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.
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 and 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.