Sacagawea played a crucial role during the Lewis and Clark expedition as a guide, forager, and translator, but she was never compensated for her services.
While traversing the Columbia River in 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered members of the Umatilla tribe in present-day Washington. Though William Clark attempted to show that they came in peace, the Indigenous people were wary — until they saw Sacagawea.
“The sight of This Indian woman,” Clark later wrote in his journal, “confirmed those people of our friendly intentions, as no woman ever accompanies a war party of Indians in the quarter.”
This was just one key role that Sacagawea played during the Lewis and Clark expedition. A teenager at the time — who was also caring for her newborn son — Sacagawea had an important part during the quest as a translator, guide, and forager. She also served the expedition by staying calm under pressure, even when other members panicked in the face of danger.
However, Sacagawea was never compensated for her services like the men in the group were. And despite her role in the famous exploration of the American West, details about her life remain difficult to pin down.
The Kidnapped Girl Sold To A Fur Trader
Sacagawea was born around 1788 in present-day Idaho as a member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe. Not much is known about her childhood except that it came to a sudden end when Sacagawea was around the age of 12. Then, members of the Hidatsa tribe, enemies of the Shoshone who possessed guns, kidnapped Sacagawea during a buffalo hunt.
At that point, historians believe that Sacagawea’s name may have been slightly changed. She is known today as Sacagawea, with a hard g sound. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, this means “Bird Woman,” but it comes from the Hidatsa language. In her native Shoshone, Sacajawea means “Boat Launcher.”
The Hidatsa brought Sacagawea to their village in North Dakota. A few years later, a French-Canadian trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, who lived among the Hidatsa, took young Sacagawea as his wife.
Around the same time as their marriage, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling the size of the United States. Jefferson then tasked his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to survey the land, create maps, collect natural specimens, and meet the Indigenous people who lived across the 828,000 square miles of uncharted territory.
“[I]t will now be proper you should inform those through whose country you will pass,” President Jefferson instructed Lewis, “that henceforth we become their fathers and friends.”
Lewis enlisted the help of his friend William Clark, and the two men began recruiting others for the so-called Corps of Discovery (today known more commonly as the Lewis and Clark expedition).
On Nov. 2, 1804, Lewis and Clark arrived at the Hidatsa settlement where Sacagawea and Charbonneau lived. Though Sacagawea was six months pregnant, they saw how she and her husband could be useful: Charbonneau spoke French and Hidatsa, and Sacagawea spoke Hidatsa and Shoshone.
The explorers built their encampment, Fort Mandan, near the Hidatsa village and decided to spend the winter there before they traveled west. On Feb. 11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste, in what Lewis described in his journal as a “tedious” and “violent” labor.
When someone told Lewis that part of a rattlesnake’s rattle mixed with water might help speed the baby’s delivery, the explorer offered some. “Whether this medicine was truly the cause or not I shall not undertake to determine,” he wrote, “but I was informed that she had not taken it more than ten minutes before she brought forth.”
Two months later, on April 7, 1805, the Corps of Discovery set off. Sacagawea, then around the age of 17, carried her newborn son with her.
Sacagawea On The Lewis And Clark Expedition
It didn’t take long for Sacagawea to prove herself to her fellow explorers. Just two days into their journey, Lewis wrote approvingly of how Sacagawea “busied herself in serching for the wild artichokes… her labor soon proved successful, and she procurrd a good quantity of these roots.”
A month later, she went even further. On May 15, 1805, as the explorers were traversing a river, one of their boats tipped sideways. As it filled with water, Sacagawea’s husband Charbonneau froze. But Sacagawea leaped into action. Her quick thinking saved a number of precious items in the boat, including medicine and gunpowder.
“[B]y 4 oClock in the evening our Instruments, Medicine, merchandize provision &c, were, perfectly dryed, repacked and put on board the [boat],” Lewis wrote. “The loss we sustained was not to great as we had at first apprehended… the Indian woman to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person onboard at the time of the accident, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard.”
Four days later, the grateful expedition even named a “handsome river of about fifty yards in width” after Sacagawea, “or bird woman’s River, after our interpreter the Snake woman.”
Sacagawea also acted as a navigator and translator and, in August 1805, even found herself among a group of Shoshone that happened to include her long-lost brother, Cameahwait. Cameahwait, the chief, greeted his sister warmly. And it was thanks to Sacagawea’s connections with the tribe that the expedition was able to procure additional guides and horses.
“The Great Chief of this nation proved to be the brother of the Woman with us and is a man of Influence,” Lewis wrote. “[T]he meeting of those people was really affecting, particularly between Sah ca-gar-we-ah and an Indian woman, who had been taken prisoner at the same time with her, and who had afterwards escaped from the [Hidatsas] and rejoined her nation.”
As the band of explorers continued west and met other Indigenous people, Sacagawea remained an asset to the group. As Clark noted in his journals, men traveling alone seemed threatening. But a woman and a baby allayed the threat. “[A] woman with a party of men,” he noted, “is a token of peace.”
