Who exactly was Sacagawea?

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Background

Sacagawea, whose name means "bird woman" in Hidatsa," was a young Shoshone woman who was integral to the Lewis and Clark expedition. In fact, it is likely that Lewis and Clark would not have been able to complete their mission without the assistance of Sacagawea. She is a common figure in Western history, and the subject of countless articles and books. Nevertheless, few of us know much about this remarkable woman, save for a few details during her trek across the continent. Much of what we know about Sacagawea has been filtered through the lens of others. As an indigenous woman who was captured and sold into slavery, her involvement in the Corps of Discovery is likely the only thing that stopped her from being lost to the annals of history.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for the paltry sum of $15 million dollars. The 530,000,000 acres of land more than doubled the size of the United States and seemed to secure Jefferson’s vision for an agrarian republic. Soon thereafter, Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark off to explore this new territory. Specifically, Jefferson wanted to know about the Native Americans in the region, opportunities for trade, the kinds of minerals and resources that were available to exploit, and if there was a water route that could allow Americans to trade with Asia. Financially backed by the United States, Lewis and Clark set off from St. Louis in the summer of 1804.

Sacagawea

In 1800, when Sacagawea was about 12 years old, she was kidnapped by Hidatsa Indians and taken from her homeland, near Idaho, to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages near present-day Bismark, North Dakota. Later she was sold as a slave to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian Fur Trader who lived among the Indians. Charbonneau held Sacagawea and another Shoshone woman as his wives. When Lewis and Clark began their expedition in 1804, the young Sacagawea was approximately 16 years old, and had just given birth to her first child only months before joining Lewis and Clark on their expedition in the spring of 1805.

Around November of 1804, Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery set up camp near Fort Mandan where they rode out the winter. When they set off again for the next leg of their journey, they brought with them Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their infant son, Jean-Baptiste.

Sacagawea and Charbonneau became part an interpreter team for the Corps of Discovery. Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa, Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French, and Francois Labiche—one of the members of the Corps—spoke French and English. After the long string of interpretations, Labiche would make the final translation to English. Additionally, Lewis and Clark hoped that Sacagawea's Shoshone heritage would help them since the Shoshone people sold horses that were necessary to cross the Bitterroot Mountains, and also controlled much of the region.

With her infant son in tow, Sacagawea was the only woman accompanying the 33 permanent members of this discovery group on their over 8,000-mile trek. Her tasks included digging for roots, collecting edible plants, picking berries, and surveying the landscape. She was also incredibly resourceful. In one noted incident, she managed to save papers, journals, and supplies when a boat she was in was hit by high wind and capsized.

Sacagawea was incredibly valuable to the Corps, not just for her survival skills, and ability to negotiate with other Indian groups and maneuver around the land, but because of what she symbolized. Some of the Native Americans they approached had never seen white people before, but Clark himself noted that the Indians were inclined to believe they were friendly since they saw the Corps was traveling with a native woman and baby. In their cultures, war parties never traveled with women, and her presence was enough to soften the Corps of Discovery's image and signify that they came in peace.

Sacagawea’s opinions were counted equally as the men’s when deciding where to camp, or which direction to take, and she was regarded as a valuable guide—even if, in their journals, the expedition leaders often referred to her just as “the squaw.” The Corps returned to the Hidatsa-Mandan village in August 1806. Though she was so important, when the trip was over, Sacagawea received nothing. Charbonneau, on the other hand, was given over $500 (about $10,000 present day) and 320 acres of land.

Little is known about Sacagawea after the expedition. According to some accounts, in 1811 a traveler described as looking alone, and wearing white woman’s clothes. She gave birth to a daughter about six years after the expedition ended, Lisette, but it is not known if her daughter survived infancy. Soon after Lisette was born, Sacagawea passed away. She was approximately 25 years old. William Clark legally adopted Sacagawea’s children about eight months after her death. We do know that her son, Jean Baptiste was educated in St. Louis before going off to Europe at the age of 18.

In a letter Clark later wrote to Charbonneau, he reiterated Sacagawea’s significance to the Corps of Discovery’s success: “Your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatiguing rout[sic] to the Pacific Ocean and back disserved[sic] a greater reward for her attention and services on that route than we had in our power to offer her.”[1]

The knowledge that William and Clark gathered with the help of Sacagawea paved the way for other explorers and pioneers to make their way into the region to fulfill their manifest destiny. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies is that the landscape, flora, and fauna that William and Clark described would soon become altered and extinct as this new migration they enabled also ushered in the displacement of countless indigenous people, and significantly transformed the environment as well.


For more on the Lewis and Clark expedition, feel free to access their digitized journals courtesy of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

References

  1. [1], University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
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