The young Native American woman was critical to the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition, yet she remains an enigma to historians.
With the possible exception of Pocahontas, no native woman is better known to Americans than Sacagawea. And yet almost nothing about her is known with certainty. When and where she was born, and died, and was buried, what she looked like, even the spelling of her name – all are uncertain. The only sources of information about her, apart from the oral traditions of her people, are the journals kept by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and some other members of the Corps of Discovery.
The Legend of Sacagawea
For nearly a century after the expedition’s return in 1806, Sacagawea was remembered little, if at all. What brought her to the country’s attention in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the growing movement for women’s suffrage. Susan B. Anthony and other leaders in that movement saw Sacagawea as the indispensable member of the expedition, whose skills as translator and guide were responsible for the expedition’s success; she became an icon for the strong woman, the woman who has earned and deserves the right to vote. Not coincidentally, Sacagawea became the second woman, after Susan B. Anthony herself, to be commemorated on a U.S. coin.
The Life of Sacagawea
Sacagawea (or Sacajawea or Skakawea) was born probably in the late 1780s in what is now Idaho. Her people were the Lemhi Shoshone; but around the age of ten or so, she was seized by a raiding party and spent the next few years living among her captors, the Hidatsa people. It was here that she encountered the French-Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, and shortly thereafter became his wife – some say he won her at a game of chance, others that he bought her, still others that he married her according to proper Hidatsa custom. In any case, in the autumn of 1804, when the Corps of Discovery reached the Hidatsa and Mandan territory on the upper Missouri River, Captains Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau as a guide and translator for the next stage of their journey – and Sacagawea, then about fifteen and pregnant, would become the only woman on the expedition. Shortly before their departure the following spring, Sacagawea gave birth to a son, whom she named Jean-Baptiste. In his first eighteen months, Jean-Baptiste would complete a journey of 5,000 miles to the Pacific Ocean and back.
The Achievements of Sacagawea
The journals of the expedition reveal almost nothing about Sacagawea herself. She is often not even named, but referred to simply as “Charbonneau’s wife,” or “the squaw.” This is not surprising; the purpose of the expedition was, after all, discovery and exploration. So the journals are devoted almost entirely to careful descriptions of the landscape, the flora and fauna, and the native peoples which the travelers encountered. Nevertheless, Sacagawea’s many contributions to the safety and success of the expedition are unmistakable.
- She knew much of the country through which they passed and was able to suggest the best routes for the captains.
- She served, at least as usefully as her husband, at communicating with other tribes, often translating Shoshone into Hidatsa for Charbonneau, who then translated the Hidatsa into French for another member of the Corps, who translated the French into English for the captains.
- She supplemented the mostly meat diet of the travelers with a great variety of herbs and plants, almost surely protecting them from scurvy and other forms of malnutrition.
- She rescued many of the expedition’s priceless notes and pieces of equipment from the water when rapids nearly overturned the boat she was in.
- She assured the safety of the travelers on many occasions by her mere presence among them; potentially hostile natives knew that no war party would be accompanied by a woman.
When Sacagawea, her husband, and their son left the expedition in August of 1806, Captain Clark paid Charbonneau for his services, but noted that “your woman … deserved a greater reward for her attention and service on that route than we had in our power to give her….”
The later years of Sacagawea’s life are as little known as the early ones. Most historians believe that she went with Charbonneau up the Missouri River to present-day South Dakota, where she died in childbirth in 1812. Other sources say that she was killed in a skirmish with natives in Montana in 1869. Shoshone oral tradition records that she left Charbonneau, married a Comanche who was later killed in battle, and finally settled on a Shoshone reservation in Wyoming, where she died in 1884. Which, if any, of these stories is true, may never be known. What is beyond doubt is that this young Native American woman, in the year and a half that she accompanied the Corps of Discovery, had a significant and lasting impact on the course of American history.
- McCall, Laura. “Sacagawea: A Historical Enigma.” In Calhoun, Charles W., ed. The Human Tradition in America from the Colonial Era through Reconstruction. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2002, pp. 163–178.
- Talbot, Margaret. “Searching for Sacagawea.” National Geographic Magazine. February 2003