In the early 1800s, Sacajawea accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their historical expedition from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Ocean. Sacajawea is responsible in large part for the success of the expedition, due to her navigational, diplomatic, and translating skills.
Sacajawea was an interpreter and guide for and the only woman member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. She was born somewhere between 1784 and 1788 into the Lehmi band of the Shoshone Indians who lived in the eastern part of the Salmon River area of present-day central Idaho. Her father was chief of her village. Sacajawea's Shoshone name was Boinaiv, which means "Grass Maiden." The primary documentation of Sacajawea's life is contained in the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, a lawyer and a clerk of a fur trading company who led an expedition authorized by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to explore the recently purchased Louisiana Territory. In addition, the Shoshone Indians have many stories in their oral tradition about Sacajawea, and many living Shoshone trace their ancestry to her. Nevertheless, there is much controversy surrounding the life of this intrepid woman.
Captured by Hidatsa War Party
In 1800, when the Shoshone girl, Boinaiv, was about 12 years old, her band was camped at the Three Forks of the Missouri River in Montana when they encountered some Hidatsa warriors. The warriors killed four men, four women and a number of boys. Several girls and boys, including Boinaiv, were captured and taken back to the Hidatsa village. At the Hidatsa camp, Boinaiv was given the name Sacagawea by her captors, which means "Bird Woman." There is more than a little argument over the derivation and spelling of Sacajawea's name. Sacajawea is a name meaning "Boat Launcher" in Shoshone. The Original Journals of Lewis and Clark support a Hidatsa origin. On May 20, 1805, Lewis wrote of "Sah-ca-ger-we-ah or Bird Woman's River" as a name for what is now Crooked Creek in north-central Montana. Sometime between 1800 and 1804, Sacajawea and another girl were sold to (or won in a gambling match by) trader Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian who was residing among the Hidatsa. He eventually married both girls.
Joins the "Corps of Discovery"
In 1803, Jefferson and the U. S. Congress authorized a "Voyage of Discovery" by which a group of men would explore the territory between the Mississippi and Columbia Rivers and attempt to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson's secretary and confidante, Lewis, and Lewis's friend Clark were assigned to lead the corps of explorers. The expedition of some 45 men left St. Louis, Missouri, on May 14, 1804. They arrived at the Mandan and Hidatsa villages near the mouth of the Knife River in North Dakota on October 26, 1804. There, they built cabins in a clearing below the villages and settled in for the winter.
On November 4, 1804, Clark wrote in his journal: "a Mr. Chaubonie [Charbonneau] interpreter from the Gross Ventre nation came to see us … this man wished to hire as an interpreter." Clark's field notes for the same day state that both Charbonneau and Sacajawea were hired: "a french man by name Chabonah who speaks the Big Belley language visited us, he wished to hire and informed us his 2 Squaws were Snake [Shoshone] Indians, we engaged him to go on with us and take one of his wives to interpret the Snake language." Lewis and Clark realized that they would need someone to help interpret and help secure supplies from the Shoshone when they passed through their territory. As it later turned out, the process of interpretation was a cumbersome matter. Sacajawea conversed with her husband in Gros Ventre. Charbonneau then passed on Sacajawea's words in French to another individual in the party who spoke French and English; that individual then relayed the information along to Lewis and Clark in English. Sacajawea also made extensive use of sign language, which many in the party could interpret.
At the time the party had come to the Mandan villages, Sacajawea was pregnant. Lewis duly noted in his journal the birth on February 11, 1805, of a "fine boy," although Sacajawea's "labor was tedious and the pain violent." The boy was named Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Even with an infant, Sacajawea and her husband were hired as interpreters. On April 7, 1805, Sacajawea—carrying her infant in a cradleboard—accompanied the expedition out of the Mandan villages for the trek west. Clark listed among the 32 members of the party "my servant, York; George Drewyer, who acts as hunter and interpreter; Sharbonah and his Indian squaw to act as Interpreter and interpretess for the Snake Indians … and Shabonah's infant."
