The Lewis and Clark expedition into the American west is one of the most legendary events in United States history. It might not have been so successful, however, if not for the help of a young Shoshone woman named Sacagawea.
When Sacagawea was about ten years old, she was kidnapped by Hidatsa Indians and taken to what is now North Dakota. She was then sold as a slave to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader. She later became his wife.
In 1804, Lewis and Clark persuaded Charbonneau to join them on their expedition as an interpreter. It was understood that Sacagawea would join the party as well. They wanted her on the journey because traveling with a woman would indicate to Native American tribes that they came in peace. Shortly before the journey set out, Sacagawea gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. He made most of the journey on his mother’s back, becoming the country’s youngest explorer!
Sacagawea spoke both Hidatsa and Shoshone. Her husband, Charbonneau, spoke Hidatsa and French. When the expedition met Native American tribes, Sacagawea spoke to them in Shoshone, then translated that to Hidatsa for her husband. He then translated the Hidatsa to French. Another member of the expedition spoke French, and by relaying the messages through three people, Lewis and Clark were able to communicate with the Native Americans they met.
Sacagawea was valuable not only as an interpreter. As a native of the American west, she knew which berries, roots, and nuts were safe to eat and which ones could be used as medicines. Once, when one of the expedition’s boats capsized in a river, many of their important papers were in danger of being carried away by the current. Sacagawea quickly jumped into the water and recovered many important papers and supplies. Both Lewis and Clark were impressed by her calmness under stress.
At one point during the Corps of Discovery’s expedition, Lewis and Clark attempted to buy horses from a Shoshone band. Sacagawea served as their interpreter. To their surprise, she found the leader of the band was her brother! She had not seen him since being kidnapped years earlier. Though she could have returned to her people, she chose to remain with the expedition. She continued the journey all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
A few years after the expedition, Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter, Lisette. After the birth of Lisette, the remainder of Sacagawea’s life is uncertain. Most sources say that she died in 1812, shortly after Lisette’s birth. Several months after her death, Clark adopted both of her children. Jean Baptiste was eventually sent to Europe with a German prince, but the fate of Lisette is unknown.
We may not know much about the end of Sacagawea’s life. We do know, however, that without her, the Lewis and Clark expedition might not have been so successful. And Sacagawea’s part in the story is even more impressive because she made the journey carrying a tiny baby on her back!
Some facts about the Corps of Discovery:
- The expedition set out in 1804
- Sacagawea received nothing for her help, but her husband was given over five hundred dollars and several hundred acres of land
- Sacagawea was honored on a United States coin