Sacajawea

Sacajawea is well-known as the Indian woman who led Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition to find the Pacific Ocean. The truth is a bit different from the movie and children's book versions, however. In fact, Sacajawea was not officially a member of the expedition party. Her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, was hired as an interpreter and took Sacajawea along. She was allowed to join the party as an unofficial member because the captains thought she would be useful to help in communicating with some of the Indian tribes they met and also in obtaining horses from her native tribe, the Shoshone.

The following information is taken from the book, "Sacajawea" by Harold P. Howard, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. This book is a comparison and compilation of the diaries of eight members of the party: Captains Lewis and Clark; Privates Joseph Whitehouse, Robert Frazier, and George Shannon; Sergeants Charles Floyd, who was the only member of the party who died during the journey, Patrick Gass and John Ordway.

Sacajawea was born about 1790 in what is now the state of Idaho. She was one of the "Snake People," otherwise known as the Shoshone. Her name in Hidatsa was Tsi-ki-ka-wi-as, "Bird Woman. In Shoshone, her name means "Boat Pusher." She was stolen during a raid by a Hidatsa tribe when she was a young girl and taken to their village near what is now Bismark, N. Dakota. Some time afterward the French-Canadian trapper and fur trader, Charbonneau bought Sacajawea and her companion, Otter Woman, as wives. When her husband joined the expedition at Fort Mandan in the Dakotas, Sacajawea was about 16 years old and pregnant.

The expedition spent the winter at Fort Mandan and Sacajawea's baby, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, was born on Feb. 11 or 12, 1805. He was also given the Shoshone name, Pomp, meaning First Born.

The expedition resumed the westward trek on April 7, 1805. Their route was along the Missouri River, west to the mountains. On May 14, 1805 an incident occurred which was typical of the calmness and self-possession Sacajawea was to display throughout the journey. The incident was recorded in the diaries because of it's significance to the success of the expedition. On that day, the boat Sacajawea was in was hit by a sudden storm squall. It keeled over on it's side and nearly capsized. As the other members of the crew worked desperately to right the boat, Sacajawea, with her baby strapped to her back, busied herself with retrieving the valuable books and instruments that floated out of the boat. They had been wrapped in waterproof packages for protection and, thanks to Sacajawea's courage and quick actions, suffered no damage.

Contrary to popular opinion, Sacajawea did not serve as a guide for the party. She only influenced the direction taken by the expedition one time, after reaching the area where her people hunted she indicated they should take a tributary of the Beaverhead River to get to the mountains where her people lived and where Lewis and Clark hoped to buy horses.

On August 15, 1805 Sacajawea was re-united with her tribe, only to learn that all her family had died, with the exception of two brothers and the son of her oldest sister, whom she adopted. One of her brothers, Cameahwait, was head chief of the Shoshone. The Shoshone chief agreed to sell the party the horses they needed for the trek through the mountains. He also sketched a map of the country to the west and provided a guide, Old Toby, who took them through the mountains and safely to the Nez Perce country. where they resumed river travel.

Throughout the expedition, Sacajawea maintained a helpful, uncomplaining attitude of cheefulness in the face of hardship. This was so remarkable that it was commented on by all the men who kept diaries. There is one record of her complaining, however. While wintering on the Columbia River before starting their journey back to the east, nearby Indians reported that a whale had washed up on the beach about 35 miles from the fort. Sacajawea said that she had traveled a long way to see the great waters and, now that a monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it "very hard" that she could not be permitted to see it, and the ocean too. Captain Clark took a party of two canoes, including Sacajawea and her husband, to find the whale and possibly obtain some blubber. By the time they arrived there was nothing left but the skeleton, but they were able to buy about 35 pounds of blubber.

After the expedition was over in the summer of 1806, Sacajawea, her husband and son remained at Fort Mandan where Lewis and Clark had found them. In August 1806, Captain Clark wrote to Charbonneau and invited him to come to St. Louis and bring his family, or to send Jean Baptiste to Clark for schooling.

Charbonneau and Sacajawea accepted the offer and lived near St. Louis for a time. In March 1811, however, Charbonneau sold his land back to Clark and returned to the Dakotas with Sacajawea. Their son remained in St. Louis in the care of Cpt. Clark, who was the Indian Agent of the Louisiana Purchase at that time.

What became of Sacajawea after leaving St. Louis? There are two widely varying stories, with no proof of either. The first is that she died on Dec. 20, 1812. This information came from the records of John C. Luttig, the clerk at Ft. Manuel, SD who wrote: "This evening the wife of Charbonneau, a Snake squaw, died of a putrid fever. She was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years. She left a fine infant girl." It is a fact that, in March 1813, John Luttig returned to St. Louis with a baby whom he called "Sacajawea's Lizette." In August 1813, he applied to be her guardian, as well as that of a boy called "Toussaint," but the court record shows his name crossed out and Cpt. William Clark's written in. Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was often called Toussaint. John Luttig died in 1815.

Shoshone oral tradition says that Sacajawea did not die in 1813, but instead, wandered the west for a few years and eventually returned to her tribe on the Wind River Reservation. Tradition says she died there on April 9, 1884, a venerated and influential member of the tribe, and is buried between her son, Jean Baptiste, and her sister's son, Bazil, whom she adopted. There is a monument over the grave on the Wind River Reservation, of the woman called Sacajawea. Many people who were living at the time wrote and told that it was she who traveled with Lewis and Clark to the great water and that the woman who died at Fort Manuel was another wife of Toussaint Charbonneau.

There is no record of what became of Lizette. There is a baptismal record in Westport, MO for Victoire, daughter of Joseph Vertifeuille and Elizabeth Carboneau. It is not known if this was Lizette Charbonneau, Sacajawea's daughter or not.

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau lived at least until 1866. His life can be traced through various records of explorers and fur traders up until that time. He was said to be a remarkable man; superior as a guide and trapper, but also well-educated and conversant in French, German and Spanish as well as his native Shoshone. He was with Prince Paul of Wurttemberg on his travels of the American West in 1823, and returned with him to Germany where he stayed for several years, returning in 1829.

He was with Jim Bridger in 1832, with Kit Carson in 1839 and in charge of a fur-trading party in 1842 when they met Charles Fremont. He was included in George Frederick Ruxton's book, "Life in the Far West" as one of the important fur traders of that time. He was with Lt. Abert on an exploration down the Canadian River and with Col. Philip Cooke and his troops from New Mexico to California. In 1866 he started for the gold fields in Montana and Idaho, but is said to have died on Cow Creek near the present town of Danner, Oregon in 1866. Shoshone oral traditions, however, say that he returned to his tribe during that time and was re-united with his mother, Sacajawea where he lived until his death in 1885.

Related Web Sites

Lewis & Clark The PBS companion web site to the film by Ken Burns

Lewis & Clark Trail sponsored by Heritage Trail, Inc.

Roster of Lewis & Clark Expedition List of the men who accompanied Lewis & Clark.

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