Sacagawea (also Sakakawea) was the American Indian woman who served as interpreter, guide, emissary, and counselor for the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–1806. She assisted the group as they surveyed the continent between Fort Mandan near Bismarck, North Dakota, and Fort Clatsop near Astoria, Oregon. She and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, joined the exploring party on April 7, 1805, and left it on August 17, 1806, spending a period of seventeen months with the American explorers. Sacagawea, was nicknamed Janey by William Clark, has become an historic icon symbolizing the ingenuity and endurance of Native American women. Among the most engaging figures in U.S. history, her own genealogical history is claimed by at least two major Indian communities, and there is some disagreement over the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of her name. As a historical personage her young adult life was documented, but her ensuing years remain a mystery: She died either in South Dakota in her middle twenties or in Wyoming when nearly 100 years old. The contention over her history, coupled with the unique legacy of being the only woman to participate in the Corps of Discovery, has made her larger in death than she was in life. More than a century after her death, she is one of the most well-known, studied, revered, and celebrated American women.
Sacagawea, it is asserted, was born in the late 1780s in a northern Shoshone village located near present-day Tendoy, Idaho. The people to which she would have belonged were known as the Agaidikas, or the Salmoneaters, and were the ancestors of today's Lemhi Shoshone living at Fort Hall and near Salmon, Idaho. Around 1800, when Sacagawea was about twelve or fourteen years old, she and her band were in winter camp near the Three Forks area of the Upper Missouri River in Montana, when a hunting or warring party of the Hidatsa tribe captured and took her to the Knife River village of Metaharta near Washburn, North Dakota. In that region, she met French Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau whom the Americans later hired as an interpreter. When Lewis and Clark arrived in late 1804 to stay among the Hidatsa and to build Fort Mandan, Sacagawea was one of Charbonneau's two wives. She was fluent in Hidatsa and Shoshone, and Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa, French, and Gros Ventre. Her knowledge of topography and her familiarity with Native custom inspired Lewis and Clark to ask that she, with her infant son Jean Baptiste, join the exploring party. The baby had been born only weeks earlier, on February 11, 1805, and was affectionately nicknamed Pomp or Pompy by Clark.
Sacagawea's contributions to the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition were substantial, if not undisputed. As a mother with baby in arms, she lent credibility to the peaceful intentions of the Corps of Discovery. She augmented the health and diet of the explorers, bringing to the attention of the captains a variety of berries as well as edible plants such as wild artichokes, onions, camas, and nuts, where they could be found, and how they could be prepared. She identified roots for medicinal purposes, provided information that Lewis used in writing scientific descriptions, translated languages, recognized geographical landmarks, and recommended the best routes to travel. On one occasion she rescued journals and instruments after a boat capsized, and in November 1805 she cast her vote in favor of the group's remaining on the Pacific Coast. At Fort Clatsop she traded the beads off her buckskin dress to help procure needed supplies.
In a fortuitous reunion with her estranged brother, the Shoshone Chief Cameahwait, she indirectly lent much needed assistance when he allowed the explorers to trade with his band for horses and he provided the Americans with a knowledgeable escort (Old Toby) for the journey west across the Bitterroot Mountains and on to the Columbia River. Modern historians have largely dismissed Sacagawea's services as a pilot and guide, but her assistance was truly remarkable when considered in the broader context of what her role encompassed.
Following the return of the expedition to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages in August 1806, Sacagawea faded into the mists of temporal obscurity. There are two predominant theories concerning her origins and ultimate fate. The first one asserts that around 1810 William Clark invited Sacagawea (Hidatsa for "Bird Woman"), Charbonneau, and their son to St. Louis, so that Jean Baptiste could begin his education. The Charbonneaus would assume possession of 320 acres of land given by the U.S. government as partial compensation for Toussaint's services to the expedition. The Charbonneaus left Jean Baptiste in the care of Clark and by 1812 were reported to be at Fort Manuel, a fur trading post on the Missouri River. There, on December 20, Sacagawea died of what was called putrid fever.
The alternate version alleges that Sacajawea (Shoshone "Boat Pusher" or "Launcher") lived for many years and died on April 9, 1884, on the Wind River Indian Reservation in west central Wyoming. According to this version, she traveled through a large part of the West, remarried perhaps several times, and eventually reunited with her tribe, becoming a respected and influential elder.
Today Sacagawea is one of the most venerated women in American history. She has been memorialized in movies, documentaries, and books and in countless magazine and newspaper stories. Her hypothetical likeness has been the subject of numerous artworks, paintings, and statues, and her face adorns both a postage stamp and a one dollar coin. In 2003, the state of North Dakota installed a bronze of her in National Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.
SuAnn M. Reddick and Cary C. Collins
Mann, John W. W. 2004. Sacajawea's People: The Lemhi Shoshones and the Salmon River Country. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; McBeth, Sally. 1998. Essie's Story: The Life and Legacy of a Shoshone Teacher. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; McBeth, Sally. 2003. "Memory, History, and Contested Pasts: Reimagining Sacajawea/Sacagawea." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 27: 1–32.; Thomasma, Kenneth. 1997. The Truth About Sacajawea. Jackson, WY: Grandview Publishing.