Sacagawea

1790-1812
By Teresa Potter | 2018

Although spelled many different ways in the original journals of expedition members, the third syllable always starts with a hard g. Sacagawea lived with the Hidatsa just before joining the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and there is no soft g in the Hidatsa language. Sacaga means “bird” and wea means “woman” in the Hidatsa language. She is best known for joining Lewis and Clark on their expedition westward from the Mississippi to the Pacific Coast. 

Sacagawea was born around 1790 in what is now the state of Idaho. When she was 10 years old, Sacagawea was captured by an enemy tribe, the Hidatsa and taken from her Lemhi Shoshone people to the Hidatsa villages near present-day Stanton, North Dakota. A few years later, she was married to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trader, either by force or by choice. 

In 1803, the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase from France which almost doubled the size of the country.  With the acquisition of so much land, it was necessary to determine the actual boundaries of US land. President Thomas Jefferson hired Virginia’s Meriwether Lewis to explore this land; Lewis sought out frontiersman William Clark, and they led about forty men in three boats up the Missouri River to what is now Bismarck, North Dakota. As the expedition sailed up the Missouri River, the group met with various tribes of Native Americans, and during the winter months Lewis and Clark made the decision to camp near the Hidatsa villages, where Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacagawea made their home. 

Charbonneau proposed that Lewis and Clark hire him as a guide and interpreter. Charbonneau knew Hidatsa and the sign languages common among the river tribes and he was married to a Shoshone which could be useful as they travelled west Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau as a member of the Corps of Discovery, but Sacagawea was expecting her first child. The Americans stayed in this relatively safe and warm camp through the winter of 1804-05 and waited even longer in the spring so that the pregnant Sacagawea could accompany them west. On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. He was nicknamed Pomp meaning “first born” in Shoshone. 

With her baby on her back and her husband at her side, Sacajawea and the men left Fort Maden on April 7, 1805. Every member of the Corps of Discovery was hired for a special skill such as hunting, woodworking, blacksmithing, sailing, etc.  At about 18, she was the only female among some forty older men. Sacagawea proved to be essential to the expedition. She had the skills and abilities to offer much assistance. Her knowledge of native languages was a great help during their journey. She communicated with other tribes and translated for Lewis and Clark. She was also very good at finding edible plants. Sacagawea also was valuable to the expedition because she represented peace and trustworthiness. A group of males traveling with a woman and her baby appeared less menacing. Sacagawea and her baby allowed others to feel that it was safe to befriend the newcomers. 

On May 14, Sacagawea showed bravery and clear thinking that earned Lewis and Clark’s praise and gratitude. Charbonneau was steering a boat through choppy waters when a sudden storm caused the boat to tip sideways and fill with water. The expeditions valuable supplies had fallen into the water and Charbonneau froze. One of the men threatened to shoot him if he didn’t right the boat. Sacagawea stayed calm and rescued instruments, books, gunpowder, medicines, and clothing. Without these supplies, the expedition would have been in serious trouble. She faced the same dangers and difficulties as everyone else, but she did it while having full care of her infant son.

In July of 1805, the Corps was paddling up the Missouri, and Sacagawea recognized the landmarks—the three forks in the water, where three smaller rivers come together to form the Missouri. On August 15, the expedition met up with the Shoshone tribe. Lewis and Clark arranged for a meeting with the chief, Cameawait, and Sacagawea acted as translator. As she began translating, she realized that the chief was her brother. She ran to him, threw a blanket around him and wept tears of joy. Though she was moved to tears, she resumed her duty as interpreter. She convinced the Shoshone to provide additional guides and to trade horses.

Sacagawea left with the Corps of Discover, and the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean on November 8, 1805. They held a vote to determine where they would locate their winter quarters. It is a mark of their deep respect for her that Sacagawea was given a voice in the decision by being allowed to vote. They built Fort Clatsop near the Columbia River and stayed until March 23, 1806. 

For the return journey, the Corps divided into two groups-one led by Lewis and the other by Clark. Traveling with Clark, Sacagawea guided his group south of the Yellowstone River by recommending a way through the mountains (known today as Bozeman Pass). Clark wrote in his journal,

“The Indian woman…has been of great service to me as a pilot through this country.”Captain William Clark

The two groups reunited on August 12. They arrived back at the Hidatsa villages two days later, and Sacagawea and her family departed the expedition.  Lewis and Clark prepared for their journey back to St. Louis, but before they left Clark offered to take Pomp back to St. Louis with him. He said he would give Pomp a good education and raise him as his own son. Sacagawea promised she would bring Pomp to visit, but she could not let go of her son. 

As promised, when Pomp was five Sacagawea and Charbonneau took him to St. Louis and left him with Clark to get an education. It is believed that she also gave birth to a daughter named Lizette in 1812. There is some controversy regarding her death. Records from Fort Manuel, where she was living, state that she died in December 1812 of typhus. However, according to some Native American oral histories, Sacagawea died in 1884 on Shoshone lands in Wyoming.

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