun her long, hard sister’s journey towards a dollar’s worth of immortality.

For any coin to be accepted and popular, people have to like using it. Stroll down any street in Cuenca and an economic reality quickly hits home: Ecuador is the land of mom and pop stores. The small family tienda is the backbone of the county’s street level economy. It’s also where most financial transactions occur, between two people and using cash. In a high percentage of these dealings, both parties are women. Almost always, Sacajawea is there too.

As my wife and I browse in Cuenca’s Mercado 12 de Abril, we stop for tomatoes. A young woman, her baby sleeping nearby, begins counting and bagging while grandma looks on.  The combination of work and family culture is on full display in Ecuador’s countless markets and tiendas. For these young working mothers, like those everywhere, life is seldom easy. I pay with a paper five dollar bill and get four Sacajaweas back in change — for 10 large, home grown tomatoes. The edges of the coins are worn, the minting dates imbedded there are nearly gone. They have been exchanged countless times here in Ecuador. Our vendor’s hands are deep in the full front pockets of her apron and I can hear the soft metallic clinking of coins. It’s her business’s cash drawer, her commercial bank account, her financial database and point of sale system. All those functions represented by trusted coins that are easily and confidently exchanged for goods. It’s also another reason why the Sacagawea dollars are so popular here. They are an uncomplicated and durable storage of value. They are difficult to fake, easily hidden and allow transactions to be private. Coins have no counter party risk — no one else has to do anything to make them work. They can’t be hacked, their use involves no accessing a data base, no software, no Internet connection, no Cloud based technologies, and no percentage cut going to a bank.


Coins even look better. They’re art that is actually useful.

Coins even look better. They’re art that is actually useful. With a double portrait by famed American sculptor Glenna Goodacre, who used a young Native American student as her model, the Sacajawea dollar depicts a young family struggling to find their way. With her hair parted into a traditional style, and her son bundled tightly, it’s a tender, motherly image familiar to our smiling vendors. They see it all day long.

More than two hundred years ago, Sacajawea’s motherhood started hard. Capt. Clark writes:

February 11, 1805: “…..her labour was tedious and the pain violent……..we adminstered a small portion of the rattle of the rattle-snake…..hastening the birth of a son…..”

In some timeless and classic guy talk around the campfire, Clark also speculates on the reasons for the young teenager’s difficult delivery:

“….I have been several times informed by those who were conversent with the fact, that the Indian women who are pregnant by whitemen experience more difficulty in childbirth than when pregnant by an Indian….”

Along with all male midwifery came primitive medical care. This casual entry by Capt. Lewis also notes the weather:

June 10, 1805: “Sah-cah-gah, we a, our Indian woman is very sick this evening; Capt. C. blead her the night was cloudy with some rain.”

Despite the bleedings, it wasn’t long before Sacajawea and her infant child were boosting the men’s morale. Capt. Clark nicknamed the boy “Pompy” and the “little dancing boy”.  Young Jean Baptiste frolicked in canoes and was on Sacagawea’s back whenever she walked or rode. As an indigenous woman with a baby, traveling with a group of 33 well-armed men, she was an important sign that it was not a party of war. She also served as interpreter, offered advice on their route, and helped hunt, catch, gather and dig up enough food to keep all members of the expedition from starving. Her intelligence was commented on by both Captains leading the party. In communicating with local tribes, Sacajawea was interpreting language chains going from French to English to Hidatsa to Shoshone — and back. Yet, there is no evidence she could read or write. Directly due to her help, the Corps was able to buy horses from native tribes allowing them to carry enough food and gear to survive. When their winter lodgings were selected by the entire party, her vote was counted, along with that of York, Captain Clark’s “negro man servant”.  Through it all, while she carried North America’s youngest explorer on her back, Sacajawea never complained and displayed a cheerfulness so pervasive that it was commented on by every expedition member who kept a diary.

A plaque in Oregon honors Jean Batiste Charrbonneau.

An historical marker in Oregon honors Jean Batiste Charrbonneau.

Through an Ecuador expat’s historical lens, Sacajawea looks like a young indigenous female entrepreneur serving as a consultant and facilitator to gringo clients while offering expertise in language interpretation, natural medicine and treatments, travel routes and arrangements, counseling with local officials, cultural and customs advice, plus helping with shopping and food preparation.  She’s also an expert in wilderness child care.  Plus, she’s always smiling. I’d say she’s hired.

In Ecuador, the Sacajawea one dollar coin still performs many similar functions today. All while she carries the young sleeping Jean Baptiste in a hand woven shawl, similar to the ones used by her sisters through time, the young mothers of today’s Cuenca.

