Sacajawea (c. 1787–c. 1812 or 1884)

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Sacajawea (c. 1787–c. 1812 or 1884)

Native American who served as a guide and interpreter for the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805–06 as they traveled up the Missouri River and westward to the Pacific Ocean. Name variations: Sacagewea; Sacagawea; Sakajawea; Sakakawea; "Bird Woman" (translated from the language of the Hidatsa, a tribe within the Shoshoni); "Boat Pusher" (translated from Shoshoni); sometimes called Janey in Clark's journal. Pronunciation: Tsiki-ka-wi-as in Hidatsa, rendered phonetically in English as Sakakawea, or, in Clark's journal as "Sah-kahgar-we-a," later amended to "Sacajawea" by expedition member George Shannon (which was accepted as the standard form for the name from 1893). Born into a tribe of Northern Shoshonis, in what is now the Lemhi Valley of Idaho, around 1787; died as early as 1812, in childbirth, or (according to a minister who claimed to have officiated at her burial) as late as April 9, 1884; married Touissant Charbonneau (common-law, without benefit of church or state), a fur trapper and guide; children: Jean Baptiste, nicknamed "Pomp" which is Shoshoni for "first born" (b. February 11 or 12, 1805); Bazil (adopted, son of her deceased sister); possibly a daughter, Lizette (or Lisette).

Spent 20 months as guide for President Jefferson's expedition to explore the country's new holdings in the West (1805–06), then passed out of history except for a few unreliable references.

The only definitive information known about Sacajawea, whose name has become intrinsically linked with one of the greatest adventures in American history, dates from the 20 months she spent as a guide with the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, which set out to explore and map the United States' newly acquired Louisiana Territory in 1804–06. A small, resilient Shoshoni woman with a newborn baby on her back, she earned the respect of the explorers she led and may very well have won the heart of expedition leader Captain William Clark. Despite attending to the needs of her young son and being subjected to an aging husband (some reports indicate that he may have acquired her in a gambling game; others that she was sold to him as a slave; and still others that he received her in a trade), Sacajawea remained unfailingly cheerful throughout the journey. With her baby, she was a symbol of the expedition's peaceful (or at least non-warlike) intentions to the Indian tribes they encountered and thus served as the explorers' ambassador of good will as they made their historic journey.

Sacajawea was born into a tribe of Northern Shoshonis somewhere in what was later called the Lemhi Valley in the modern state of Idaho. The date of her birth was around 1787 or 1788, according to the European Christian calendar. Her childhood was interrupted when she was kidnapped by another Shoshoni tribe called the Hidatsa, and it ended when she became the wife of Touissant Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader living among the Hidatsa and Mandan Indians. Her marriage was à la facon du pays (after the fashion of the country), a common-law relationship without benefit of church or state ceremony. In the records of Lewis and Clark, Charbonneau was acknowledged as a good interpreter but characterized as brutish, clumsy, prone to panic, and not particularly capable of performing the tasks assigned to him. Other documentary sources which allude to him suggest that he was competent, and his reputation may have suffered largely in comparison to his admirable wife.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition for which Sacajawea would become famed was authorized by President Thomas Jefferson even before he had arranged for the purchase of the vast area of land, known as the Louisiana Territory, west of the Mississippi River, from Napoleon's France. Also called the Louisiana Purchase, this area was defined by the watershed of the Missouri River branch of the Mississippi River (meaning that all the land drained by streams and rivers that flowed into the Missouri River, then into the Mississippi River, was part of the territory).

Headed by two captains, Meriwether Lewis (President Jefferson's private secretary) and William Clark (the younger brother of the famous Revolutionary War general George Rogers Clark), the Lewis and Clark expedition assembled near St. Louis in the fall of 1803 to explore this territory. Their party was made up of 14 soldiers, 9 civilian Kentucky volunteers, 2 French rivermen, a professional hunter, and Clark's personal servant, a black man named York; later, there were to be additions and subtractions from this original group. Jefferson also authorized the expedition to cross over the Continental Divide and the northern Rocky Mountains to reach the Pacific Ocean. All along the way, they were to learn what they could about the minerals, plants, animals and Indian populations occupying the region.

Departing St. Louis in May 1804, the expedition did not reach new territory until November, when they set up winter quarters among the Mandan Indians in the middle of present-day North Dakota. At what was Fort Mandan, the group took on two interpreters and their wives, who were Indian. One of these couples was Charbonneau and Sacajawea. On February 11 or 12, after a difficult labor, Sacajawea gave birth to a son. Although given the European Christian name of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the boy was known by his Shoshoni name of "Pomp," meaning "first born." (Some accounts record that it was Clark who gave the infant, for whom he had much affection, the nickname Pomp, because the child was so bouncy.)