Sacajawea quickly demonstrated her knowledge of edible plants along the course. Lewis wrote on April 9 that when the expedition stopped for dinner Sacajawea "busied herself in search for the wild artichokes… . This operation she performed by penetrating the earth with a sharp stick about some collection of driftwood. Her labors soon proved successful and she procured a good quantity of these roots." At many other points in the trip, Sacajawea gathered, stored, and prepared wild edibles for the party, especially a plentiful root called Year-pah by the Shoshones.
On May 14, the party encountered heavy winds near the Yellowstone River. Charbonneau was at the helm of the pirogue, or canoe, which held some supplies and valuables gathered during the expedition. Lewis noted that "it happened unfortunately for us this evening that Charbono was at the helm of this perogue … ; Charbono cannot swim and is perhaps the most timid waterman in the world." Both Lewis and Clark were on shore and could only watch in horror at what occurred next. Clark wrote: "We proceeded on very well until about 6 o'clock. A squall of wind struck our sail broadside and turned the perogue nearly over, and in this situation the perogue remained until the sail was cut down in which time she nearly filled with water. The articles which floated out were nearly all caught by the squaw who was in the rear. This accident had like to have cost us dearly; for in this perogue were embarked our papers, instruments, books, medicine, a great proportion of our merchandise." Lewis noted in his journal: "The Indian woman, to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution with any person on board at the time of the accident, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard." About a week later, Lewis recorded that a recently discovered river was named in Sacajawea's honor, no doubt in recognition of her important service to the party. According to Lewis: "About five miles above the mouth of Shell river, a handsome river of about fifty yards in width discharged itself into the Shell river on the starboard or upper side. This stream we called Sah-ca-ger-we-ah or 'Bird Woman's river,' after our interpreter, the Snake woman."
On June 10, Sacajawea became ill and remained so for the next several days. This event is discussed at length in the journals of both Lewis and Clark, who were extremely concerned for her welfare. Both took turns tending to her. On June 16, Clark wrote that Sacajawea was "very bad and will take no medicine whatever until her husband, finding her out of her senses, easily prevailed upon her to take medicine. If she dies it will be the fault of her husband." Lewis wrote that Sacajawea's illness "gave me some concern as well for the poor object herself, then with a young child in her arms, as from the consideration of her being our only dependence for a friendly negotiation with the Snake [Shoshone] Indians on whom we depend for horses to assist us in our portage from the Missouri to the Columbia River." Sacajawea recovered from this illness, but a few days later, on June 29, she, her infant son, Charbonneau, and the servant York nearly drowned in a flash flood. Fortunately, Clark hurried the group to safer ground and all were spared.
Reunion with the Shoshones
On July 30, 1805, the party passed the spot on the Three Forks of the Missouri where Sacajawea was taken from her people some five years previously. A little over one week later, at Beaverhead Rock, Sacajawea recognized her homeland and notified the expedition that the Shoshones had to be near. On August 13, Lewis took an advance party on ahead to find and meet the Shoshone while Clark remained behind with Sacajawea and the rest of the group. The next day, Charbonneau was observed by Clark on two occasions to strike his wife, for which Clark severely reprimanded him.
On August 17, Clark, Sacajawea, and the rest of the party came upon Lewis who had met the Lehmi-Shoshone chief Cameahwait. Clark described what happened: "I saw at a distance several Indians on horseback coming towards me. The interpreter and squaw, who were before me at some distance, danced for the joyful sight, and she made signs to me that they were her nation." The Biddle edition of the journals of Lewis and Clark notes that Sacajawea was sent for to interpret between Lewis and Clark and Cameahwait: "She came into the tent, sat down, and was beginning to interpret, when in the person of Cameahwait she recognized her brother; she instantly jumped up and ran and embraced him, throwing over him her blanket and weeping profusely … ; after some conversation between them she resumed her seat, and attempted to interpret for us, but her new situation seemed to overpower her, and she was frequently interrupted by tears." Sacajawea learned that her only surviving family were two brothers and a son of her eldest sister, whom she immediately adopted. She also met the Shoshone man to whom she had been promised as a child; however, he was no longer interested in her because she had borne a child with another man. While among her people, Sacajawea helped to secure horses, supplies, and Shoshone guides to assist in the expedition's trip across the Rocky Mountains.
