Northeast Route 2001

Home Up

Sacagawea: A Life Long Legacy

Written by Jen

            Most American citizens have heard about the legendary men who where involved with the Corps of Discovery.   Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are as unforgettable as the mission they accomplished.  But, do we truly understand the crucial role Sacagawea played in the expedition too?  Without Sacagawea, the explorers would not have been nearly as successful.  She, truly fitting her Indian name, “The Bird Women,” was intelligent, courageous, and remarkable.  She had an important role in enabling the men to navigate the vast western sea of land that is now a part of the United States of America (Hayes 18-19).

            Sacagawea was born into the Lemhi Shoshone tribe that dwelled on a part of land in present day Idaho near the Montana border.  Her father was the chief of the Shoshones.  At the age of ten, the Minitaree Sioux took her captive when they ambushed and decimated the Shoshone village either killing or capturing nearly everyone.  She was then sold to the Hidatsa and Mandan Sioux and was taken to their village on the upper Missouri River near present day Bismarck, North Dakota.  She was enslaved there until she was thirteen years old (People in the West 1-2).

Sacagawea was finally freed from slavery when Red Arrow, her Mandan captor, gambled and lost her in a bet.  Toussaint Charbonneau was the victor and soon claimed Sacagawea as his wife.  Toussaint Charbonneau was a middle-aged French-Canadian fur trapper. Clark noted throughout his journal that Charbonneau was “irritable, abusive, polygamous, ill-mannered, and lazy” (Hopscotch 1-3).

 The Corps of Discovery set up a winter camp at the Fort Mandan Trading Post on the Missouri River in North Dakota.  They met Toussaint Charbonneau and his Indian wife, Sacagawea, there.  Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark decided to hire Charbonneau as an interpreter since he could speak French and Hidatsa.  The one condition in hiring Charbonneau though, is that he bring his wife along.  She knew how to speak Hidatsa and Shoshone so she would be a valuable asset when the expedition reached the Rocky Mountains and they would need to purchase horses from the Shoshones to cross the rugged terrain (“Sacagawea” 1-3).

            Some say that Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark hired Toussaint Charbonneau because they really just wanted Sacagawea to come along.  After all, she did know the territory better than any other men.  The Corps of Discovery desperately needed help and guidance in order to find the Pacific safely.  They knew that the expedition they were about to embark upon would be difficult.  None of the men knew what lay ahead, and they really wanted someone along who did (Thomasma 1-17).

 Bringing Sacagawea along would have many advantages.  She would be very useful in trading for supplies and would also be a symbol of peace.  No war party ever brought women to war and especially would not bring along their young children.  Most of the Indian tribes on the west side of the Rocky Mountains had never seen whites before so it would be strange for them to see the Europeans.  When the tribes saw familiar looking features on Sacagawea and Pomp in the mob of whites, they would not fear because they would know that the group meant no harm (“Sacagawea” 1-3).

Sacagawea also could help the expedition when they ran out of food because she knew what plants and roots were edible.  Most of the men had never seen any of the flowers and trees that they encountered on the journey.  They learned things many things about life on the frontier from her.  What they learned from her helped them stay alive and for the most part, very healthy (Thomasma 1-17).

            Sacagawea gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, right before the expedition set out in the spring.  She endured a grueling delivery under primitive and unsanitary conditions.  A couple of months later she strapped him on her back by cradleboard and they set out on the trip.  In 1805, Jean Baptiste became the youngest explorer in America’s history.  Sacagawea carried him on her back for almost the entire time, an 8,000 mile distance.  Throughout the journey, Captain Clark grew to love the young boy and called him “Pomp” or “Pompey” for “His Little Dancing Boy.”  Clark even named a pillar after him in present day Montana (Hayes 18-19).

For the first few months of the expedition, Sacagawea was taken for granted and the men treated her with indifference.  One day though, the men really realized their appreciation of her.  When they where paddling upstream in boats, an unexpected gust of wind caught the bow of one of the canoes and it tipped into the turbulent, thrashing river and they almost lost many important belongings.  Sacagawea was the only one brave enough to dive into the raging water to retrieve the stuff.  She saved many important documents, instruments, books, medicine, and merchandise while Charbonneau, who was the one steering the boat, was frozen in fear.  The men, who couldn’t care less previously, felt incredible respect for this Indian woman and recognized her outstanding assistance and undaunted courage (Butterfield 1-11).

