In 1804 a party of men led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on an epic exploratory expedition of the American West. They were accompanied by one woman, a Shoshone called Sacagawea, who carried with her an infant son. She was to play a key role in the grueling journey across the unexplored wilds, but she was far more than a tour guide. Dive deeper into Sacagawea's history, and you'll learn incredible details about her life that aren't in the history books...
Much of Sacagawea’s early life is wrapped up in myth and mystery. All historians know for sure is that she was born into the Lemhi Shoshone tribe around 1788.
They lived in Idaho’s Lemhi County surrounded by the towering peaks of the Rockies. Some historians insist that Sacagawea was the daughter of a Shoshone chief, but the romantic idea that she was a "princess" is probably fictional. That doesn't mean Sacagawea's life wasn't eventful, however — on the contrary.
For the purposes of this piece, we’ve decided to go with “Sacagawea” as the spelling of the legendary woman’s name. But it’s far from the only way people have spelled her name throughout history.
Lewis and Clark themselves, who gave us most of what we know about Sacagawea, spelled her name differently at various times. Variations of the spelling include “Sacajawea” and “Sakakawea.” It’s customary in North Dakota to use the latter.
Of all the unknowns surrounding Sacagawea's life, historians know for sure that she experienced a traumatic event when she was still a child, around 12 years old. The underlying cause of young Sacagawea’s ordeal was the bitterness that existed between two Native American peoples: her tribe, the Lemhi Shoshone, and the neighboring tribe, the Hidatsa.
It seems the Hidatsa were able to dominate their rivals because of the firearms they’d obtained from white traders.
It was fall, probably in the year 1800, when a party of Shoshone hunted buffalo along the Salmon River in what is now Idaho. Sacagawea was with them.
That's when some Hidatsa attacked the Shoshone, and Sacagawea was seized. How long her captivity lasted is unclear, but it must've been for a while, as she managed to master the Hidatsa language. But she couldn't have known then how her knack for languages would change her life.
Sacagawea’s time with the Hidatsa came to an abrupt end probably in 1803 or 1804 (perhaps earlier) and in a rather brutal way. Her captors sold her — or lost her after a round of gambling — to one Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trapper.
He immediately took ownership of the teenage Sacagawea. Charbonneau’s true age is murky, but he would have been in his 30s or 40s. And with that, Sacagawea was transferred from one captor to another.
Charbonneau is said to have lived among the Hidatsa before he bought Sacagawea, and he’d adopted one of their customs: polygamy. He already had a young wife called Otter Woman when he decided that he would take Sacagawea — who was between 13 and 15 years old at the time — as his second spouse.
The three settled in a Hidatsa village called Metaharta. We can only speculate as to how "happy" this domestic arrangement was.
Not long after Sacagawea became Charbonneau’s wife, she met Lewis and Clark for the first time. The two men were preparing to explore the vast tracts of new land the U.S.
had acquired after the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis, Clark, and the other members of their team spent the winter of 1804 to 1805 in Fort Mandan, which is where they first encountered the legendary Shoshone.
Fort Mandan was in North Dakota, where members of the Hidatsa lived. It was there that Lewis and Clark came into contact with Charbonneau and Sacagawea.
In the early winter of 1804 the first documented evidence of Sacagawea’s life appeared. In his journal for November 4th, Clark wrote that Charbonneau was to accompany the expedition and would bring along one of his wives. That can only have been Sacagawea.
Charbonneau approached Lewis and Clark and offered his services as an interpreter since he spoke the Hidatsa language. It seems that on first sight the two explorers were less than impressed by the French-Canadian trapper.
But their ears pricked up when Charbonneau mentioned that he had a Shoshone wife. Someone who could speak Shoshone and understand their ways would be absolutely invaluable to the explorers as they travelled across the unmapped American territories.
Interpreting for this Corps of Discovery expedition would be possible but far from straightforward. Two of the party, Pierre Cruzatte and Francois Labiche, had Native American mothers and French fathers.
Lewis and Clark could speak to them in English and they would translate the words into French for Charbonneau. He in turn would translate to Hidatsa for Sacagawea, who could pass on questions to Shoshone people in their language. Then the whole process would be reversed...phew!
The expedition group, including Sacagawea and Charbonneau, set off from North Dakota up the Missouri River towards the Pacific coast on April 7th, 1805. This journey across uncharted terrain would be anything but a walk in the park.
Yet Sacagawea had given birth to her son, Jean Baptiste, just eight weeks earlier. She simply strapped him to her back and joined the arduous trek.
Despite having a tiny infant to look after, Sacagawea proved her value to the expedition from the beginning. She had a deep knowledge of the natural environment that the group was traveling through.
She could identify various roots, fruits, and plants that were safe to eat so that the party’s supplies could be eked out by foraging along the trail.
As we’ve seen, Sacagawea started out on the epic journey led by Clark and Lewis with a two-month-old infant in tow. The fact that her son, Jean Baptiste, was a healthy infant actually owed much to the care she’d had during the delivery of the only baby that would appear during the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The man who provided care for Sacagawea would act as doctor throughout their journey — and he was also the leader of their trek.