Originally proposed as a patriotic alternative to paper currency, the coin proved unpopular in the U.S. with everyone but the vending machine industry. People confused it with the quarter. They said it looked like play money. Multiple B-side designs were tried in a futile effort to increase its popularity. Restricted since 2009, minting of the coins completely stopped in 2012. Ignored by the public, most of them now sit in U.S. bank storage vaults. The new dollar was criticized in Congress on separate occasions for being both too heavy and too light. At least it weighs more than a digital dollar entered on a database, or a bitcoin.

In Ecuador, the coin’s work load is heavy. Other wimpy alternatives can’t take it. Paper dollars don’t last long here. Like their namesake, the Sacajawea dollars succeed partly due to durability and toughness.

Why even have coins?  This is the age of Apple Pay and magnetic card swipes. Popular digital currencies have spawned an industry of specialized hardware, secret software and busy lawyers. Even Ecuador’s government has dabbled in digital currency strategies. Of course, there is every chance that along with Sacajawea coins, any indigenous mercado vendor also has a smart phone tucked into her apron pocket. In a modern city like Cuenca, it’s impossible to ignore the technology that makes digital banking possible. Common in upscale shops and malls, digital payment methods are used less in smaller family run tiendas. Every vendor has to decide what types of technology to trust. Is it cash and coins only, or do they take a chance on the digital cloud too? Unavoidably, expats must make similar decisions.

“I’m sorry sir, your Visa Travel/Money card is no longer valid anywhere in Ecuador or the Galapagos Islands.” I felt a nervous tingle in my stomach. “Excuse me?” I stammered, “We have two separate accounts. We’ve used them for years.” We were vacationing in Cuenca for the second time. Standard procedure was to use our Visa guaranteed travel cards, “preloaded for confidence and convenience.” They had suddenly stopped working. I called the phone number listed in tiny print on the back. Her polite voice continued, “Ecuador has been sanctioned by the U.S. State Department. Their recent policies are considered contrary to U.S. interests…… hello sir?”  Long pause on my end as I flashed back to news of the Correa administration’s support for Venezuela. The nice lady filled in the gap, “If you have a regular VISA charge card, it will still be valid.”

There it was. The international digital money control Beast in action. Pay the 18% fee, VISA waives their big bank concerns over Ecuador’s diplomatic relations. Try to spend your own money from a prepaid (and no fee) card — suddenly “spreading socialism” is a paramount issue.

As my wife and I stroll along Cuenca’s Yanuncay River, we reflect on our now diminished financial options. We wonder how many less prepared travelers might be stranded without access to their money. Sacajawea comes up in the conversation. Specifically, the 378 one dollar coins I had saved up and brought to Ecuador in my checked luggage. Eleven pounds of them tied in a sweat sock. They suddenly looked very important to our expedition of discovery in Cuenca. Based on the poor reputation of Sacajawea’s husband, the “Charbonneau travel card” seems perfect as a new name for our now useless pieces of Visa plastic. At least coins cannot be cancelled and Sacajawea doesn’t care about politics. She would now be crucial in helping us secure lodgings, transportation and provisions from the locals. Somehow, I was still learning a modern lesson from a bygone 16-year old indigenous girl guide.

As we relax on a bench overlooking one of the many scenic bends in the Yanuncay, a group of families are busy washing laundry among the rocks below. A young mother calls out to her son wading too close to the current.

My mind jumps to the Corp of Discoveries most famous incident, and a defining moment for sister Sacajawea. Over fast moving water in a heavy boat, the success of the whole expedition was suddenly at stake. The Charbonneau family was on board and involved.

Capt. Lewis writes:

May 14, 1805: “A verry Clear Cold morning a white frost & some fog on the river the Thermomtr Stood at 32 ith some rain….. we proceeded on verry well untill about 6 oClock a Squawl of wind Struck our Sale broad Side and turned the perogue nearly over….”

As luck would have it, Sacajawea was in the same boat that day as her husband. Unfortunately, the man of the family was at the tiller.

“Charbono was at the helm of this Perogue, in stead of Drewyer, who had previously steered her; Charbono cannot swim and is perhaps the most timid waterman in the world; perhaps it was equally unluckey that Capt. C. and myself were both on shore at that moment, a circumstance which rarely happened…..

