Sacagawea’s story is a compelling one, even if half-shrouded in myth and legend. The young Native woman braved all the dangers and hardships equally with the men.
Sacagawea was a Native American Indian woman who was born about 1788 in present-day Idaho. There is little real information about her—just a few references from the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and one or two other sources. Many of the gaps in her story have been filled in with legend. Nevertheless, the few glimpses reveal a woman of determination. Life must have been hard for her, as it was for many native American women. But Sacagawea faced life’s challenges with courage, never allowing herself to succumb to despair.
Sacagawea a Captive Among the Hidatsa
When Sacagawea was about twelve years old she and several other Shoshoni girls were taken captive by the Hidatsa. It must have been traumatic for the youngster, since the kidnapping involved a battle that resulted in the deaths of several Shoshoni men, women, and boys.
Sacagawea remained a captive until around 13, when she was married to a French-Canadian trapper by the name of Toussaint Charbonneau. She had little say in the matter; one version said he won her in by gambling. Nevertheless, she seems to have been a faithful wife, bearing his children and performing all the tasks a Native wife was expected to do. It seems that Charbonneau had another Shoshoni wife as well.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition
The Lewis and Clark Expedition, more formally the Corps of Discovery, arrived in the vicinity and built Fort Mandan to spend the winter of 1804-05. The leaders of the quest, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, were looking for trappers that might serve as guides and interpreters when they resumed their journey in the Spring. Charbonneau was hired, in part because, as Lewis wrote, his “2 squars (sic) were Snake Indians.” “Snake” was another name for Shoshoni. Charbonneau would come along as an interpreter, with “one of his wives (Sacagawea) to interpret the Snake language.”
Did Sacagawea “Guide” the Expedition?
Occasional glimpses of Sacagawea’s personality can be seen in expedition writings. On May 14, 1805, one of the boats capsized, but Sacagawea was resourceful enough to rescue some valuable records and journals from being lost. In gratitude, Lewis and Clark named a river after her.
In one of those incredible coincidences of history, when the expedition did meet Shoshoni, they turned out to be members of Sacagawea’s own tribe. Perhaps even more incredibly, her brother Cameahwait was now the chief. Cameahwait, overjoyed to see his long-lost sister, happily supplied Lewis and Clark with the horses they needed to cross the Rocky Mountains. It was a scenario that played out like Hollywood fiction.
Romantic accounts have Sacagawea guiding the Corps of Discovery. She rarely did so, though she did do some interpreting, and recognized a few landmarks in her home country. She gave birth to a boy, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who Clark promptly dubbed “Pomp” or Pompy.” Actually, Sacagawea didn’t have to really do anything—her presence was enough. Native tribes along the way might have suspected that the 40-odd strangers were a war party—except that warriors never took women along on raids. The presence of a woman and baby assured the tribes of Lewis and Clark’s peaceful intentions.
Sacagawea’s Later Years
After the epic journey to the Pacific was done, Clark invited Charbonneau and “Janey”—Clark’s affectionate name for Sacagawea—to live in St Louis. They did so for a time, and Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter, Lizette, around 1810. Clark had developed a real affection for her young son, Jean Baptiste, and offered to educate the youngster at his own expense. Charbonneau and Sacagawea agreed, so the lad was enrolled the St Louis Academy Boarding School. Clark looked after him as if her were his own son.
Sacagawea’s Death—1812 or 1884?
Around 1811 Charbonneau and Sacagawea were living at the Fort Manuel Lisa Trading Post on the Missouri River. On December 20, a clerk at the fort noted that one of Charbonneau’s “squaws” died of “putrid fever.” She is not specifically named, but most historians believe it was Sacagawea. The woman was about 25, and left a “fine girl” child.
But Sacagawea’s legend would not die. To romantics it seemed almost an anticlimax for the young Shoshoni to pass away so prematurely. Local stories, some fostered by native Americans, held that Sacagawea lived to a ripe old age. According to Margaret Coit, writing in The Growing Years, Sacagawea died on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming in 1884. Most historians, however, believe she died in 1812.
- Margaret Coit, The Growing Years, 1789-1829; Volume 3 of The Life History of the United States (Time-Life, 1973)
- Stephen E. Ambrose, Undoubted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West)