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Sacagawea: Facts You Didn't Know

People | November 25, 2019

Sacajawea guiding the Lewis and Clark expedition from Mandan through the Rocky Mountains. Painting by Alfred Russell. Source: (Getty Images)

Sacagawea, the Native American woman who helped Lewis and Clark on their expedition through the Northwest, is a larger-than-life figure in American history. Unfortunately, much of the information about her life has been lost to time, but what we do know tells us that Sacagawea was an important and impressive woman. Let’s look at the extraordinary life of Sacagawea.

Sacagawea was a member of the Shoshone tribe. Source: (pinedaleonline.com)

A Changing World

Sometime around the late 1780s, Sacagawea was born to a Shoshone chief and his wife. The Shoshone people lived in what is now Idaho, Utah, and Nevada, with Sacagawea's tribe living in Lehmi County, Idaho, along the banks of the Salmon River. In 1800, when she was just a young teenager, Sacagawea was captured by members of the Hidatsa Indian tribe, sworn enemies of the Shoshone. The Hidatsa people traded with European trappers and settlers in the region, which is how they got their hands on the guns they used to exert dominance over the Shoshone. It's unclear how long the Hidatsa people kept Sacagawea before they sold her, but it was long enough for her to become fluent in the Hidatsa language, a skill that would later serve her well. 

Native American women of Montana. Source: (montanawomenhistory.org)

The Meaning of Her Name

Both her native Shoshone people and the Hidatsa people have claimed to have given Sacagawea her name. In the Shoshone language, "Sacajawea" or "Sakakawea" translates to "boat pusher." In the Hidatsa tongue, "sacaga" means "bird" and "wea" means "woman," so she was called "bird woman."

French fur trappers build relationships with the Native Americans. Source: (wsj.com)

Sold to a French Trapper

Sometime after her capture by the Hidatsa people, probably in 1803 or 1804, Sacagawea was sold to a French-Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. Though these were not exactly the most auspicious beginnings for a marriage, Charbonneau made Sacagawea his second wife, having adopted the Hidatsa custom of polygamy.

Sacagawea's knowledge of native languages made her an asset. Source: (pbslearningmedia.org)

A Valuable Communication Chain

Through his extensive interactions with the Hidatsa people, Charbonneau became fluent in their language in addition to his native French. Since Sacagawea spoke Hidatsa and Shoshone, the two of them together facilitated communication between French-speaking Europeans and the two Native American tribes. This unusual ability, combined with being in the right place at the right time, earned them a valuable position in Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's expedition.

Lewis and Clark explored the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase. Source: (cdapres.com)

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Officially known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, the journey of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson shortly after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Lewis and Clark and their men were tasked with exploring the northwest, finding a route to the Pacific Ocean, documenting the natural resources of the land, and establishing a rapport with the Native Americans living in the region. To accomplish the last item on this list, however, they needed to overcome a significant language barrier. To that end, they commissioned the services of Francois Labiche and Pierre Cruzatte, both of whom had been born to French fathers and Native American mothers and fluently spoke English, French, and Omaha. 

Sacagawea was a valuable part of the team. Source: (fordhaminstitute.org)

Meeting Sacagawea

Lewis and Clark began their expedition in Missouri in May 1804, following the Missouri River through Nebraska and South Dakota. By November of that year, they had made their way to what is now North Dakota. The weather was turning bad, so the men prepared to wait it out in the area where Sacagawea and her husband happened to live, and upon meeting the couple, they realized that they could prove a valuable addition to the expedition. Lewis or Clark could speak to either Labiche or Cruzatte in English, who could then speak French to Charbonneau, who could then speak Hidatsa to Sacagawea, who could then speak to the local tribes. It was a complicated arrangement, but it's not like they could just post an ad on Craigslist for an English-to-Shoshone translator.

Sacagawea traveled with her newborn son. Source: (biography.com)

Sacagawea was a Working Mother

Trekking from North Dakota to the Pacific Coast on foot is a demanding task for anyone, but it was especially challenging for Sacagawea. She was pregnant when she met Lewis and Clark and gave birth to her first child in February 1805, just before the expedition got back on the road, but Sacagawea didn’t let the demands of motherhood slow her down. She proved herself a valuable member of the expedition, teaching the men how to forage for food in the wilderness and guiding them through the rough terrain, all with her newborn son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, strapped on her back.

Lewis and Clark encountered several groups of Native Americans on their journey. Source: (lewis-clark.org)

A Homecoming for Sacagawea

On their way through the Rocky Mountains, the Lewis and Clark Expedition came upon a group of Shoshone Indians. Sacagawea was, of course, called on to communicate with them, at which point she discovered that the leader of the Shoshone band was none other than her brother, Cameahwait. She had not seen him since her abduction by the Hidatsa those many years before. After some family bonding, Sacagawea had no trouble negotiating the purchase of the horses that helped Lewis and Clark and their men cross the Rockies. Faced with the choice of returning to her Shoshone family, Sacagawea instead bid her brother a bittersweet goodbye, opting to stay the course with the expedition.

Sacagawea was treated like an equal member of the expedition. Source: (sacagawea-biography.org)

Voting Privileges

In November 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the Pacific Ocean. The members of the group, including Sacagawea, all voted to determine where to build a fort, deciding on an area near present-day Astoria, Oregon. The group spent the winter at Fort Clatsop, as they called it, and began the return trip the following spring. Sacagawea, her husband, and their son followed the expedition home.

William Clark grew affectionate of Sacagawea's child. Source: (worldatlas.com)

William Clark was Fond of Sacagawea's Son

During the expedition, William Clark grew fond of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, granting him the nickname "Pomp" and promising Sacagawea that he would take care of the boy's education. He even served as a babysitter for the Charbonneaus when they traveled to St. Louis. When Sacagawea died following the birth of her daughter, Lisette, in 1812, Clark took custody of the girl, eventually adopted both of Sacagawea's children. 

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Source: (twitter.com)

Pomp Led an Exciting Life

True to his word, William Clark paid for Pomp's tuition at the exclusive St. Louis Academy. When he was just 18 years old, little Pomp met Duke Friedrich Paul Wilhelm, who invited him to join Wilhelm in Europe. Pomp enjoyed a lavish, aristocratic life in Germany, where he added German and Spanish to the list of languages (French, English, Shoshone, and Hidatsa) in which he was already fluent. When he returned to Missouri, he worked as a trapper, hobnobbing with notable frontiersmen and visiting aristocrats alike.

The gold-colored Sacagawea coin. Source: (USAcoinbook.com)

A Tribute to Sacagawea

To commemorate the remarkable contributions of Sacagawea, the U.S. Mint issued a brassy, one-dollar coin featuring her likeness for a limited time in 2000, replacing the similar Susan B. Anthony coin. Neither one-dollar coin proved to be very popular in the United States, and only a few of the Sacagawea coins can be found in circulation in the United States today. They have, however, proven to be extremely popular in Ecuador, which uses American currency but views paper dollars with suspicion on account of how easily they can be counterfeited. As always, Sacagawea lives on in uneasy interculturalism.

Tags: 1700s | 1800s | lewis and clark | native americans

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.