Sacagawea was a Shoshone interpreter best known for being the only woman on the Lewis and Clark expedition into the American West.
Sacagawea, the daughter of a Shoshone chief, was born circa 1788 in Lemhi County, Idaho. At around age 12, she was captured by an enemy tribe and sold to a French-Canadian trapper who made her his wife. In November 1804, she was invited to join the Lewis and Clark expedition as a Shoshone interpreter. After leaving the expedition, she died at Fort Manuel in what is now Kenel, South Dakota, circa 1812.
Born circa 1788 (some sources say 1786 and 1787) in Lemhi County, Idaho, the daughter of a Shoshone chief, Sacagawea was a Shoshone interpreter best known for serving as a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition into the American West—and for being the only woman on the famous excursion. Much of Sacagawea's life is a mystery. Around the age of 12, Sacagawea was captured by Hidatsa Indians, an enemy of the Shoshones. She was then sold to a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau who made her one of his wives.
Sacagawea and her husband lived among the Hidatsa and Mandan Indians in the upper Missouri River area (present-day North Dakota). In November 1804, an expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark entered the area. Often called the Corps of Discovery, the expedition planned to explore newly acquired western lands and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. The group built Fort Mandan, and elected to stay there for the winter. Lewis and Clark met Charbonneau and quickly hired him to serve as interpreter on their expedition. Even though she was pregnant with her first child, Sacagawea was chosen to accompany them on their mission. Lewis and Clark believed that her knowledge of the Shoshone language would help them later in their journey.
In February 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to a son named Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Despite traveling with a newborn child during the trek, Sacagawea proved to be helpful in many ways. She was skilled at finding edible plants. When a boat she was riding on capsized, she was able to save some of its cargo, including important documents and supplies. She also served as a symbol of peace - a group traveling with a woman and a child were treated with less suspicion than a group of men alone.
Sacagawea also made a miraculous discovery of her own during the trip west. When the corps encountered a group of Shoshone Indians, she soon realized that its leader was actually her brother Cameahwait. It was through her that the expedition was able to buy horses from the Shoshone to cross the Rocky Mountains. Despite this joyous family reunion, Sacagawea remained with the explorers for the trip west.
After reaching the Pacific coast in November 1805, Sacagawea was allowed to cast her vote along with the other members of the expedition for where they would build a fort to stay for the winter. They built Fort Clatsop near present-day Astoria, Oregon, and they remained there until March of the following year. Sacagawea, her husband, and her son remained with the expedition on the return trip east until they reached the Mandan villages. During the journey, Clark had become fond of her son Jean Baptiste, nicknaming him "Pomp" or "Pompey." And he even offered to help him get an education.
Once Sacagawea left the expedition, the details of her life become more elusive. In 1809, it is believed that she and her husband—or just her husband according to some accounts—traveled with their son to St. Louis to see Clark. Pomp was left in Clark's care. Sacagawea gave birth to her second child, a daughter named Lisette, three years later. Only a few months after her daughter's arrival, she reportedly died at Fort Manuel in what is now Kenel, South Dakota, around 1812. (There were stories that it was another wife of Charbonneau who died at Fort Manuel, but historians don't give much credence to this.) After Sacagawea's death, Clark looked after her two children, and ultimately took custody of them both.
Over the years, tributes to Sacagawea and her contribution to the Corps of Discovery have come in many forms, such as statues, place-names, and she was even featured on a dollar coin issued in 2000 by the U.S. Mint.
The bilingual Shoshone woman Sacagawea (c. 1788 – 1812) accompanied the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition in 1805-06 from the northern plains through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and back. Her skills as a translator were invaluable, as was her intimate knowledge of some difficult terrain. Perhaps most significant was her calming presence on both the expeditioners and the Native Americans they encountered, who might have otherwise been hostile to the strangers. Remarkably, Sacagawea did it all while caring for the son she bore just two months before departing.
Sacagawea’s Early Life
Possibly the most memorialized woman in the United States with statues and monuments, Sacagawea lived a short but legendarily eventful life in the American West. Born in 1788 or 1789, a member of the Lemhi band of the Native American Shoshone tribe, Sacagawea grew up surrounded by the Rocky Mountains in the Salmon River region of what is now Idaho.
Did You Know?
Sacagawea was a highly skilled food gatherer. She used sharp sticks to dig up wild licorice, prairie turnips (tubers the explorers called “white apples”) and wild artichokes that mice had buried for the winter.
The Shoshone were enemies of the gun-possessing Hidatsa tribe, who kidnapped Sacagawea during a buffalo hunt in 1800. The name we know her by is in fact Hidatsa, from the Hidatsa words for bird (“sacaga”) and woman (“wea”). (Today, however, many Shoshone, among others, argue that in their language “Sacajawea” means boat-pusher and is her true name. And in North Dakota the official spelling is “Sakakawea.”) Her captors brought her to the Hidatsa-Mandan settlement near what is now Bismarck, North Dakota; the Mandan is an affiliated tribe.
In 1803 or 1804, through a trade, gambling payoff or purchase, Sacagawea became the property of French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau, born no later than 1767 and well over two decades her senior. Charbonneau had lived among Native Americans for so long he had adopted some of their traditions, including polygamy. Sacagawea became one of his two wives and was soon pregnant.
