Sacagawea was best known as an explorer, interpreter, and guide. She was a Shoshone woman who assisted Lewis and Clark on their explorations of the western United States.
Sacagawea as a Young Girl
Sacagawea was born in 1788 in the Lemhi River Valley. She grew up in her Rocky Mountain homeland, known today as Idaho. She was part of the Shoshone tribe, where her father was the chief.
In 1800, when she was 12 years old, Hidatsa Indians, enemies of the Shoshone tribe, kidnapped Sacagawea. She was taken as a slave from her homeland to the Hidatsa villages in what is today North Dakota. She was later sold to a French-Canadian fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau. He claimed Sacagawea and another Shoshone woman as his two "wives." Shortly after, Sacagawea gave birth to a son named Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Her son would soon become America's youngest explorer.
Meeting Lewis and Clark
In 1804, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark built Fort Mandan near where Sacagawea lived. They were staying there for the winter. Lewis and Clark had been sent by president Thomas Jefferson to explore and map out the lands to the west after the Louisiana Purchase. The Louisiana Purchase was a deal Jefferson made with the French to buy a huge piece of land that nearly doubled the size of the United States.
Lewis and Clark needed guides to help them navigate this new land. The Shoshone tribe had horses that the expedition required for the journey. Lewis and Clark felt because of her Shoshone heritage, Sacagawea could help them trade for horses.
Sacagawea did not speak English. She spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. Her husband, Charbonneau, spoke Hidatsa and French. Sacagawea and Charbonneau would become the interpreting team for the explorers. Sacagawea would communicate with the Shoshones, then translate to Hidatsa, which her husband could understand. He would then translate to French. One of the Lewis and Clark team members, Francois Labiche, spoke French and English. He would make the final translation so that Lewis and Clark, who only spoke English, would understand. Simple!
The Expedition Begins
In April of 1805, the expedition headed out. Sacagawea, with her infant Jean Baptiste, was the only woman on the 33-member team. Early on, Sacagawea was able to help out with the expedition. One of her contributions was digging for roots, collecting edible plants, and picking berries. She helped inform the explorers of which plants could be used for food or medicine.
On May 14, 1805, Sacagawea was riding in a boat that was hit by a high wind and nearly capsized. She recovered and saved many important papers and supplies that would have been lost. She was known for remaining calm in difficult times.
An Amazing Reunion
On August 12, 1805, Captain Lewis and three men scouted ahead of the expedition's main party, where they met a group of Shoshones. The Shoshone leader they met with, Chief Cameahwait, turned out to be none other than Sacagawea's brother. After five years of separation, Sacagawea and Cameahwait had an emotional reunion. Sacagawea was able to help the explorers purchase more horses from the Shoshones.
Sacagawea turned out to be an incredibly valuable part of the expedition as they continued to move west. Many of the Indian tribes they met along the way were prepared to fight to defend their lands. Most had never seen white men before. As Clark noted on October 19, 1805, the Indians believed that the explorers were friendly when they saw Sacagawea. A war party never traveled with a woman, especially a woman with a small baby.
All the Way West
In November of 1805, the expedition finally reached the place where the Columbia River emptied into the Pacific Ocean. They were amazed at the sight of the ocean. Sacagawea was especially amazed when she and the team discovered the remains of a beached whale on the ocean shore. They stayed near the ocean for the winter before their long journey home.
In 1806, the explorers began their return journey and passed through Sacagawea's rocky homeland. There, she again proved to be a valuable guide. She remembered Shoshone trails from her childhood. The most important trail she remembered was a large road, passing through a gap in the mountains that led to the Yellowstone River. Today, it is known as Bozeman Pass in Montana.
The explorers returned to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages on August 14, 1806. This was the end of the trip for Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and their boy, Jean Baptiste. The entire trip took nearly one year. When it was over, Charbonneau was paid $500.33 and 320 acres of land. Sacagawea received nothing.
Sacagawea's Final Days
Six years after the expedition, Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter she named Lisette. On December 20, 1812, Sacagawea died. She was 24 years old. Medical researchers believe she died from a serious illness that she suffered from most of her adult life.
Eight months after her death, William Clark legally adopted Sacagawea's two children, Jean Baptiste and Lisette. Jean Baptiste was educated by Clark in St. Louis, and then at age 18, was sent to Europe with a German prince. It is not known whether Lisette survived past infancy.
However, many believe that Sacagawea did not actually die when she was 24. According to a theory originated by Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard, a librarian at the University of Wyoming, there was a woman who lived to the age of 100 on the Wind River Indian Reservation. She was believed to be Sacagawea. Some official documents show that the woman would have been the right age to in fact be Sacagawea. To this day, it is still only a theory, and we will likely never know the full story of Sacagawea's final days.