Who Is Sacajawea?

A biography of the brave native woman who helped Lewis and Clark during their expedition.

Sacajawea was the famous Indian woman who led Captains Lewis and Clark on their expedition to find the Pacific Ocean in 1805. She unofficially served the expedition as a guide and interpreter. Her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau was originally hired to serve the position as guide and interpreter. Sacajawea was allowed to accompany the team because the captains thought she might be useful. She made a very important contribution to the two explorers, their expedition and inevitably, American history. Even though only a little information is known about her life, Sacajawea is still the subject of many movies and numerous texts and novels.

It is not known exactly what year Sacajawea was born. She was born in present day Idaho somewhere between the years 1787 and 1790. She was born in the Indian tribe called the Shoshone. Shoshone means "Snake People" and Sacajawea's name in Shoshone means, "boat pusher." When Sacajawea was about eleven years old, she was kidnapped by a Hidatsa tribe during a raid and taken to their village in one of the present day Dakotas. There she was eventually sold to a French trader and trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau.

Charbonneau made her one of his wives and he took her to live in a Mandan village. Sacajawea soon became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy a few months after Captain Lewis, Captain Clark and the expedition arrived at Fort Mandan in 1804 to spend the winter. Sacajawea was about sixteen years old. Sacajawea had her son around the middle of February in 1805. She named him Jean Baptiste Charbonneau and also gave him a Shoshone name, Pomp, which means "First Born."



The explorers, Lewis and Clark needed someone to act as a guide to the west and speak with other Indian tribes when they needed supplies. Toussaint Charbonneau was hired for the rest of the trip. He was to be the interpreter and guide for the captains. Charbonneau wanted to bring Sacajawea and their son along with the expedition and the captains allowed it because they felt she could be useful as far as communicating with the Shoshone and other tribes for goods. Sacajawea and her infant son accompanied the team and she proved her value with her perseverance and resourcefulness.

The expedition left Fort Mandan in April of 1805. They traveled through the present day states of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. During the trip, Sacajawea turned out to be more valuable than her husband. She helped Lewis and Clark find food for the expedition when they were running out. She also communicated with many different tribes for the captains; getting them necessary supplies like horses, food and additional guides.

One incident did occur that was so important to the success of the expedition that almost all of the members of the team wrote about it in their journals. One month after the team left Fort Mandan, the boats were hit by a sudden storm. The boat that Sacajawea was in was nearly overturned. Sacajawea, with her infant son strapped to her back, began to collect the books and other important instruments that had fallen out of the boat and into the water. Because the other men were busy with the boat, Sacajawea, single-handedly, saved the fallen items from damage. She became legendary for moments such as these.

Lewis, Clark, Charbonneau, Sacajawea and the rest of the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805. They returned to Fort Mandan five months later during the summer of 1806. Sacajawea, her husband and her son stayed at Fort Mandan while the rest of the expedition continued on to St. Louis.

In August of 1806, Captain Clark wrote to Sacajawea and her husband, Charbonneau and asked for them to come to St. Louis with their son, Jean Baptiste. If they could not come, then he wanted at least for them to send Jean Baptiste. He felt that the boy should get proper schooling. Sacajawea and Charbonneau did go to St. Louis with Jean Baptiste. They lived near St. Louis for a while but by March of 1811, they had decided to return to their home at Fort Mandan and left Jean Baptiste in the care of Clark.

Little is known about Sacajawea after she returned to Fort Mandan with her husband. Some records say that she died the year after they returned from St. Louis in 1812. Others say that an old Indian woman who died on a reservation in 1884 was the real Sacajawea. The old Indian woman supposedly knew a lot of information about Captains Lewis and Clark and of the expedition.

There are many memorials honoring Sacajawea. In the year, 2000, a gold dollar coin was issued by the United States Mint to honor her with her image. The image is of Sacajawea with her son, Jean Baptiste strapped to her back.

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