Today, we are going to be taking a look at the life and accomplishments of Sacagawea. Most people recognize Sacagawea as the young Native American woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition as they made their way west, but what was her exact role?
Sacagawea was from the Shoshone Tribe and was born around 1788. Little is known about her early life, but she was kidnapped by Mandan Indians when she was around 12 years old and taken to their village, located in what is now North Dakota. When she was around 13 years old, she married a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. Sacagawea was actually his second wife.
In 1804, when the Lewis and Clark expedition was wintered at Fort Mandan, they agreed to hire Charbonneau and Sacagawea as interpreters, as Charbonneau spoke Mandan and Sacagawea spoke Shoshone. Sacagawea also gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste that winter, who she would carry with her throughout the entire expedition. As the expedition left Fort Mandan in the spring, Sacagawea would prove to be an invaluable member of the party. While Charbonneau did provide a role as a translator and cook for the expedition, he was generally disliked by several members of the party. In several instances, he proved to be cowardly and lazy, nearly capsizing a boat that held valuable items of the expedition, as well as his unwillingness to perform guard duties and perform manual labor.
However, Sacagawea greatly helped the expedition on numerous occasions. When meeting the Shoshone Tribe, she recognized the chief, who happened to be her own brother. The expedition was able to trade for horses and the Shoshone provided guides to cross the Rocky Mountains. While Sacagawea is mostly recognized as a guide for the expedition, her role was more of an interpreter. However, she greatly benefited the expedition in several ways.
The presence of a Native American woman and her baby helped give the expedition a non-threatening presence to the various tribes that were encountered on their journey west. Helping the expedition establish positive relations with these various tribes was perhaps her greatest benefit. Sacagawea was around 16 years old when she joined the expedition, and to carry an infant the entire way (and back) is an amazing feat. She also recognized several landmarks that helped the expedition choose optimal routes on their way to the Pacific Ocean.
After the expedition, William Clark provided an education at the St. Louis Academy for Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, who she had carried throughout the journey (Clark would later adopt Jean Baptiste). Little is known about her life after the expedition. Some accounts state that Sacagawea died from a fever at 25 years old. Some Native American accounts believe that she lived to be in her 90s.
1. "Sacagawea". Lewis and Clark. Public Broadcasting Service
2. Lewis, Meriwether; Clark, William; et al. (1805). "August 17, 1805". The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
3. Hebard, Grace Raymond (1933). Sacajawea: Guide and Interpreter of Lewis and Clark (2012 ed.). Courier Corporation.