On April 7, 1805, when the spring weather allowed the expedition to set out from Fort Mandan, the other interpreter and his wife remained behind, making Sacajawea now the only woman member of the expedition. From the beginning, the young mother endeared herself to the men by identifying edible berries and roots, which she picked industriously without complaint. While such activities were likely unremarkable to Sacajawea, her contributions to life on the expedition impressed the European-American observers, especially Captain Clark. She also mended clothes and moccasins and nursed the sick and injured, all while caring for her infant son.

Sacajawea first distinguished herself on May 14 when she saved many valuable supplies after a boat capsized. Originally seated in the rear of the boat with Pomp strapped on her back, she held on to the boat as it turned on its side and fished lost items out of the swirling water, including cases of instruments, compasses, books, and clothing. Lewis, who never became as fond of her as Clark, was especially grateful for her rescue of his precious copy of Benjamin Barton's Elements of Botany. Her calm effectiveness was especially notable in contrast to the panic displayed by her husband who could not swim. On May 20, in recognition of her feat, a river along their route was named in her honor. (A later journal noted, however, "With less gallantry, the present generation calls it Crooked Creek.")

Picture a slight, active Indian girl, with the black hair and copper skin of most Shoshonis of her time … who set out for the Pacific with Lewis and Clark with a baby on her back.

—Harold P. Howard

By the summer of 1805, the explorers had arrived in the Shoshoni territory from which Sacajawea had been stolen in her childhood. There she began her service as interpreter and good-will ambassador. In August, she broke her customary stoic calm when enjoying an emotional reunion with her brother Cameahwait, a Shoshoni chief. She learned that of her family only he, another brother (who was absent), and her eldest sister's son Bazil were still alive. Sacajawea immediately adopted Bazil.

That autumn, assisted by maps drawn for them by Chief Cameahwait and by Sacajawea's knowledge of edible vegetation, the expedition traversed the Bitterroot Mountain Range (which separates modern Montana and Idaho), to make the momentous crossing from the Missouri River into the Columbia River basin. In November, with winter closing in, they trudged down the Columbia to the coast. By the first of the year, they arrived exhausted at Fort Clatsop, near the modern city of Portland, Oregon, to spend the rest of the winter. The decision as to where they would winter had been made by vote, with the votes of both Sacajawea and Clark's servant York counted equally with the others.

During the first six months of 1806, the Walla Walla and Nez Perce Indians helped the beleaguered explorers by restoring their food supplies and even healing their wounds. Although these Pacific Northwest Indians were already favorably disposed to the European-American explorers (their disillusionment would come later), the presence of Sacajawea and her baby, who was by now a toddler, no doubt helped to smooth relations.

At the end of June, recrossing the Bitterroot Mountains entailed considerable hardship for the party. By the time they re-entered Montana, Sacajawea again proved of great assistance. In early July, the captains separated their expedition into two groups. Lewis took the northern route to follow the Missouri River as it bends north toward what is now Great Falls. Clark chose the shorter route from the Missouri River's source at Three Forks (the junction of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers) directly across southern Montana just north of Yellowstone Park. Remaining with Clark, Sacajawea was able to assure him that their southern group was following the right track. On their way down the Yellowstone River, which courses northeastward, they proceeded toward what is now the city of Livingston. Lewis' northern group was not so fortunate, enduring a skirmish with some Blackfoot Indians, but eventually did rejoin Clark's group (August 12) at the mouth of the Yellowstone River where it joins the Missouri River near the Montana-North Dakota boundary.

Sacajawea's journey ended in August 1806 at the Hidatsa-Mandan village, where she and her husband were relieved of their duties (the expedition party would arrive back at St. Louis the following month). For his services, Charbonneau received a voucher for just over $500. Sacajawea received no compensation for her role on the journey, and Clark noted in a letter to her husband (August 20, 1806): "Your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocean and back, deserved a greater reward for her attention and Services on that rout than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans." Clark gave the family an opportunity to experience the world of Europeans at the thriving trading post on the banks of the Mississippi. Charbonneau accepted the offer, taking Sacajawea and Pomp (no word about Bazil) into St. Louis. But neither Charbonneau nor Sacajawea were city people, and when he decided to return to the Upper Missouri she went with him, leaving her son in St. Louis (where Pomp's education was supervised by Clark). While there are scattered references to the subsequent lives of the men—Charbonneau, Pomp, and even Bazil—Sacajawea disappears from all reliable European-American documentation.