 On another part of the expedition, Sacagawea suffered from a spreading bacterial infection and experienced septic shock.  The infection she had was frequently deadly before today’s antibiotics.  Her pulse, Lewis recorded in his journal, “was scarcely perceptible,” and then suddenly became quick and irregular.  She had some strong nervous symptoms and her fingers twitched uncontrollably.  The men said she complained that the lower section of her abdomen ached and that she was out of her senses.  Clark stated that, “if she dies it will be the fault of her husband as I am now convinced,” as Clark’s medical knowledge and her symptoms show that she probably had a venereal disease.  Lewis and Clark tried many things in hopes to make her better, such as bleeding her, which was a common treatment in the 1800’s.  Despite their help though, her condition only continued to worsen  (Cole 1-12).

            When the expedition reached the White Sulfur Springs, Lewis gave her a remedy of some water from the springs, opium, and ground bark.  She started to recover and Clark moved her to the back of his sleeping quarters where she would be more protected from the weather.  Clark had reason to believe that Charbonneau was at fault for his wife’s condition, since she was in a terrible state and yet he showed no remorse.  He made her go gather apples, a strenuous task that she staggered to do, when she had little strength because no matter what, he thought, it was her duty to be obedient  (White 115-116).

  As Sacagawea’s condition continued to decline, Charbonneau showed no concern if he even noticed at all.  He said he didn’t care about the “Squaw” he purchased and he refused to follow Lewis’s instructions to take care of his wife and give her the rest and food she needed.  In fact, during her sickness, he forced her to carry heavy luggage and continue to nurse the baby.  Finally, Lewis intervened and gave her the rest and medication that was crucial to her well being at the time.   It’s no wonder that Sacagawea became better almost immediately after that (Cole 12).

On July 29, 1805, right after Sacagawea had mostly recovered from the illness, the expedition encountered yet another almost fatal hardship, a flash flood that nearly ruined everything and drowned Sacagawea, Pompey, William Clark, and Toussaint Charbonneau.  They were stuck, huddling in a previously dry ravine as mud, rock, water, and other debris crashed all around them.  Sacagawea rescued Pomp barely in time as he was being wisked away by the forceful water.  Charbonneau on the other hand, once again showed his lack of courage and complete incompetence.  He was so afraid in fact, that he dropped his gun, shot pouch, horn, tomahawk, and Clark’s compass.  When the storm let up, Clark had some men in the expedition run back to camp and get dry clothes for the Indian woman and child.  He was worried that she would have a relapse of sickness so he gave her some rum to help her recover from the canteen that York had been carrying.  This was an unheard of gesture of white men or Indians to give a “Squaw”  (Butterfield 1-11).

            Once the expedition reached the Jefferson River, Sacagawea began to recognize the territory.  She saw a huge rock in the river that her people called the “Beaver’s Head.”  Then she saw a pass that she remembered from childhood and she led the men through it.  That pass is now called Bozeman Pass and it was chosen for the Northern Pacific Railway to travel through.  In August, the expedition found Sacagawea’s people near the western border of Montana.  One of the greatest coincidences occurred, Sacagawea’s brother had become the chief of the Shoshone tribe when her father died.  The tribe, who hadn’t seen her for five years since the separation, was overjoyed to see her again and there was a very emotional reunion between Sacagawea, her brother, Chief Cameahwait, and another Indian girl who was captured at the same time as Sacagawea, but had escaped and returned to her people  (White 115-116).

            Captain Lewis had secured a deal with the Shoshones.  It was decided that the Corps of Discovery would get horses from the Shoshone, and in turn the expedition would give the Shoshone guns that would enable them to fight their enemies and have an easier way to hunt buffalo.  But in fact, the Shoshone leaders had a different plan.  Sacagawea overheard some people in her band talking to each other about abandoning the expedition and not giving them the horses they had promised.  They thought that if they helped the white men it would only bring more to their land.  The tribe knew that the expedition desperately needed the horses to travel the territory because it would be difficult to do on foot alone.  When Sacagawea heard this information, she immediately told Charbonneau to interpret the information to the captains.  The problem though, was that he was extremely jealous of her by then.  After all, Lewis and Clark treated her better than they did him.  An example of their respect for her is that she was allowed to ride on horseback, which was forbidden for women to do in her tribe.  Usually women were forced to walk behind the mounted men.  Instead, she got to ride while Toussaint walked, which enraged Charbonneau a lot (Butterfield 1-11).

When Charbonneau got the urgent information, he withheld it until hours later that night.  Finally, when Lewis found out the Shoshones’ plan of deceit, he became extremely angry that Charbonneau didn’t tell him the vital information sooner.  Lewis met with the three chiefs at once and convinced them to keep their promise.  Since Sacagawea was traveling with these men, and her brother trusted the relationship, they persuaded the chiefs to continue to uphold the deal. The expedition relied tremendously on them for horses and considering that in the beginning the chiefs had some doubts, the Corps of Discovery still got what they needed in the end and everything was successfully resolved for both parties (Butterfield 1-11).

