Updated: Feb 13, 2020
By Reeti Shah
Sacagawea was not your typical explorer. Born in 1788 in Lemhi County, Idaho, she was a part of the Lemhi Shoshone Indians. The Lewis and Clark expedition, which she joined, was undertaken to explore lands west of the Mississippi River that were a part of the Louisiana Purchase. She was the only woman to join the Lewis and Clark expedition and at age 17, she helped Lewis and Clark communicate with the Shoshones. Did I mention that she was also pregnant right before she went on this expedition? She traveled on this expedition with a newborn, which shows her resilience and strength. She was truly a female icon and an inspiration.
Much about Sacagawea’s early life is unknown. She was kidnapped at the age of twelve by the Hidatsa tribe, the rivals to her Shoshone tribe, and then purchased by a French Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau. Although Lewis and Clark initially asked Charbonneau for help as an interpreter, they decided that Sacagawea would also accompany them due to her knowledge of the Shoshone language. According to the journals of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea ensured their safety as her presence signalled to the Indian tribes that their expedition came in peace. She had a large impact on American history as she ensured the success of the expedition.
Sacagawea was also clever. When the boat that she was on with Charbonneau nearly capsized, she had the foresight to retrieve important documents, instruments, medicines, and other valuables, while Charbonneau merely panicked and cried. She was also adept at finding edible plants and making moccasins and clothing. Due to the expedition, something wonderful also happened to her: she was reunited with her long lost brother, Cameahwait! He was the leader of a band of Shoshone Indians whom the expedition encountered. This reunion made negotiations easier for Lewis and Clark as they were able to get horses and a guide to cross the Rocky Mountains from the Shoshone Indians. She also shared a friendship of sorts with Clark, who was kind to her. She knew the area and was able to contribute to route mapping and help the other people on which route was the shortest.
Sacagawea stayed with the expedition until they returned to the Mandan-Hidatsa villages. Many details about her life after the expedition are unknown. According to some historical documents, she died in 1812 of a mysterious illness. However, some American Indian oral traditions indicate that she died in 1884, after leaving Charbonneau and settling down in Shoshone lands in Wyoming. Although we may never know the full truth behind Sacagawea’s life, her story will always be important in understanding American history.
Editor: Caitlin Quinn