As Sacajawea and Jean Baptiste sat calmly, the boat turned broadside into the wind and started filling with water. Disaster loomed:

“……in this perogue ____ were embarked, our papers, Instruments, books medicine, a great part of our merchandize and in short almost every article indispensibly necessary to further the views, or insure the success of the enterprize in which we are now launched to the distance of 2200 miles……”

As their carefully wrapped gear, plus food and gunpowder began floating away in the current, the heavy boat filled,

“ within an inch of the gunwals.”

Charbonneau’s well documented crisis performance made permanent his historical reputation. That day, he needed special motivation:

“…..Charbono still crying to his god for mercy, had not yet recollected the rudder, nor could the repeated orders of the Bowsman, Cruzat, bring him to his recollection untill he threatend to shoot him instantly if he did not take hold of the rudder and do his duty…..”

Another legend was also born in that turbulence. As the critical crates and packages drifted away, Sacajawea quickly took to the cold water and began to retrieve them. She swam into the current – with her infant son strapped to her back – and busied herself saving all the scientific notes, maps and journals that would later help convince President Jefferson to continue the American expansion westward.

Capt. Lewis says dryly:

“….the articles which floated out was nearly all caught by the Squar who was in the rear….”

That young “Squar” had saved the work results for the entire Corp of Discover undertaking. The incident was later cited in the congressional debate to put Sacajawea on the dollar coin.

Somehow today, it seems fitting to toss one of her coins into Cuenca’s Yanuncay River, and hope for some of Sacajawea’s expat good luck. Is that too much money?  Maybe I should bargain. All right then, I want some of her courage too.

The Corps of Discovery ended in August of 1806.  Sacajawea’s husband, Charbonneau, received $500 and a large plot of good farm land, a very substantial payment at the time. She received nothing. Her modern sisters of today might want to rephrase that into “stiffed by her gringo clients.”

Less a farmer than a boatman, Charbonneau sold his land to Capt. Clark after the family visited him in St. Louis in 1811. Little historical evidence exists after Sacajawea’s trip east, although she did return to the Dakotas. It is known that she left her son, Jean Baptiste in the care of Capt. Clark. In what must have been a very difficult decision, she chose for Jean Baptiste a future with a modern education amid contemporary culture, at the expense of losing him forever.

Two historical accounts compete to tell the story of Sacajawea’s later life and death. The most comforting has her living into old age as a venerated member of her Shoshone tribe. Most serious students of her life agree she died of a “putrid fever” in South Dakota only six years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It’s thought she suffered complications from a second birth, a daughter Lizette, who did not survive childhood.

After the death of his wife, Toussaint Charbonneau worked as an interpreter until late in life, living with Native American tribes whenever he could. Undoubtedly, his tribal language skills were largely learned from Sacajawea. Contemporary historians are more understanding of his incompetence during the famous expedition.

Even Capt. Clark was later sympathetic writing:

“……he provd an excelnt cooke…..”

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau lived a fascinating later life, even though on the dollar coin, he will forever be an infant on his mother’s back. He completed a long education, spoke four languages, lived in Europe for years and later returned home to his roots. He was eventually a well know figure in the further exploration of the American west. He died in Danner, Oregon in 1866 of pneumonia while prospecting for gold.

After the support and protection provided by Sacajawea early in “Pompy’s” life, he was given up by his stoic, devoted mother, for the opportunity to travel abroad and study, benefiting his future with an education and an improved standard of living.  He later returned home and became a successful man. When possible, local contemporary sisters of the coin often make the same sacrifice. From an expat’s historical perspective, Jean Baptiste was not unlike the many modern sons of today’s Ecuador.

In many contemporary cultures women face problems like domestic violence, restrictive patrimonial traditions, early pregnancy, economic struggles, social and language issues.  Ecuador is no different. Some say hardships in life build character. If so, that must be why Sacajawea’s portrait shows such a confident, intense and knowing dignity. History also proves her intelligence, physical strength and kindness towards strangers – more similarities to local Cuenca culture.

Isn’t it possible that Sacajawea’s coin is so popular here because, on it, women see themselves?  Maybe sisterhood can truly bridge time and is born from a common effort to thrive in the face of similar adversities. For thoughtful expats, Sacajawea’s cheerful determination is easy to see on the faces of indigenous women in the markets, tiendas and streets of Cuenca.

Sacajawea has found a new home with her modern sisters of the coin.


All photos by Dee Fugit.

Scott Fugit retired recently to study leisure, travel writing and Ecuador. His goal is to bring real experiences and entertainment to articles relevant to expat life. He and his photographer wife Dee are Cuenca expat wanna-bes. Contact him at


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