Several references in Indian oral traditions and European documents, which have been largely discredited, suggest that Sacajawea lived to a ripe old age. In the early years of the 20th century, Grace Raymond Hebard and Charles A. Eastman pieced together the traditional Shoshoni accounts into the following tale. After 1806, Charbonneau took a new wife, which Sacajawea tolerated. She left him, however, after he whipped her once too often. Sacajawea then wandered for several years before marrying a Comanche (whose language is related to that of the Shoshoni), with whom she had five children. Outliving her husband after he was killed in battle, in the 1860s she was reunited with Pomp, now called Baptiste, and her own people. Subsequently, she was tenderly cared for by her adopted son Bazil, who had suffered a crippling leg wound and was a sub-chief for the famous Chief Washakie. According to one unsubstantiated account, Sacajawea was killed by hostile Indians near what is now Glasgow, Montana, in 1869. The more accepted version is that she lived until April 9, 1884, when she was formally buried by an Episcopal missionary named Reverend John Roberts on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. A historical marker on the reservation reads: "Sacajawea, Died April 9, 1884. A Guide with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1805–1806. Identified, 1907, by Rev. John Roberts Who Officiated at Her Burial."

It is most likely though that Sacajawea died in childbirth about six years after the expedition at Fort Manuel, in what is now South Dakota, on December 20, 1812. According to an entry in a diary kept by a John Luttig: "This evening the wife of Charbonneau, a Snake squaw, died of putrid fever. She was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years. She left a fine infant girl." Given the European ignorance of Indian tribes and widespread difficulties in spelling Sacajawea's name, we should probably conclude that this was her actual death notice. In 1813, after the fort was burned by Indians, Luttig applied to the court to be appointed guardian of the girl, named Lizette, as well as for a boy declared to be about ten years old named Touissant (a name he shared with Sacajawea's husband). When Luttig died in 1815, his name was erased from the court record and replaced by that of "William Clark."

A notebook owned by Clark discovered in 1955 perhaps clinches the argument. On the outside of the book, which Clark apparently used between 1825 and 1828, he listed the names of all who were on the expedition, with

notations as to what happened to each of them following the journey. He has been proven definitely wrong about only one member who lived to be almost one hundred years old. Beside Sacajawea's name he wrote one word: "Dead." Clark himself died in 1838.

In Clark's journal of the expedition, on April 7, 1805, he wrote out a phonetic spelling of her name, "Sah-kah-gar-we-a," apparently intending that the "g" be pronounced hard, but for the official edition this spelling was amended by George Shannon, a college-educated member of the expedition (and a better speller), who insisted that the name be spelled Sacajawea. Elliott Coues adopted this latter spelling in his massive history of the expedition, published in 1893, and it has since been accepted as standard. In Hidatsa, the language of the tribe who kidnapped the young girl away from her people, the phonetic rendering of her name was "Tsi-ki-ka-wi-as" which became "Sakakawea" in English. The name meant "Bird Woman" in Hidatsa, while the meaning in Shoshoni was "Boat Pusher." European-American biographers have preferred to perpetuate the former, more exalted, translation.

After Sacajawea guided her party through Indian country, up the Missouri River to its headwaters and source, over the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, and then back down the Missouri River to St. Louis, she retreated back into the obscurity from whence she came. In her place emerged an American legend. In addition to Sacajawea Creek, Montana (named for her by Lewis and Clark), many natural sites were named in her honor including the Sacajawea Lakes in Washington (at Longview) and North Dakota (formerly Lake Garrison) as well as the Sacajawea Mountain Peaks in Montana (Bridger Range), Wyoming (Wind River Range), Idaho (Lost River Range), and Oregon (Wallowa Range). The subject of numerous statues, paintings, historic markers, and musical compositions, she also appears on an American gold-colored $1 coin which replaced the Susan B. Anthony dollar in 2000. In his biography Sacajawea, Harold P. Howard concludes his study with the picture of "an Indian girl bearing a baby on her back, gathering berries along a riverbank for a boatload of [European] explorers bound on America's great westward adventure."


Coues, Elliott. A History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark. 3 vols. New York, 1965 (first published in 4 vols., 1893).

Hebard, Grace Raymond. Sacajawea: Guide of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Los Angeles, 1957 (first published in 1932).

Howard, Harold P. Sacajawea. OK: University of Oklahoma, 1971.

suggested reading:

De Voto, Bernard, ed. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Boston, 1963.

Lewis, Meriwether. The Lewis and Clark Expedition. Edited by Nicholas Biddle. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1961 (first published in 1814).

——, and William Clark. Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites. 8 vols. New York, 1904.

Moulton, Gary E., ed. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. University of Nebraska, 1983.

David R. Stevenson , Associate Professor of History, University of Nebraska at Kearney, Nebraska