Leaving her adopted son in the care of her brother Cameahwait, Sacajawea and the rest of the party traveled on, eventually following the Snake River to its junction with the Columbia, and on toward the Pacific Ocean. On October 13, 1805, Clark again commented on the value of having Sacajawea as a member of the expedition: "The wife of Shabono our interpreter we find reconciles all the Indians as to our friendly intentions a woman with a party of men is a token of peace." In November 1805, a lead party from the expedition reached the ocean. Having heard that this group had discovered a beached whale, Sacajawea insisted that Lewis and Clark take her to see the ocean. Lewis wrote on January 6, 1805: "The Indian woman was very importunate to be permitted to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very bad she could not be permitted to see either."
When the party separated on the return trip in order to explore various routes, Sacajawea joined Clark, directing him through the territory of her people, pointing out edible berries and roots, and suggesting that Clark take the Bozeman Pass to rejoin the other members at the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. Clark noted on July 13, 1806, that "The Indian woman, who has been of great service to me as a pilot through this country, recommends a gap in the mountains more south which I shall cross."
Two days after the parties were rejoined, on August 14, 1806, the expedition arrived back at the Mandan villages. Here Charbonneau and Sacajawea decided to remain. Clark offered to adopt their son Jean Baptiste, whom he had affectionately called "Pomp" on the trip. They accepted Clark's offer for a later time after the infant was weaned. On the return trip to St. Louis, Clark wrote a letter to Charbonneau, inviting him to come live and work in St. Louis and commenting: "your woman, who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatiguing route to the Pacific Ocean and back, deserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that route than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans." While Charbonneau was paid for his services, Sacajawea, as his wife, received no financial remuneration separate from her husband.
Controversy Remains over Sacagawea's Later Years
There is strong evidence to indicate that Sacajawea lived for only a few short years after parting ways with the Lewis and Clark expedition. It may be that Charbonneau accepted Clark's invitation to come to Missouri and farm land. On April 2, 1811, a lawyer and traveler named Henry Brackenridge was on a boat from St. Louis to the Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa villages of North and South Dakota. He noted in his journal for that day (cited in Ella E. Clark's and Margot Edmonds's Sacagawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition): "We have on board a Frenchman named Charbonet, with his wife, an Indian woman of the Snake nation, both of whom had accompanied Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, and were of great service. The woman, a good creature, of a mild and gentle disposition, was greatly attached to the whites, whose manners and dress she tried to imitate; but she had become sickly, and longed to revisit her native country; her husband, also, who had spent many years amongst the Indians, was become weary of a civilized life."
It is believed by many scholars that Charbonneau and Sacajawea, having left their son Jean Baptiste with Clark to raise in St. Louis (Jean Baptiste later became a respected interpreter and mountain man) took their infant daughter named Lizette, and traveled to the Missouri Fur Company of Manuel Lisa in South Dakota. An employee of the fur company, John C. Luttig, recorded in his journal on December 20, 1812: "this Evening the Wife of Charbonneau, a Snake Squaw died of a putrid fever she was a good and the best Woman in the fort aged abt 25 years she left a fine infant girl." Sacajawea was buried in the grounds of the fort. In addition, William Clark published an account book for the period of 1825-1828, in which he listed the members of the expedition and whether they were then either living or dead. He recorded Sacajawea as deceased.
Another theory of Sacajawea's life, supported among others by an early biographer, Dr. Grace Hebard of the University of Wyoming, relates that Sacajawea actually left her husband, took her son Jean Baptiste and adopted son— named Bazil—and went to live with the Comanches. There she married a man named Jerk Meat and bore five more children. Later, Sacajawea returned to her homeland to live with her Shoshone people at what was now the Wind River Agency. She was called Porivo ("Chief") at Wind River and became an active tribal leader. She was reported by some Shoshones, Indian agents, and missionaries to have died at the age of about 100 in 1884 and to have been buried at Fort Washakie. Opponents of this theory argue that the woman who called herself Sacajawea was actually another Shoshone woman.
