Sacagawea, also known as Sacajawea or Sakakawea, was the Native American woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their mission to explore the western part of the United States. The only female among a group of 33, she traveled thousands of miles across the uncharted U.S. territory, guiding the group through the wilderness. Today, the Shoshone woman is a symbol of U.S. culture, pride and female strength.
Sacagawea was of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, located in the modern-day state of Idaho. At about the age of 12, she was forcefully taken from her home with a few other girls by a rival tribe, the Hidatsa, and brought to what is now the state of North Dakota. She was then taken as the wife of French Canadian fur-trader, Toussaint Charbonneau.
The first expedition of its kind, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was commissioned by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson to explore the unknown western territory of the country. The purpose of the expedition was to make scientific discoveries and learn about the territory, and also to find out the land’s potential for economic growth and prosperity. Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau to be an interpreter on the expedition when they found out his wife spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa, as they knew they would likely encounter these tribes on their journey.
Since the Native American tribes had been living there, it’s not accurate to say that Lewis & Clark “discovered” anything on this expedition. They were, however, responsible for giving Euro-Americans the first descriptions of many kinds of plants and animals. They created maps and detailed descriptions of the terrain, particularly the Rocky Mountains, and learned and wrote about the culture of the Native American nations they came across.
Sacagawea proved to be an invaluable resource on the expedition. She served as translator because she knew the native languages, which helped her negotiate trades with local tribes and explain that her group had come in peace. She also served as their guide because she had been born and raised in the region and was familiar with the land—not only where to go but also how to use it. At this time she was only about 15 years old and had just given birth to her first child.
Much of what is known of the journey and of Sacagawea’s helpful role was found in diaries of Lewis and Clark. The territories the group explored were areas of the U.S. that would eventually come to be known as the states of North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
Lewis and Clark and their team traveled by foot, horseback, and by boat through the territory, exploring the plants, animal species and geography. While there is no definitive record of how many miles total were traveled, it is estimated to be approximately 7,690 miles (about 12,376 kilometers).
Not much historical data exists about Sacagawea’s early life. Most historians agree she was born around the year 1788 in Lemhi Valley, the eastern part of what is now the state of Idaho. She was kidnapped and taken to North Dakota in 1800 and then joined the Lewis & Clark Expedition with her husband in 1804. For the next two years, she accompanied them with her young son before returning to North Dakota in 1806. After the expedition, Sacagawea and Charbonneau spent three years living among the Hidatsa in North Dakota and then accepted Clark’s invitation to move where he lived in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1810, Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter. Historical documents suggest that Sacagawea died just two years later of an unknown sickness. Clark legally adopted her two children in 1813.
So why is Sacagawea an important American to know? She was instrumental in the Lewis & Clark Expedition as a guide as they explored the western lands of the United States. Her presence as a woman helped dispel notions to the Native tribes that they were coming to conquer and confirmed the peacefulness of their mission. Her ability to speak the Native American languages helped greatly and her knowledge of the landscape proved invaluable. Sacagawea was (and still is) seen as a feminist figure, particularly in the Women’s Rights and Suffrage Movements. Today, Sacagawea is a symbol of women’s independence and importance.
Did You Know?
- In 2000, the U.S. Mint issued the Sacagawea Dollar Coin to honor her. While a Shoshone woman and her young son are depicted on the coin, no contemporary image of Sacagawea exists.
- Sacagawea means, “bird woman” in the Hidatsa language.
- On May 14, 1805, Sacagawea rescued items that had fallen out of a capsized boat, including the journals and records of Lewis and Clark. On May 20, they named the river, “Sacagawea River” in her honor.
Want to learn more?
The Biography website has some great videos about Sacagawea.