Sacagawea Meets Lewis & Clark
Meanwhile, President Thomas Jefferson had made the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803—828,000 square miles of almost completely unexplored territory. Within this vast wilderness he hoped would lie the rumored Northwest Passage (a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans). But Jefferson wanted more from the explorers who would search for the passage: He charged them with surveying the natural landscape, learning about the varied Native American tribes and making maps. He turned to his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to head the Corps of Discovery. Lewis, 29, chose his friend and former military superior, 33-year-old William Clark, as his co-captain.
After more than a year of planning and initial travel, Lewis and Clark and their men reached the Hidatsa-Mandan settlement—about 60 miles northwest of present-day Bismarck, South Dakota–on November 2, 1804, when Sacagawea was about six months pregnant. They recognized the potential value of Sacagawea and Charbonneau’s combined language skills. Most of the Corps members spoke only English, but one, Francois Labiche, spoke French as well. Charbonneau spoke French and Hidatsa; Sacagawea spoke Hidatsa and Shoshone (two very different languages). Through this translation chain, communications with the Shoshone would be possible, and Lewis and Clark recognized that as crucial: the Shoshone had horses they would need to purchase. Without horses, they wouldn’t be able to transport their supplies over the Bitterroot Mountains (a section of the Rockies) and continue toward the Pacific. And they couldn’t procure horses earlier, because they’d be traveling by water until they reached the Rockies’ edge.
Sacagawea delivered her son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau (known as Baptiste) on February 11, 1805. On April 7, Sacagawea, the baby and Charbonneau headed west with the 31 other Corps members.
Sacagawea and the Corps of Discovery
Within a month, a near-tragedy earned Sacagawea particular respect. The boat in which she was sailing nearly capsized when a squall hit and Charbonneau, the navigator, panicked. Sacagawea had the presence of mind to gather crucial papers, books, navigational instruments, medicines and other provisions that might have otherwise disappeared—all while simultaneously ensuring her baby’s safety. In appreciation, Lewis and Clark named a branch of the Missouri for Sacagawea several days later. Clark, in particular, developed a close bond with Sacagawea as she and Baptiste would often accompany him as he took his turn walking the shore, checking for obstacles in the river that could damage the boats.
Five days after the first members of the Corps crossed the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass, Sacagawea did, as planned, translate the captains’ desire to purchase horses to the Shoshone they encountered. Sacagawea was surprised and happy to recognize the Shoshone’s leader, Chief Cameahwait, as her brother, and they had an emotional reunion.
Sacagawea also put her naturalist’s knowledge to use for the Corps. She could identify roots, plants and berries that were either edible or medicinal. Sacagawea’s memories of Shoshone trails led to Clark’s characterization of her as his “pilot.” She helped navigate the Corps through a mountain pass—today’s Bozeman Pass in Montana—to the Yellowstone River. And although it couldn’t be quantified, the presence of a woman—a Native American, to boot—and baby made the whole corps seem less fearsome and more amiable to the Native Americans the Corps encountered, some of whom had never seen white faces before. This eased tensions that might otherwise have resulted in uncooperativeness at best, violence at worst.
After reaching the Pacific, Sacagawea returned with the rest of the Corps and her husband and son—having survived illness, flash floods, temperature extremes, food shortages, mosquito swarms and so much more—to their starting point, the Hidatsa-Mandan settlement, on August 14, 1806. For his service Charbonneau received 320 acres of land and $500.33; Sacagawea received no compensation.
Sacagawea’s Final Years and Legacy
Three years later, in fall 1809, Sacagawea, Charbonneau and Baptiste ventured to St. Louis, where Charbonneau was taking the kind-hearted Clark up on an offer: Clark would provide the Charbonneau family with land to farm if the parents would agree to let Clark educate Baptiste. The farming didn’t work out, however, and Sacagawea and Charbonneau left Baptiste in St. Louis with Clark—now his godfather—in April 1811 so that they could join a fur-trading expedition.
In August 1812, after giving birth to a daughter, Lisette (or Lizette), Sacagawea’s health declined. By December, she was extremely ill with “putrid fever” (possibly typhoid fever).
She died at 25, on December 22, 1812, in lonely, cold Fort Manuel on a bluff 70 miles south of present-day Bismarck. Within a year, Clark became legal guardian to both Lisette and Baptiste. While little is known of Lisette’s life, Baptiste traveled in Europe and held a variety of jobs in the American West before he died in 1866. Charbonneau died in 1843.
Sacagawea’s fictionalized image as a “genuine Indian princess” was promulgated most widely in the early 20th century by a popular 1902 novel by Eva Emery Dye that took liberties in recounting the travails of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A suffragist, Dye was not satisfied to present the facts then known about Sacagawea; she wanted to make her a compelling model of female bravery and intelligence, and didn’t mind rewriting history to do so. “Out of a few dry bones I found in the old tales of the trip, I created Sacajawea…” Dye wrote in her journal. Today, some scholars contend that the romanticized versions of the Sacagawea “legend” popularized before and after the publication of Dye’s novel do the real woman a disservice, as her true legacy of accomplishments speaks for itself.