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Born 1786 (Present-day Idaho)

Died December 20, 1812 (Present-day South Dakota)

Shoshone interpreter

Sacagawea is an extraordinary figure in the history of the American West. She was the only woman to participate in the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–6), an exploration of the West arranged by President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9; see entry in volume 1). Sacagawea's indispensable role in the expedition made her a legendary figure in her own right. Over time, Sacagawea's documented history became mixed with frontier myth (a traditional story) to create a woman shrouded in mystery. Sacagawea became a popular subject of books, movies, and tribal lore during the twentieth century. More monuments, memorials, rivers, lakes, and mountain ranges have been named for Sacagawea than for any other American woman. In the twenty-first century, Sacagawea remains one of the most familiar figures of the Lewis and Clark party.

"The Indian woman . . . has been of great service to me as a pilot through this country."

Explorer William Clark

Child of the Snake people

Sacagawea was born around 1786 as a member of the Shoshone nation. Her parents lived in the western Rocky Mountains of the United States. Her birthplace was most likely southeast of the town of Salmon, in the central Salmon River country of present-day Idaho. Sacagawea belonged to the Agaiduka, or Salmon Eater, band of the Shoshone nation. Other Native Americans called the Shoshone "Snakes," associating them with the Snake River of their homeland. The Shoshone believed wolves, not snakes, were their ancestors and claimed a close association with coyotes and dogs. The Shoshone tribes called themselves Nermenuh, or "People." In her native language, Sacagawea's name means "boat pusher" or "boat launcher." Not much is known of her personal life until she reached her early teens and became a popular figure in the history of the American West.

Around the year 1800, Sacagawea traveled eastward across the Rockies with her family and tribe to the Three Forks area of the Missouri River in Montana. Sacagawea's band was camped between the present-day town locations of Butte and Bozeman, Montana, when they encountered a group of Hidatsa warriors. The Shoshone were outnumbered, and Sacagawea was among those captured. She was taken to live with the Hidatsa in their Knife River village near what is now Bismarck, North Dakota. In the Hidatsa language, Sacagawea's name means "Bird Woman." Sacagawea's name has alternately been spelled Sakakawea and Sacajawea.

Toussaint Charbonneau (1758–1843) was a French Canadian fur trader who had been living with the Hidatsa in their earthen lodges along the Knife River for about eight years. Sacagawea lived as a captive of the Hidatsa until she was sold or gambled away to Charbonneau, along with another girl called Otter Woman. The girls became the property and wives of Charbonneau. Soon, sixteen-year-old Sacagawea found she was pregnant.

Exploration of the American West

In April 1803, the United States acquired the area then known as Louisiana from Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) of France. The Louisiana Purchase (see box) included an area in the center of North America larger than Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal combined. President Thomas Jefferson put Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) in charge of an expedition to explore this land and the area farther west, all the way to the Pacific coast. The Lewis and Clark party, named the Corps of Discovery, set out on their journey in May 1804.

In the winter of 1804, Sacagawea met Lewis and Clark when they arrived at the Hidatsa and Mandan villages located in North Dakota. The Corps hired several men, including Toussaint Charbonneau, as interpreters and advisors for the push westward. They also saw Charbonneau's young Native American wife as potentially helpful: She would be an ideal interpreter for the expedition when it reached the Shoshone lands at the headwaters of the Missouri River. For Sacagawea, it was an opportunity to escape the Hidatsa and return to the place of her birth and her native tribe.

The Louisiana Purchase

On April 30, 1803, American ambassadors Robert Livingston (1746–1813) and James Monroe (1758–1831; see entry in volume 2) signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty in Paris, France, on behalf of the United States. The treaty added over 800,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River to the United States for the price of 60 million francs (French currency), equal to about 15 million American dollars. The new territory, rich in natural resources, cost the United States approximately three cents an acre. The Louisiana Purchase opened up the land west of the Mississippi to settlement and ended the threat of war with France at the same time. The land was eventually divided into all or part of thirteen states, including Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Montana.

President Thomas Jefferson was a strict interpreter of the U.S. Constitution, but he also dreamed of an empire that covered the continent. Although the Constitution did not provide authority for the president to purchase territory, Jefferson stretched the limits of his office and submitted the Louisiana Purchase Treaty to Congress. Congress approved the treaty, and as a result, the United States, barely a generation old, doubled in size, becoming one of the largest nations in the world. The purchase was announced on July 4, 1803, and the United States formally took possession of the region in December of that year.