  The Shoshones were decent to the men in the expedition.  They weren’t well off, but still they were generous with what they had and they shared their belongings with the men.  They were, as Lewis recorded, “cheerful, frank, fair in dealing, enjoyed dressing well, honest, not beggarly, and everyone did what they pleased”  (Butterfield 1-11).

Now that Sacagawea had accomplished her task, she had a difficult decision to make.  Should she stay with her people or continue on with the expedition?  After the excitement of seeing her tribe wore off, the truth sunk in.  The Shoshones were in an awful state of poverty and the attitude towards women hadn’t changed at all.  She remembered the discrimination the women endured that she witnessed in her childhood. Why return to the people who didn’t treat women well, when she could enjoy the freedoms that the men in the Corps of Discovery gave her?  She had earned so much respect and to stay with her tribe would mean that she would be forced into inequality again (Thomasma 1-9).

 It was incomprehensible what Indian women in the Shoshone tribe went through.  It’s hard to believe that they were prostituted by their own husbands.  The women were forced to do hard work and were terribly mistreated.  The males were privileged and the females were not.  They disciplined girls severely and never whipped the boys because they felt it would break their spirits and they would never regain their independence.  Women had to do difficult work to.  Their jobs were to collect fruits, see to the children, clean the teepees, take care of the horses, cook, make and mend apparel.  They were forced to gather wood so they could make fires.  If the tribe traveled, they would be in charge of packing the horses and taking care of the baggage.  Meanwhile, the men only had to hunt and fish and sometimes engage in war  (Thomasma 1-9).

Many women were called “Squaw” by men which was a derogatory Algonquin name meaning prostitute.  Shoshone women enjoyed few freedoms and they weren’t given decent civil rights.  When Lewis and Clark met the young, sixteen year old Sacagawea at Fort Mandan, she had very few positive experiences in her lifetime.  She experienced a lot of hardships and instead of letting it break her spirits though, she just became stronger.  Even though theses practices were widely held in other Shoshone bands, it was really awful in hers because they were in an extremely distressed state in the 1800’s.  Their enemies were constantly robbing and attacking them.  Frequently the Shoshone people were captured or killed.  They were left poor, on the run, and breaking values that would’ve created the unity needed to keep peace in the tribe.  The Shoshone had no defense against the enemy tribes since they only fought with bows and arrows whereas the Blackfeet and Sioux had rifles and guns that the whites had given them  (“Sacagawea” 1-3).

  In every conflict the Shoshone lost many belongings and members of their tribe.  Sacagawea was warmly welcomed back, but feelings had changed.  She had many privileges that other women didn’t receive.  In fact, the women were jealous of her.   So, Sacagawea made her decision, she would continue on with the expedition  (Butterfield 1-11).

            During the expedition, Lewis and Clark became less and less tolerant with Toussaint Charbonneau.  They didn’t like the way he treated his wife and they were upset with all the mistakes he made.  On August 14, 1805, Lewis wrote that Charbonneau hit Sacagawea and that Clark gave him a severe reprimand.  At that period of time, wife abuse was common and accepted even.  It’s amazing that the crew grew to appreciate her so much that they wouldn’t let anything happen to her.  For most of her life, she longed to reunite with her people, but once she experienced the values that the men in the Corps of Discovery gave her, she never wanted to go back to the heinous way of life that was practiced in her band  (“Sacagawea” 1-3).

            As an article in Hopscotch magazine states, “On January 6, 1806, Sacagawea gazed in awe across an immense body of water.  Towering waves crashed on the beach before her.  She was extremely tired but gratified.  She had helped the expedition reach its final destination- the Pacific Ocean.”  They had finally reached the coast.  Only two canoes would be able to see it first and Sacagawea wanted to be in one of them.  She told Lewis that it would be a shame to have traveled that far and be delayed in seeing it.  She was very insistent and the captains let her go.  By that time she was completely equal to the rest of the men.  She was even the first Indian and woman to vote.  The two minorities that she belonged to weren’t able to vote for one hundred years after she did.  The issue the expedition was trying to resolve was where they were going to winter.  The captains included everyone in the vote, even Clark’s African-American manservant, York.  The group finally decided to stay the winter at Fort Clatsop in Astoria, Oregon (Hopscotch 1-3).

            When the expedition reached the Mandan and Hidatsa villages on their return home, Sacagawea’s journey came to closure.  It was the most exciting thing she ever did in her life.  She received a silver metal for participating and that was it.  Besides York and Sacagawea, everyone else in the expedition received $500 and 320 acres of land.  During the expedition, she had acquired a taste of freedom.  When she returned to the villages though, she reverted back to the way life was prior to the expedition, as she realized that the white men no longer needed the services of a young Native American woman.  She remained living with her controlling and abusive husband with his two other “Squaw” wives  (“Sacagawea” 1-3).