The Shoshones of Fort Washakie have started a project to document the descendants of Sacajawea. As of mid-1993, more than 400 Shoshones who can trace their ancestry to Sacajawea have been counted. Many among them believe that she indeed lived a long and full life.
From the time of her marriage, Sacajawea's life became inextricably bound to a group of Anglo explorers and their quest for westward expansion. In spite of separation from her people, illness, physical abuse from her spouse, and an infant to care for, Sacajawea made key contributions to the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Her skills as an interpreter and as liaison between the Shoshone and the expedition, her knowledge of the flora and fauna and of the terrain along much of the route, and her common sense and good humor were key elements that contributed to the successful resolution of the journey.
Sacajawea has become one of the most memorialized women in American history. A bronze statue of her was exhibited during the centennial observance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in St. Louis in 1904. Another statue was commissioned by a women's suffrage group in Oregon, with the unveiling set to coincide with the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland in 1905. Statues also reside in Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Virginia. In addition to the river in Montana named for Sacajawea by Lewis and Clark, other memorials include three mountains, two lakes, and numerous markers, paintings, musical compositions, schools, and a museum.
Further Reading on Sacajawea
Biographical Dictionary of Indians of the Americas, Newport Beach, CA, American Indian Publishers, Inc., 1991, Vol. II; 642-647.
Clark, Ella E., and Margot Edmonds, Sacagawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1979.
Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Dumas Malone, New York, Scribner's, 1935, Vol. XVI; 278.
Dockstader, Frederick J., Great North American Indians: Profiles in Life and Leadership, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977; 248-249.
Dye, Eva Emery, The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark, Chicago, A. C. McClurg, 1902.
Hebard, Grace Raymond, Sacajawea: A Guide and Interpreter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with an Account of the Travels of Toussaint Charbonneau, and of Jean Baptiste, the Expedition Papoose, Glendale, CA, Arthur H. Clark Company, 1933.
Howard, Harold P., Sacajawea, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783-1854, edited by Donald Jackson, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1962.
Lewis, Meriwether, and William Clark, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806, 8 vols., edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites, New York, Dodd, Mead, 1904-1905.
Lewis, Meriwether, William Clark, and Nicholas Biddle, History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri, Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, Performed During the Years 1804-5-6, by Order of the Government of the United States, 3 vols., New York, A. S. Barnes, 1904.
Liberty's Women, edited by Robert McHenry, Springfield, MA, Merriam, 1980; 362-363.
Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Gretchen M. Bataille, New York, Garland, 1993; 219-222.
Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne, Detroit, MI, Gale Research Inc., 1994; 1151.
Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Edward T. James, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1971, Vol. III; 218-219.
Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West, edited by Howard R. Lamar, New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977; 1055.
Reid, Russell, Sakakawea: The Bird Woman, Bismark, ND, State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1986.
Remley, David, "Sacajawea of Myth and History," in Women and Western American Literature, edited by Helen Winter Stauffer and Susan J. Rosowski, Troy, NY, 1982; 70-89.
Ronda, James P., Lewis and Clark among the Indians, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Waldman, Carl, Who Was Who in Native American History, New York, Facts on File, 1990; 309-310.
Weatherford, Doris, American Women's History, New York, Prentice Hall, 1994; 303-304.
Anderson, Irving, "Probing the Riddle of the Bird Woman," Montana, the Magazine of Western History, 23, October 1973; 2-17.
Chuinard, E. G., "The Bird Woman: Purposeful Member of the Corps or Casual 'Tag-Along'?" Montana, the Magazine of Western History 26, July 1976; 18-29.
Dawson, Jan C. "Sacagawea: Pilot or Pioneer Mother?", Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 83, January 1992; 22-28.
Morrison, Joan, "Sacajawea's Legacy Traced," Wind River News 16, June 22, 1993; 4.
Schroer, Blanche, "Boat-Pusher or Bird Woman? Sacagawea or Sacajawea?" Annals of Wyoming 52, Spring 1980; 46-54.