Jefferson had anticipated that the United States might expand westward, so he had already assigned Meriwether Lewis as commander of an exploratory expedition in the spring of 1803. Lewis wrote to William Clark and asked him to share command in the venture, during which they would attempt to map the territory across the western part of the continent to the Pacific Ocean. On March 10, 1804, Lewis and Clark traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, to attend ceremonies celebrating the transfer of the Louisiana Purchase to the United States. The Corps of Discovery officially began their expedition on May 14, 1804. As they traveled, Lewis and Clark sent shipments of artifacts and plant specimens back to President Jefferson. They took notes on previously unknown animals and sent samples that included everything from prairie dogs to grizzly bears.

The expedition returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. The two men were treated as national heroes when they arrived in Washington, D.C. They received double their usual military pay and gifts of land as rewards for completing the journey. Lewis was named governor of the Louisiana Territory, and Clark was made brigadier general of the territory's militia and Native American agent for the West.

In North Dakota, the Lewis and Clark expedition built Fort Mandan across the river from the Native Americans' main village and made it their winter quarters. On December 17, the Corps recorded a temperature of 45 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, colder than they had ever experienced in the existing United States. Fort Mandan was finished on December 24, 1804. The Corps moved into the fort and waited for the spring thaw and the continuation of their journey.

Sacagawea gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (1805–1866), at the fort on February 11, 1805. Lewis assisted in the birth, and Clark, who took an immediate liking to the boy, nicknamed him "Pomp" or "Pompey." Clark's journals reveal that he developed a special relationship with Sacagawea, too. Although both Lewis and Clark referred to her as "the Indian woman," or as "Charbonneau's wife," Clark used the nickname "Janey" for Sacagawea in one journal entry. Because her name was difficult to say and even more difficult to write, Sacagawea's personal contributions were often recorded in an impersonal way in the journals of Lewis and Clark. From the time she first appeared in their records until the summer of 1806, when her part in the journey ended, Sacagawea's name was used only seventeen times. However, Sacagawea played an important role in the Corps: She served as a peace symbol when the party encountered Native Americans. The presence of a woman with an infant signaled to the Native Americans that Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery were not a war party.

Sacagawea's baby was the youngest of the thirty-three permanent members of the expedition when the Corps left Fort Mandan and headed west on April 7, 1805. Jean Baptiste rode on his mother's back in a papoose cradleboard of the kind traditionally used by the Shoshones. Even though she had an infant to care for, Sacagawea joined other Corps members each day in digging for roots, picking berries, and collecting edible plants that were used as food and sometimes as medicine. The party included Lewis's Newfoundland dog, Seaman, whose bark kept grizzly bears from getting close to camp and whose hunting skills brought wild ducks to his master's table.

On May 16, the expedition was traveling on the Missouri River when their boats were nearly overturned during a storm. Lewis and Clark credited Sacagawea for remaining calm and being the one who saved valuable instruments and records from being lost to the waters in the chaos that followed. Although Sacagawea did not know the country well enough to direct the expedition to its final goal of the Pacific Ocean, she was familiar with the geography near her homeland in the Three Forks area of the upper Missouri River.

The transferring of loyalties

As part of their official duties, the Corps developed a ritual that they used when encountering Native American tribes for the first time. Lewis and Clark would explain to the tribal leaders in a formal meeting that their land now belonged to the United States. They told them that a man far in the east named President Thomas Jefferson was their new "great father" and presented them with a peace medal that showed Jefferson's image on one side and an image of two hands clasping on the other. The Corps also presented trade goods along with American flags that had fifteen stars to represent the existing states of the union. Corps members would follow the ceremony with a parade in which they marched in uniform and fired their guns.

When the expedition reached the Great Falls of the Missouri in June 1805, they discovered five massive waterfalls that forced them to portage, or carry, all of their gear over the next 18 miles. The portage upstream past the waterfalls took them over a month to accomplish. In late July, the Corps reached the Three Forks of the Missouri, which they named the Jefferson, the Gallatin, and the Madison in honor of President Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin (1761–1849; see entry in volume 1), and Secretary of State James Madison (1751–1836; see entry in volume 2). Continuing up the Jefferson fork of the river, Sacagawea realized they were coming close to Shoshone lands in Idaho.

Sacagawea recognized the landmark Beaverhead Rock that prompted Lewis to go out ahead and scout the area. He reached the headwaters of the Missouri River, crossed the Continental Divide, and climbed a final ridge expecting to see plains and a river flowing to the Pacific. Instead, he found even more mountains and deduced that a northwest passage to the ocean did not exist. Lewis pressed on to the nearest Shoshone camp, where he tried to negotiate for horses. Clark and the rest of the Corps soon followed, and when they arrived, Sacagawea found herself unexpectedly reunited with her brother, Cameahwait. Lewis and Clark discovered they were now in a favorable situation with the Native Americans because of Sacagawea's family connection. The pair named the site "Camp Fortunate" in their journal entries.