The expedition reached the Pacific Ocean by November 1805, at which point they took a vote on where to camp. As Clark noted in his journal, Sacagawea was included in the vote, underlining her status in the expedition. While on the coast, Sacagawea also insisted on going along with Clark to see the ocean and a beached whale.
“Shabono and his Indian woman was very impatient to be permitted to go with me, and was therefore indulged,” he wrote. “She observed that She had traveled a long way with us to See the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be Seen, She thought it verry hard that She Could not be permitted to See either (She had never yet been to the Ocian).”
The explorers stayed at their camp through the winter and then headed back east in March 1806.
On the return journey, Sacagawea continued to offer her services. Clark noted in July 1806 that: “The indian woman… has been of great Service to me as a pilot through this Country.” He also grew fond of Sacagawea’s son, whom he called “Pomp,” which means “firstborn” in Shoshone. As they traveled east in July 1806, Clark even named a 200-foot-tall sandstone column they passed “Pompy’s Tower” (now called Pompeys Pillar).
In August 1806, the group returned to its starting point. Though Clark later wrote to Charbonneau and told him that “your woman” deserved a “greater reward for her attention and services on that rout” Sacagawea received no reward at all. Charbonneau was given 320 acres of land and $500.33, according to HISTORY; Sacagawea was not compensated.
The Mysterious Death Of Sacagawea
After returning home, William Clark wrote to Charbonneau with an extraordinary offer. He suggested he take Jean Baptiste in and see that the boy was educated. Sacagawea and Charbonneau agreed to let Clark educate their son, though they insisted on waiting until he was a little older.
In September 1809, the couple traveled to see Clark in St. Louis with Jean Baptiste. After spending over a year there, they parted ways, leaving Pomp with Clark. It was the last time that Clark would ever see Sacagawea.
Indeed, from that moment on, she began to fade from the historical record. In one of the last recorded encounters with her, a lawyer named Henry M. Brackenridge wrote about meeting Sacagawea and her husband on a boat trip to Missouri.
“We have on board a Frenchman named Charbonet, with his wife, an Indian woman of the Snake nation, both of whom accompanied Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, and were of great service,” Brackenridge wrote. “The woman, a good creature, of a mild and gentle disposition, was greatly attached to the whites, whose manners and airs she tries to imitate; but she had become sickly and longed to revisit her native country; her husband also, who had spent many years amongst the Indians, was become weary of civilized life.”
From here, however, Sacagawea’s journey is difficult to trace. She and her husband went to work for Manuel Lisa, a Missouri Fur Company trader. And it seems that Sacagawea died at Lisa’s trading post, Fort Manuel, shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Lisette.
A clerk at the fort wrote on Dec. 20, 1812: “This Evening the Wife of Charbonneau a Snake Squaw, died of a putrid fever… she was a good and best Woman in the fort, aged about 25 years she left a fine infant girl.”
Eventually, both Lisette and Jean Baptiste fell under William Clark’s care. However, though Clark also noted in his records that Sacagawea was deceased, a Sioux physician named Dr. Charles Eastman suggested in the 1920s that Sacagawea had not died in 1812 but lived until 1884.
Eastman speculated that she left Charbonneau, went to live with the Comanche, started another family, rejoined the Shoshone, and died on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation on April 9, 1884. Though there is no hard evidence for this theory, it has survived through Indigenous oral tradition.
Lisette’s life is equally difficult to trace. Not much is known about her, aside from the fact that she died on June 16, 1832, and was buried in St. Louis.
But Jean Baptiste was something of a celebrity during his lifetime. As Encyclopedia Britannica reports, he traveled throughout Europe and rubbed elbows with aristocrats, then returned to the United States to enter in the fur trade. Like his mother, Jean Baptiste worked as a scout for explorers, and he later found work as an alcalde, a hotel clerk, and a gold miner before he died en route to the Montana gold fields in 1866.
The Lasting Legacy Of Sacagawea
In the centuries since Sacagawea’s death (in either 1812 or 1884), she’s come to hold an important place in American history. She was the only woman in the Corps of Discovery and played an essential role in the expedition. Her knowledge of the terrain and Indigenous languages proved invaluable, as did her cool head under pressure.
She’s been memorialized with statues, monuments, stamps, and, significantly, coins. Between 2000 and 2008, the U.S. Mint produced a one-dollar coin that portrayed Sacagawea with Jean Baptiste on her back. The coin’s designer, Glenna Goodacre, used a Shoshone woman as her model for Sacagawea.
But Sacagawea’s story was always told by other people.
Her words and actions, captured by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and others, are not her own. Though her accomplishments are impressive, there will always be something mysterious about Sacagawea’s life, a chapter of her story that history will lack. How did she view her role in the expedition? What did she think as she looked upon the ocean for the first time?
This we’ll never know. We’ll have to try to understand Sacagawea through the curtain of others’ perspectives. But her true story, ultimately, belongs to her.
After reading about the remarkable life of Sacagawea, discover the stories of nine other Native American women who changed history. Or, look through these remarkable photos of Native Americans taken by Edward Curtis.