It was Meriwether Lewis who stood in as a de facto midwife when Sacagawea gave birth. Lewis himself later wrote in his journal that “her labor was intense and the pain violent.” To lessen the pain of childbirth, Lewis — perhaps spurred on by another member of the party — turned to a natural remedy: a rattlesnake’s rattle.
He crushed one, mixed it with water, and gave Sacagawea the potion to drink. Lewis recalled, “She had not taken [the mixture] more than ten minutes before she brought forth.”
A little over a month after the expedition had set out, an unfortunate mishap almost ended in disaster. As the party paddled up a river in pirogues, a type of canoe, Charbonneau was acting as pilot in the one that also carried Sacagawea and Jean Baptiste.
In his journal, Lewis wrote that Charbonneau was “perhaps the most timid waterman in the world.” What happened next proved those words to be entirely fair.
A gust of wind almost capsized Charbonneau’s pirogue, tipping much of its cargo into the river. Charbonneau seemed to be paralyzed by fear, and it was left to Sacagawea to master the situation.
She retrieved various irreplaceable items from the river, including medicines, instruments, and travel journals. In recognition of Sacagawea’s quick reactions, Lewis and Clark named a river that flows into a Missouri tributary after her.
One of the more improbable incidents during the expedition was when, purely by chance, Sacagawea met someone she knew rather well but hadn’t seen for many years. This happened as the Lewis and Clark party wound their tortuous route through the terrain of the majestic Rocky Mountains.
As they did so, they happened upon a band of Shoshone people.
Sacagawea was asked to converse with these Shoshone; after all, their language was her mother tongue. Soon it emerged that she knew the leader of the group, a chief called Cameahwait.
In a wild turn of events, it turned out that the chief was her brother, whom she hadn’t seen since her abduction by the Hidatsa all those years ago. Cameahwait was happy to provide the expedition with some horses and a guide for their crossing of the formidable Rockies.
As the Corps of Discovery expedition trekked thousands of miles across America, the party of some 45 was all male — apart from Sacagawea, of course. Not only was she the only woman in the group, but Jean Baptiste was the only child.
As it turned out, having a Shoshone woman as part of the team was a distinct advantage for Lewis and Clark for at least one reason.
The fact was that having Sacagawea and her child along made all the difference when it came to relating to the various Native Americans they met on the journey. After all, would a group of men intent on harming those they met have a Shoshone woman and her infant with them? That must have seemed unlikely to those they encountered on the trail. .
Formally, at least, Lewis and Clark did not employ either Sacagawea or Charbonneau as guides. They were taken on because of the mix of language skills they could offer.
Even so, over the years there has been a persistent misunderstanding that Sacagawea was employed as a guide. While that’s not true, there was at least one occasion when she was able to put the expedition on the right route.
That happened when the group was making its way back eastwards from the Pacific Northwest. Sacagawea recognized some landmarks and advised that the best route to take was thorough the Bozeman Pass, south of the Yellowstone River.
In July 1806, an appreciative Clark wrote in his journal, “The Indian woman…has been of great service to me as a pilot through this country.”
As we’ve seen, Sacagawea more than justified her place on the Lewis and Clark expedition in several ways despite having a young child to look after. Yet she wasn’t paid a solitary cent for all her efforts as she trekked across America for some 16 months.
Charbonneau, on the other hand, received payment of $533.33, a somewhat eccentric amount but a truly handsome sum for the time.
And that wasn’t the end of Charbonneau’s reward for his work as an interpreter. He was also handed a 320-acre parcel of land.
And don’t forget that his interpreting abilities were greatly enhanced by Sacagawea’s language skills. It seems that Clark himself regretted this shabby treatment of the young Shoshone woman. But he did find another way to thank Sacagawea: he paid for her son’s education.
Sacagawea might justifiably have felt some resentment towards Lewis and Clark because she wasn’t paid while Charbonneau was well rewarded. But at least she was treated as an equal in other ways, and her contributions were undoubtedly appreciated.
For example, she was a key figure when it came to negotiating trade and barter deals with Native Americans along the trail.
When the group reached the Pacific in November 1805, a vote was held to decide where to build a winter camp — and Sacagawea had an equal say. Lewis and Clark were also happy to listen to Sacagawea’s advice when she clearly had superior knowledge of the area they were exploring.
Remember how she guided the group through the Bozeman Pass? This was just one example in which her experience potentially saved their lives.
When the expedition ended in 1806, Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and Jean Baptiste resettled in the Hidatsa territory where they’d lived before their great adventure. They spent the next three years there before Charbonneau decided to take advantage of the 320 acres of land he’d earned for his part in the expedition — and he took Sacagawea and little Jean Baptiste with him.
With that, the group moved to St. Louis, Missouri to begin a farming life.