Sacagawea's long-lost brother had become chief of the band of Shoshone during her many years of absence. Cameahwait sketched a map and offered the Corps of Discovery guidance across the Bitterroot Mountains. He agreed to sell the party the horses they needed and to guide them through the Salmon River country. That would put them onto the navigable waters of the Clearwater and Columbia Rivers, where they could resume traveling by boat toward the Pacific Ocean. The negotiations were not simple. Sacagawea would talk with her people and then translate into Hidatsa for Charbonneau. He would then translate into French for Corps member François Labiche. Labiche made the final translation into English so that Lewis and Clark could understand what was going on.

Trail's end

Cameahwait said goodbye to Sacagawea and sent a Shoshone guide called Old Toby, along with twenty-nine horses and a mule, to see her party safely across the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains. With young Jean Baptiste riding on her back in his cradleboard, Sacagawea reluctantly left her brother and her people. The Corps began the steep ascent into the mountains on horseback on September 11, 1805, and emerged on the other side eleven days later, half-starved, at the villages of the Nez Perce; near present-day Weippe, Idaho. The Nez Perce taught the expedition party a new way to make dugout canoes. With the new canoes, they set off down the Clearwater River on October 7. The expedition reached the Columbia River, the last waterway to the Pacific Ocean, on October 16, 1805. Clark recorded seeing Mount Hood (near present-day Portland, Oregon) in the distance. It had been named by a British sea captain in 1792. Spotting it proved by their maps that they were near the ocean.

The Corps was still 20 miles away from the ocean when they were met by terrible winter storms that halted their progress for nearly three weeks. On November 24, 1805, they finally reached the place where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean. The entire expedition, including Sacagawea, voted on where to build their winter quarters. They chose the Clatsop tribe side of the Columbia River by majority vote. Crossing to the south side of the Columbia, near presentday Astoria, Oregon, the Corps built Fort Clatsop, which they inhabited during the winter of 1805–6. Having not yet seen the ocean, Sacagawea insisted she be included in a group that made the final trip to the Pacific shore, where she would witness the novelty of a whale that had beached on the sand.

After a winter of only twelve days without rain, the Corps of Discovery presented their fort to the Clatsop tribe, for whom it was named, and set out for home in March 1806. On the return journey, Sacagawea proved to be a valuable guide to Clark, who praised her in his journal as his "pilot" through Bozeman Pass in Montana. The Corps returned to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages on August 14, 1806, where Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and their son, Jean Baptiste, parted from the expedition. Charbonneau was paid for his contribution, but Sacagawea, never an official member of the expedition, received no monetary compensation for her part in the venture.

Legend of the Bird Woman

There are two contradictory accounts of Sacagawea's life following her return to South Dakota. Little was officially documented after her years with the expedition. The account favored by many historians records her death from fever in late 1812. The written account of Sacagawea's final years is sketchy but includes documentation by Clark himself that she died at Fort Manuel in South Dakota. It is believed that Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter named Lisette before her death, but it is not known whether the child survived past infancy. It is known that William Clark legally adopted young Jean Baptiste Charbonneau and assumed responsibility for his education.

The oral account of Sacagawea's life after the expedition is favored by most Native Americans and maintains that she lived to be an old woman. These oral traditions say Sacagawea left Charbonneau and wandered from tribe to tribe. She became known as Porivo (Chief Woman), Wadze Wipe (Lost Woman), and Bo-i-naiv (Grass Woman). It is said that she remarried and had other children before being reunited with Jean Baptiste and an adopted nephew whom she named Bazil. These tribal traditions trace Sacagawea's death to a Wyoming tribe reservation in 1884 after nearly a century of life.

National interest in Sacagawea gained momentum in the early twentieth century with the centennial observances of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition. A women's association raised funds for a statue of Sacagawea that was unveiled at the Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1905 in Portland, Oregon. Social activist Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) was one of several prominent people who made speeches at this event. Anthony and Sacagawea share the honor of having their likenesses stamped on a U.S. dollar coin.

For More Information


Clark, Ella E., and Margot Edmonds. Sacagawea of the Lewis and ClarkExpedition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Hebard, Grace R. Sacajawea. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1933.

Howard, Harold P. Sacajawea. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971. Reprint, 2002.

Kessler, Donna J. The Making of Sacagawea: A Euro-American Legend. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Nelson, W. Dale. Interpreters with Lewis and Clark: The Story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2003.

Slaughter, Thomas P. Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Men andWilderness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Web Sites

"Jefferson's West: The Louisiana Purchase." Monticello: The Home ofThomas Jefferson. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

Public Broadcasting Service. "Sacagawea." Lewis & Clark: The Journey of theCorps of Discovery. (accessed on August 17, 2005).