Sacajawea (1786-1812)

Sarah Remond
Statue of Sacajawea in Bismarck, ND

Sacajawea was a Shoshone Native American and a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  They were the first whites to cross North America, and she guided them when she was still a teenager.

Because her people had no written language, her name has been variously spelled.  She was the daughter of a Shoshone (or Snake) chief and was born around 1786, probably in modern-day Idaho.  Around 1800, when she was barely into her teens, she was kidnapped by the Hidatsa, who were enemies of the Shoshones.  They took her hundreds of miles east to their territory along the Missouri River in modern North Dakota. 

Like most Native American tribes, the Hidatsa enslaved and/or sold war captives, and about 1803, Sacajawea was sold to a French-Canadian fur trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau.  He was typical of the era’s fur traders in that he had assimilated into Native American culture, in which it was not unusual for a girl to become a wife when she was barely into puberty.   

In the same year of 1803, the new United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase from France, which included so much land that no one knew its boundaries.  President Thomas Jefferson hired Virginia’s Meriwether Lewis to explore this land; Lewis sought out frontiersman William Clark, and they led about forty men in three boats up the Missouri River to modern Bismarck, North Dakota.  The Mandan tribe there told them of a white man among the Hidatsa, and the link to Sacajawea naturally followed.

The Americans stayed in this relatively safe and warm camp through the winter of 1804-05 and waited even longer in the spring so that the pregnant Sacajawea could accompany them west.  They were pleased to have a native escort them into the unknown, and she doubtless was grateful for the opportunity to return to her family, so they waited until the birth of a son, Jean Baptiste.  With her baby on her back and her husband at her side, Sacajawea and the men began to travel in April.  At about 18, she was the only female among some forty older men.

Sacajawea proved to be essential to the expedition.  She had the skills and abilities to offer much assistance.  Her knowledge of native languages was a great help during their journey, as she could communicate with other tribes and translate for Lewis and Clark.  She was also very good at finding edible plants.  Once when their boat capsized, she was able to save some of the cargo, supplies, and important documents.  Sacajawea also was valuable to the expedition because she represented peace and trustworthiness.  A group of males traveling with a woman and her baby appeared less menacing to natives.  Sacajawea and her baby allowed others to feel that it was safe to befriend the newcomers. 

In August of 1805, Sacajawea met up with her Shoshoni tribe, and she stayed with her family while the whites went on to the Pacific. She received assistance from her brother, who had become the Shoshone chief in her absence.  Because Sacajawea trusted these men, other natives helped escort the expedition through the remainder of the Rocky Mountains and on to the Pacific shore.  When they returned in the spring of 1806, she rejoined the expedition and helped the explorers safely navigate what is now known as the Sacajawea Historical Area.  She led them through the “Big Hole” and the Bozeman Pass of the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, where elevations top seven thousand feet.

Clearly affected by her experience with whites, Sacajawea further investigated their culture in 1810; the Charbonneaus moved to St. Louis, and she adopted the dress of white women.  Apparently dissatisfied with that choice, the family moved home around 1812, and she gave birth to her second child, Lisette.  Sadly, Sacajawea died within months after her daughter's arrival.  Her children were fortunate to have a close relationship with William Clark.   He took care of Jean Baptiste and Lisette, and went on to gain custody of them.

Sacajawea was a strong and intelligent young woman.  With a newborn baby strapped to her back, she led explorers across the country.  She made trades and deals for supplies, found edible plants for food, and served as translator and interpreter.  The journals of the expedition give her credit, and some believe that the expedition would not have succeeded without the guidance of Sacajawea.

There may be more monuments dedicated to Sacajawea than to any other woman, as the centennials of the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1905 and 2005 have done a great deal to preserve her memory.  The National American Woman Suffrage Association used the 1905 occasion to hold their annual convention in Oregon, where Susan B. Anthony and others cited her as an example of why women should be allowed to vote, and a golden dollar coin was issued in her honor in 2000.  At the same time, this attention arguably has distracted from Marie Dorian, whose 1811 trip for the same purpose was longer and much more perilous.


Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History

Works Cited:

  • Frazier, Neta Lohnes. Sacajawea: the Girl Nobody Knows. New York, D. McKay Co., 1967.
  • Harper, Ida Husted.  History of Woman Suffrage, volume 6.  (New York:  J.J. Little & Ives, 1922), p. 540.
  • Howard, Harold P. Sacajawea. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.
  • Kessler, Donna J. The Making of Sacagawea: a Euro-American Legend. Tuscaloose, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
  • Welden, Amelie. Girls Who Rocked the World : Heroines from Sacajawea to Sheryl Swoopes. Milwaukee, WI : Gareth Stevens Pub., 1999.