Sacagawea or Sacajawea
i.e. Bird Woman in Hidatsa language
(William Clark’s pronunciation as written in his journal)
c. 1786 – 1812
American Indian Interpreter and Guide
Exploration Ranking 25th of 26
Sacagawea, U.S. stamp from 1994.
Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian, helped lead explorers Lewis and Clark between 1804-1806 to the far west regions of the United States. At various points she was instrumental in finding food, recognizing trails, calming potentially hostile tribes by her presence as a woman and negotiating with the Shoshone. Altogether Sacagawea’s help played a major role in allowing the expedition to complete an epic exploration of the western third of the United States.
Born in Idaho, Sacagawea was the daughter of a Shoshone chief. At the age of twelve, she was kidnapped by an enemy tribe, the Hidatsa, and then became the wife of Toussaint Charbonneau, a French trapper. In the winter of 1804, Sacagawea and Charbonneau met Lewis and Clark in North Dakota. Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa; Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French. Since Lewis and Clark spoke only English and one of the group’s officers spoke French, they hired Sacagawea and her husband as interpreters knowing they would need to buy horses from the Shoshone to reach the Pacific coast safely.
The party of thirty-two men and Sacagawea with her baby left North Dakota in April 1805. Using horses, six dugout canoes and two larger canoes, they made their way through the wilderness of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. As they roamed through the forests, Sacagawea collected nuts and berries for food, while carrying her infant son in a cradleboard on her back. The foods she gathered were often the only thing that kept the party from starving. In mid-August 1805 the expedition encountered a band of Shoshones led by Sacagawea’s brother Cameahwait. The reunion of sister and brother had a positive effect on Lewis and Clark’s negotiations for the horses and with the Shoshone as guides, enabled them to cross the Rocky Mountains.
The expedition reached the Columbia River in November 1805. When the snow melted, the group headed back to St. Louis. Sacagawea led the expedition through her homeland, following old Indian trails. She recognized landmarks in southwestern Montana and informed Clark that Bozeman Pass was the best route between the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. When they reached the banks of the Missouri River in North Dakota, after traveling nearly 4,000 miles, Sacagawea and Charbonneau stayed; the team went on. In 1812, Sacagawea had another baby but on December 20 Sacagawea died. William Clark adopted both children. Sacagawea’s son Jean Baptiste had a life of adventure in Europe and the West. He died in Oregon at age sixty-one. Clark named his eldest son Meriwether Lewis Clark.
1. Sacagawea Speaks: Beyond the Shining Mountains with Lewis and Clark by Joyce Badgley Hunsaker, 2001.