Unfortunately, this new venture wasn’t a success for the family. Charbonneau was used to the wild life of a fur trapper, so settled farming life wasn't to his taste. Anxious to leave the confines of farming behind, Charbonneau decided to join a fur-trapping team in 1811. He and Sacagawea left their farm for good, and Jean Baptiste was left behind in the care of William Clark.
During the expedition, William Clark had formed an affectionate bond with Sacagawea’s child Jean Baptiste. He even gave the young boy a nickname, “Pomp.” Because of his bond with the boy and with Sacagawea herself, some people believe that she and Clark were secretly lovers.
But contrary to what the movies will tell you, there's very little evidence that Clark and Sacagawea had a romantic relationship.
Still, Clark took a special interest in Jean Baptiste’s education and upbringing. The Oregon Encyclopedia quotes a letter from Clark to the boy’s parents: “As to your little son (my boy Pomp) you well know my fondness for him and my anxiety to take and raise him as my own child.” And Jean Baptiste wasn't the only child Clark hoped to raise.
Not long before Sacagawea's mysterious death in 1812, she gave birth to a second child, a girl called Lisette.
Clark adopted both Jean Baptiste and Lisette. And as he’d promised, Clark saw to Jean Baptiste’s education by paying for him to study at the St.
Louis Academy. The young man’s life took an interesting turn at the age of 18 when he met the aristocratic Duke Friedrich Paul Wilhelm of Württemberg. Accompanied by Jean Baptiste’s father, the two went exploring around the upper reaches of the Missouri. Subsequently, the Duke invited Jean Baptiste to join him in Europe.
The young man apparently enjoyed a luxurious time in European high society. He also took the opportunity to add German and Spanish to the languages he’d already mastered: Shoshone, Hidatsa, English, and French.
Returning to America in 1829, Jean Baptiste led the life of a trapper and explorer, just like his biological and adopted fathers. He died in 1866 aged 61 as he was making his way to the Montana gold fields. As sad as this is, Sacagawea's legacy lives on in other ways.
In 2000 the U.S. Mint launched the Sacagawea Golden Dollar and continued to issue it until 2008.
The coin was made with an interesting innovation: an outer coating of manganese brass, which gives it a strikingly golden color, although it contains no actual gold. The coins never really took off in America, but there was one country where they were widely used.
Ecuadorians took to the Sacagawea Golden Dollar with great enthusiasm. In Ecuador, the official currency is actually the U.S.
dollar. But it seems that the folks there are none too keen on the usual American greenbacks. Apparently, there’s a suspicion that they can be counterfeited all too easily. But the solid feel of the Golden Dollar inspires confidence among Ecuadorians, just as Sacagawea inspired confidence in Lewis and Clark on their legendary trek. The coins are far from the U.S.'s only tribute to the Shoshone woman, though.
According to the U.S. National Park service, “There are more statues dedicated to Sacagawea than to any other American woman.” And it’s not just statues that commemorate Sacagawea.
Through the years there have been three U.S. Navy vessels named for the famous Shoshone woman. A number of schools and parks across the nation are named after her, too — and the tributes don't end there.
The U.S. Postal Service also honored Sacagawea, issuing a 29-cent commemorative stamp in 1994 with Sacagawea’s purported likeness.
Of course, nobody really knows what Sacagawea looked like. Perhaps the closest likeness is the bronze statue at the North Dakota Heritage Center. The model for that work was actually Sacagawea’s granddaughter, Mink Woman. The sad truth is, even after everything she did for the Lewis and Clark expedition, historians are still scrounging for information about Sacagawea's life — and her death.
You see, despite her essential contributions to the famous expedition, the circumstances of Sacagawea’s death are surrounded by a swirl of rumors. Most researchers accept that she almost certainly died towards the end of 1812, probably struck down by typhus.
She may have been about 25 years old when her eventful life came to an end... if this particular rumor is true, that is.
Clark accepted the account of Sacagawea’s death that places it in 1812 at Fort Manuel, and this seems to be confirmed by documentary evidence from the time. But over the years, other theories emerged.
One of the most persistent rumors was that Sacagawea had changed her name to Porivo. Under this new identity, the story goes, she lived until 1884. By then she would have been almost 100 years old! Nowadays, few serious historians believe this tale. But there was a time when Sacagawea's life was defined by fiction rather than fact.
Many historians have worked hard over the years to come up with the definitive facts of Sacagawea’s story. The best source of evidence for Sacagawea’s life and times are the journals that Lewis and Clark wrote during their great expedition.
But unfortunately, another source from 100 years later spread misinformation about Sacagawea's life.
Eva Emery Dye published her novel The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark in 1902. It was this work that really brought Sacagawea’s story to the attention of the American public.
Revealingly, Dye wrote in her journal, “Out of a few dry bones I found in the old tales of the trip, I created Sacajawea.” Critics claim that Dye played fast and loose with the actual historical facts. All we know for sure is that Sacagawea existed — and endured years of mistreatment despite her history-making role in the Lewis and Clark expedition.