One of the most puzzling things about Sacagawea’s life is where and when she died.  There are many theories because after the expedition, no one really cared about her at all so nobody took notice of what she was doing.  She was left unappreciated and was given slave like treatment that was common for females at that time.  There is some evidence that suggests she died at Fort Manuel on December 20, 1812.  She was twenty-four years old when she died in the epidemic of “putrid” fever.  She had given birth to another child, Lisette, who was an infant when Sacagawea passed away.  Her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, evidently traveled to St. Louis after her death and left Pomp and the new born with William Clark.  Then, after leaving his children in Clark’s care, he continued on to fur trap for the American Fur Trading Company.  Toussaint stayed at Fort Manuel Lisa which was attacked by Indians.  He was among fifteen men who died there (Anderson 1-2).

An opposing theory of what happened to Sacagawea is that she returned to the Lemhi Shoshone and lived on the Wind River Reservation where she died in 1884.  There are a few problems with this theory because the woman on the reservation was called “Sacajawea,” which interpreted from the Shoshone language means, “Boat Launcher.”  Sacagawea, on the other hand, pronounced her name with a strong “G” sound as in Sa-ca’-ga-we’-a.  Which means, “Bird Woman.”  There is no “J” sound in it because there are no “J’s” in the Hidatsa alphabet.  Her name is Hidatsa because when she was enslaved at Fort Mandan, her captors assigned her that name.  Lewis and Clark clearly called her “The Bird Woman” in their journals and pronounced her name with a “G” in the third syllable.  To say that the Wind River Woman was the Sacagawea of the Lewis and Clark expedition, would be contradicting Lewis and Clark.  The people living on the reservation when she died in 1884, said she was one hundred years old, but Sacagawea would’ve only been seventy-eight.  She was sixteen when she journeyed on the expedition and the Wind River Woman would’ve been twenty-one when it took place.  Hence, that woman could not have been the Sacagawea that went with the Corps of Discovery  (Anderson 1-2).

While Sacagawea was alive, she did not get the recognition she deserved.  Only after her death in 1812, seven years following the expedition, did people begin to realize her significance.  Today, she has many things dedicated in honor of her.  A river, a peak, and a mountain pass bear her name.  Also a monument, erected in 1963, stands as a sentimental reminder of the young woman’s intelligence, dignity, and bravery.  Plus, now a coin is being distributed with Sacagawea and her son on the front.  It is the second coin in United States history to feature a female.  The first was the ill-fated Susan B. Anthony dollar of the late 1970’s.  The Sacagawea coin is worth one dollar and is already in circulation.  It is golden in color and is a little bigger than the quarter and the U.S. Mint can produce eight hundred coins per minute during peak periods.  It’s about time that we honor such a heroic female figure on our money.  As an article in Hopscotch magazine says, “By sharing her knowledge and talents, this gentle Shoshone girl proved that one person really can make a difference,” and she surely did  (Hopscotch 1-3, and U.S. Bank 1).

The author of “Captive Indian Interpreter, Great American Legend: Her Life and Death,” sums up precisely the truth of Sacagawea and the legacy she left behind.  “Sacagawea’s female status and her ethnic identity left her in the background of both white and tribal society.  Only after the expedition’s incredible value became popularly and politically well accepted, did Sacagawea’s personal courage, sacrifices, and contributions to the opening of the west gain the recognition they deserve” (Butterfield 1-11).


Works Cited Page

Anderson, Irving. “Sacajawea?-Sakakawea? -Sacagawea? Spelling-Pronunciation-

            Meaning.”  We Proceed On 1975: 1 and 2.

Butterfield, Bonnie.  “Captive Indian Interpreter, Great American Legend: Her Life and

            Death.”  March 30, 2001.  Available Internet: 


Cole, Philip.  Montana in Miniature. Kalispell, Montana: O’Neil Publishers, 1996

Hayes, Otis. “The Bird Woman.” Cobblestone: History Magazine for Young People

September 1980: 18 and 19.

“Sacagawea.” March 7, 2001. Available Internet:

“This Dollar is Golden.”  U.S. Banker 2000: 1

Thomasma, Kenneth.  The Truth About Sacagawea.  Jackson, Wyoming: Grandview

            Publishing Co., 1997.

“Unknown.”  Hopscotch  2000: 1-3

Unknown. “Sacagawea.” March 28, 2001. Available Internet:


White, Alana.  Sacagawea Westward With Lewis and Clark. Springfield, New Jersey:              Enslow Publishers Inc., 1997.




Comments?  Contact webmaster