Born around 1787
Died, probably in 1812
Sacagawea was born around 1787, the daughter of a Native American Shoshone, or "snake" nation, chief. As a young girl during a battle with another Indian tribe, the Hidatsus, or by some accounts the Minnetarees, Sacagawea was captured. She was made a slave of the Hidatsus for several years.
History is unclear about what happened next in Sacagawea’s life. Some accounts say that she was sold to the Mandan Indians and later sold to her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau. Other reports claim that the Hidatsus sold her to Charbonneau and he then took her East to live with the Mandan Indians. A third account says Charbonneau won Sacagawea in a bet with a Native American chief. While we are unsure of how Sacagawea came to be with Charbonneau, it is true that she became his wife and the two lived among the Mandan Indians on the Missouri River.
On October 26, 1804 while Sacagawea lived with the Mandan Indians, two explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark along with their party of men arrived at the village. They had been asked by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the Louisiana Territory which the United States purchased from the French in 1803. The explorers stayed with the Mandan tribe through the winter. During that time Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau as an interpreter.
Charbonneau was able to speak several different Native American languages, but one which he could not speak was Shoshone, the language of Sacagawea’s own people. The Shoshone Indians were an important link along the way for the Lewis and Clark expedition. The Shoshoni lived near the Rocky Mountains. The tribe was known for the horses they kept, which Lewis and Clark hoped they might use to cross the mountains. So it was agreed that Sacagawea would go on the trip as an interpreter.
Not only did Sacagawea act as an interpreter for the Shoshone people, but most Native American tribes did not take women or children into battle. So for those tribes with whom the exploration party could not communicate, Sacagawea’s presence signaled that their trip was a peaceful one. In February of the winter with the Mandan Indians, Sacagawea gave birth to her first baby. His given name was Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, but Sacagawea called him Pomp, which means ‘first-born’ in the Shoshone language.
The Lewis and Clark expedition left the Mandan village in April of 1805 with Sacagawea carrying her infant son on her back. They sailed up the Missouri River. Along the way Sacagawea proved to be a valuable member of the party. Once when the boat she traveled in began to tip she rescued much of the cargo. Packages of medicine, maps, books, and supplies that began to float away Sacagawea saved. In addition she showed the men how to find wild roots for food to help balance their diet.
In June of 1805 the expedition reached the Great Falls of Missouri. Sacagawea had become sick. Her husband Charbonneau was not a caring man and was often cruel to Sacagawea, so Captain Lewis nursed Sacagawea back to health.
By July 1805 the party reached the area of the Shoshone people. She guided the men through what is now called the Bozeman Pass in Montana, a gap in the mountains leading to the Yellowstone River. In August Lewis and three of his men left the rest of the party to search for the Shoshoni. Several different times they spotted one or more Shoshone Indians, but the Indians ran in fear. At last Lewis met three women. He offered them necklaces of beads and rubbed bright red paint on their cheeks, which Sacagawea had told him was a Shoshone sign for peace.
Later when Sacagawea and the rest of the expedition met the tribe, Sacagawea acted as interpreter. She was taken to the Shoshone Chief. When she saw him, Sacagawea recognized him as her brother Cameahwait, who she thought died along with her father when her tribe was attacked during her childhood. Cameahwait sold them horses, agreed to help transport their gear over the mountain, and to provide a guide for the next part of their journey.
In November of 1805 the expedition arrived at the Pacific Ocean. They built a fort, Fort Clatsop, near the ocean to spend the winter. On March 23, 1806 the party left the fort for the return journey. It was not until August of that same year that Sacagawea and the rest of the expedition made it back to the Mandan villages.
The date and circumstances of her death are uncertain, and actually vary by more than 70 years. The account, now considered to be true, places her death in 1812 while on a trip with her husband. However, for a long time a second account which records the death in 1884 of a Shoshoni woman named "Bird Woman", the Shoshoni meaning of "Sacagawea" was in the past considered to possibly be Sacagawea of the Lewis and Clark expedition. But even before the earliest suggested date of her death, Sacagawea had traveled thousands of miles on the Lewis and Clark expedition, acting as a guide, interpretor, and as a sign of peace.
For her work she was awarded a silver medal, which was the most prized of the gifts Lewis and Clark carried to offer to the Native American chiefs as signs of peace and friendship. Today these medals are known as the Jefferson peace medals. And now in the year 2000 Sacagawea is once again being remembered for her important participation in a historic event. It is her picture that is minted on the year 2000 gold colored one dollar United States coin.
Books for Children
- Sacajawea by Kate Jassem ( amazon.com has it)
- Girls Who Rocked The World: Heroines From Sacajawea To Sheryl Swoopes by Amelie Welden - appropriate for children ages 9 and up ( amazon.com has it)
- Native American Coin page has a a picture of the Sacagawea dollar coin.
- The Lewis and Clark Expedition site has a wealth of information including maps.
- Sacagawea gives a biography including information about her children and one possible answer to her later years by PBS online.