Sacagawea (sometimes spelled Sacajawea) was born before 1790, but the exact date is unknown. Shoshone was her Native American tribe. This tribe lived in what is now western Montana, between the headwaters of the Missouri River and the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. In the Shoshone language her name meant “Bird Woman.”
When she was about twelve years old she was taken captive in a raid by the Hidatsa Indians. She was taken as a slave to their territory, now North Dakota. When she was still in her early teens she was sold to a French-Canadian fur trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau. She became one of his wives.
The Hidatsa and the Mandan Indians were allies, and it was there in the fall of 1804 that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark came with their expedition. These explorers had been sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the territory (report on its geography and resources) of the Northwest between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean.
The expedition spent the winter of 1804-05 with the Mandan and Hidatsa people. Sacagawea was sixteen or seventeen when Lewis and Clark asked Charbonneau to come along as an interpreter. He insisted that Sacagawea come also. They would be going into Shoshone territory. She would be an asset since she could speak their language. She gave birth to her son that winter and named him Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. She traveled with her baby strapped to her back in a cradle board. It was known that any Indian tribes that might be hostile to the white men would know that the expedition came in peace since they had an Indian woman with a baby traveling with them. Few Native American tribes went to war with women and children in the war party.
Sacagewea was not a guide for the expedition. She was important as an interpreter. She was an expert woodsman who could find and identify edible roots and all other manner of wild plants. The journals of Lewis and Clark describe one particular incident that also shows how indispensable Sacagewea was to the expedition. One day a sudden squall of wind keeled the boat over, and much of its cargo, including medicines, books, and the journals floated out. Sacagawea was the only one with the presence of mind to collect almost everything that had gone overboard. Much of the journals would have been lost had it not been for her foresight.
Later on the trip, Sacagawea recognized the countryside. She related the story of how at that very spot she had been captured by the Minnetarees (Hidatsa tribe). She realized that her people must be nearby. When they did meet the Shoshone Indians, Sacagawea was the interpreter. The story goes that she recognized Chief Cameahwait as her brother! Finn Burnett, a frontiersman, many years later told this of their reunion:
Finally, when they had managed to contact the Shoshones, Sacagawea was overjoyed to discover her brother, Chief Cameahwait, among them. After a joyful reunion, she began to talk the language of her childhood again, and told him that the white men wished to cross the mountains. She explained that Lewis and Clark needed Shoshones for guides, and a sufficient number of ponies to transport their provisions and equipment to the headwaters of the Columbia River.(16)
The expedition needed horses to continue over the Rocky Mountains. Chief Cameahwait and the Shoshones provided them with the horses. They met many different Indian tribes after their trip across the mountains as they continued on toward their destination, the Pacific Ocean. Sacagawea was eager to see the huge ocean, after all the hardships of the journey. They were told of the big fish (a whale) by the Indians, and Sacagawea traveled a long way on the beach to eventually see only the skeleton of the whale, all else having been used by the Indians. The expedition planned to camp near the ocean for the winter, before heading back and completing their journey.
The return journey was just as dangerous as the outward journey. As they took their last look at the Rocky Mountains, they saw a view afforded very few white men. They were sometimes stopped by huge herds of buffalo crossing the Yellowstone River. Wolves were heard barking at both the many elk and the buffalo herds. Fierce grizzly bears were everywhere. There were large rattlesnakes, but no one was bitten.
In the journal on August 17, 1806 at the end of their return journey Captain Clark says of Sacagawea: “she was particularly useful among the Shoshones. Indeed, she has borne with a patience truly admirable the fatigues of so long a route encumbered with the charge of an infant, who is even now only 19 months old. We therefore paid Charbonneau wages, amounting to $500.33, including the price of a horse and a lodge (tent) purchased of him.”(17) No wages were paid to Sacagawea. Captain Clark thought that the child, who was nicknamed “Pomp,” was a beautiful, promising child and he offered to take him and send him to school. From the written accounts both parents were willing if the child had been weaned. They wanted the child to be raised in the way that Clark thought was proper, if they could bring him later to St. Louis. In 1808 the boy was taken to be raised by Clark, and Sacagawea remained there with her young son for some time.
Sacagawea is mentioned thirty-two times in the journals and footnotes. The first footnote clearly draws attention to her. It mentions that Charbonneau, who “would have been a minus function . . . in comparison with his wife, Sacagawea, the wonderful ‘Bird woman,’ who contributed a full man’s share to the success of the expedition, besides taking care of her baby.”(18)
Sacagawea, with her infant son strapped to her back most of the time, was a member of the main party of the expedition from April 7, 1805, until August 14, 1806. This remarkable woman shared the many hardships and the few pleasures of the explorers. She died on the Wind River Reservation on April 9, 1884, a very old woman. She had lived with her children and her grandchildren on the reservation in Wyoming.
Indian Pronunciation (19)
ROUTE OF LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION 1904-1806
(Figure available in print form)
Sacagawea: Sacajawea had been the spelling of her name since it first appeared in print in 1884. Later it was decided that the “j” should be “g” because “g” is found in eight spellings of the name in the Lewis and Clark Journals. Sah-cah-gah- wee’- ah is the accepted pronunciation. The first three syllables mean “Bird,” and wea means “woman.”
Mandan (Man-dan): When Whites first knew them, the Mandan were on the same part of the Missouri River as the Hidatsa, between Heart and Little Missouri Rivers. When the expedition camped near them in the winter of 1804-1805 the Mandan were very helpful to them.
Minnetaree (Min-ne-tah-ree): one of several names given to the Hidatsa tribe. The word means “they crossed the water.” They helped the expedition in the winter of 1804-1805.
Nez Perce (Nez Purse): French meaning “pierced noses.”The Nez Perce lived in central Idaho, parts of southeast Washington,and northeast Oregon.
Shoshone (sho-sho-nee): The Northern Shoshones lived in eastern Idaho, western Wyoming, and northeastern Utah.They were known by many names. Five of the names mean “grass lodges” or “people that use grass or bark for their houses or huts.” There were at least eight other names for “snake people”, “serpents”, or “rattlesnake people.” They were called “the snake Indians’ because of a misunderstanding of their name in their sign language.The first reference to them in the journals said that the members of the expedition were very anxious to see the Snake Indians. The next day there is a reference to Sacagawea as being one of the Snake Indians.