Sacagawea

Sacagawea

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Sacagaweawas an interpreterand guideforMeriwether Lewis and William Clarks expedition westward from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. Though spelled numerous ways in the journals of expedition members,Sacagaweais generally believed to be a Hidatsa name (Sacagameans bird andweameans woman). In that case, the third syllablestarts with a hardg,asthere is no softgin the Hidatsa language.However, many Shoshone Indians maintain that it is a Shoshone name meaning boat launcherand spell and pronounce it Sacajawea.

Sacagawea was borncirca 1788in what is now the state of Idaho. When she wasapproximately 12years old, Sacagawea was captured by an enemy tribe, the Hidatsa,and taken from her Lemhi Shoshone people to the Hidatsa villages near present-dayBismarck, North Dakota.Following hercapture, French-Canadian traderToussaint Charbonneau,who was living among the Hidatsa, claimed Sacagawea as one of his wives.

In 1803, theLouisiana Purchaseof western territoryfrom Franceby President Thomas Jefferson nearly doubled the size of the United States. With the acquisition of so much land, it was necessary to determine the actual boundaries ofthecountry. Jefferson hired Virginias Meriwether Lewis to explore theland.Lewis sought out frontiersman William Clarkandtogetherthey led about40men in three boats up the Missouri River. During the winter months,Lewis and Clark made the decision tobuild their encampment, Fort Mandan,near the Hidatsa-Mandan villages where Charbonneau and Sacagawea were living.

Charbonneau proposed that Lewis and Clark hire him as a guide and interpreter. Charbonneau knew Hidatsa and the sign languages common among the river tribes.Additionally, his marriage to the Shoshone Sacagawea wouldbe useful as they traveled west, where they would likely encounter and need to trade with the Shoshone.Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau as a member oftheir expedition, the Corps of Discovery,whileSacagawea was expecting her first child.The Americans stayed in their relatively safe and warm camp through the winter of 1804-05 and waitedintothe spring so that Sacagawea could accompany them west.On February 11,1805, Sacagaweagave birth to ason, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, whom Clark later nicknamed Pomp, meaning first born in Shoshone. With her her baby on her back and her husband by her side, Sacagawea and the men left Fort Mandan on April 7,1805.

At about 17 years of age, she was the only woman among 31 older men on this portion of the expedition.Eachmember of the Corps of Discovery was hired for a special skill such as hunting, woodworking, blacksmithing, and sailing.ThoughSacagaweas role as a guidewas limited to the Idaho/Montana region where shehad grown up(rather than the entirety of the expedition), she still proved criticalto theCorps.  Her knowledge oftheShoshone and Hidatsalanguageswasa great help during their journey. She communicated with other tribes andinterpretedfor Lewis and Clark. She was alsoskilledat finding edible plants, which proved to be crucial to supplementing their rationsalong the journey. Further, Sacagaweawas valuable to the expedition becauseher presencesignifiedpeace and trustworthiness. A group ofmentraveling with a woman and her baby appeared less menacingthan an all-malegroup, which could be mistaken for a war party. Sacagawea and her babyhelpedthose they encountered feelit was safe to befriend the newcomers. However, despite allhercontributions, only Sacagaweas husband ever received payment for work on the expedition.

Sacagawea faced the same dangers and difficulties as the rest of the expedition members,in addition tocaring for her infant son.During a crisis on May 14,1805,Sacagawea showed bravery and clear thinkingthat earnedLewisand Clarks praise and gratitude. Charbonneau was steering a boat through choppy waters when a suddengust of windcaused the boat to tip sideways and fill with water. The expeditions valuable suppliesfellinto the water and Charbonneau froze.Sacagawea stayed calm and rescuedinstruments, books, gunpowder, medicines, and clothingfrom the water. Without these supplies, the expedition would have been in serious trouble.

In July of 1805, the Corps wastraveling up the MissouriRiverwhenSacagawea recognized thethree forksofthe MissouriRiver.They were near an area where her people camped.On August 15,1805,the expeditionencounteredthe Shoshone tribe. Lewis and Clark arranged for a meeting with the chief, Cameahwait, and Sacagawea served asthetranslator. As she beganinterpreting, she realized that the chief wasin facther brother. She ran toembrace himand weptfromjoy. Though she was moved to tears, she resumed her duty as interpreter. She convinced the Shoshone to provide additional guides and horses to the expedition members.

Sacagaweacontinued with the Corps of Discoveryand the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean on November15,1805.Soon after, they neededto determine where they wouldestablishtheir winter quarters.Clarks journal shows that Sacagawea contributedtothis decision, a sign of the respect the white, male crewmembers held for her knowledge of the land.They built Fort Clatsop near the Columbia River and stayedthereuntil March 23,1806.

For the return journey, the Corps divided into two groups,one led by Lewis and the other by Clark. Traveling with Clark,Sacagawea guided his group south of the Yellowstone River by recommending aroutethrough theRockyMountains (known today as Bozeman Pass).Clark wrote in his journalon July 13,1806:

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

The two groups reunited on August 12,1806. Theyarrived atthe Hidatsa villages two days later, where Sacagawea and her family departed the expedition. Lewis and Clark prepared for their journey back to St. Louis, but before they left,Clark offered to takeSacagaweas sonPomp back to St. Louis with him. He wouldsee thatPompreceiveda good education andwouldraisePompas his own.Sacagawea and CharbonneaufeltPompwas too young (he wasnot yet two) but indicated they would bring him to St. Louis when he was older.

Little is known about Sacagaweas life after the expedition. When Pomp was five,Sacagawea and Charbonneaubrought himtoSt. Louisand left him with Clark to oversee his education.Sacagawea and Charbonneauthenwent back to the Upper Missouri River area and worked for Manuel Lisa, a Missouri Fur Company trader.

Sacagawealikelygave birth to a daughter named Lisette in 1812. There is some ambiguity aroundSacagaweasdeath. Records from Fort Manuel(Manuel Lisas trading post)indicate that she diedof typhusin December 1812. However, according to some Native American oral histories, Sacagawealived for manymoreyears in theShoshone lands in Wyoming,untilher deathin 1884.

Frazier, Neta Lohnes. Sacajawea: The Girl Nobody Knows. New York, D. McKay Co., 1967.

Howard, Harold P. Sacajawea. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

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

McBeth, Sally. Sacagawea (c. 1786/1788?20 December 1812?), the Shoshone (Snake) interpreter of the Lewis and Clark expedition. American National Biography. February 1. 2000; Accessed January 7, 2021.

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

Sacagawea. National Park Service. Accessed January 7, 2021.

Sacagawea. PBS. Accessed January 7, 2021.

Toussaint Charbonneau. PBS. Accessed January 7, 2021.

MLA Potter, Teresa, and Mariana Brandman. Sacagawea.  National Womens History Museum. National Womens History Museum, 2021. Date accessed.

Chicago Potter, Teresa, and Mariana Brandman. Sacagawea. National Womens History Museum. 2021.

Photo Credit: Drawing of Sacagawea by Henry Altman, 1906, Oregon Historical Society

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