Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark identified Sacagawea as a woman of the "Snake" (Shoshoni) nation. The Shoshoni (also Shoshone) lived in Idaho, parts of Utah and parts of Northern Nevada, and it is believed that Sacagawea was born around 1787 in Eastern Idaho. As a young girl of about 10 or 11, she was captured by a raiding band of the Hidatsa tribe and taken to their camp near the border of North Dakota. She was later sold into slavery with the Missouri River Mandans.
Eventually, Sacagawea was sold (or possibly won in a bet) to a French-Canadian fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau. Historical information as to when Charbonneau took Sacagawea as his wife is sketchy and sometimes inconsistent. The Lewis and Clark journals specifically refer to Sacagawea as Charbonneau's wife in an entry dated November 4, 1804.
Hired by Lewis and Clark
During the winter of 1804, Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery camped at Fort Mandan in North Dakota, where Charbonneau was also spending the winter with his wife. Sacagawea was about 15 years old and six months pregnant. Sacagawea gave birth to a son (Jean Baptiste Charbonneau) at Fort Mandan, February 11, 1805.
Charbonneau was hired to guide the two-and-a-half-year Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest, due to his knowledge of the country where he trapped. Toussaint was also conversant in French and Hidatsa.
Sacagawea, who spoke both Shoshoni and Hidatsa, was recruited as an "interpreter through Toussaint." He was specifically instructed to bring Sacagawea, with her son. The presence of a woman and baby would establish the peaceful nature of the party. Also, a Native translator and negotiator with knowledge of the languages, customs and tribes of the country was essential.
Translator and Guide
Leaving North Dakota and traveling through present-day Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, Sacagawea proved to be an invaluable guide. She led the way to her own country, which she had not seen for many years.
Her knowledge of the terrain and mountain passes saved weeks of travel time. When food was scarce along the trail, Sacagawea taught the men how to gather nuts, berries and other edible plants previously unknown to them. When the expedition encountered a tribe of Shoshone led by her brother, Sacagawea obtained food, horses, and additional guides, which allowed the explorers to continue.
Sacagawea was legendary for her perseverance and resourcefulness.
With her infant son bound to her back, she rescued Captain Clark's journals from the Missouri whitewater when their boat capsized. If she had not, much of the record of the first year of the expedition would have been lost to history.
Her contributions far exceeded the expectations of both Lewis and Clark. Sacagawea and her infant served as a "white flag" of peace for the expedition, which was as much a military expedition as a scientific one. They entered potentially hostile territory well armed, but undermanned, compared to the tribes they met.
Because no war party was ever accompanied by a woman and infant, the response of the tribes was curiosity, not aggression. Not a single member of the party was lost to hostile action.
Sacagawea and Charbonneau remained in North Dakota when the expedition returned to Missouri in 1806.
Honored by Lewis and Clark
While Lewis' journals make very little mention of Sacagawea, Clark carefully detailed her contributions to the success of the journey. Lewis and Clark named a river "Sacagawea" in her honor.
A dispute has raged for nearly a century, concerning Sacagawea's fate following the expedition.
One account states that Sacagawea died of a fever at age 25, and even Clark's account of the members of his expedition mark her as dead.
Native accounts, especially Shoshoni oral history, have Sacagawea marrying several more times, having a number of children, and meeting up with her son Jean Baptiste in Wind River, Wyoming. This woman died at age 96, and was buried in the white cemetery at Ft. Washakie as a final show of respect for her efforts in behalf of both Lewis and Clark, and her own people. A monument was erected in her honor at her gravesite.
Others claim that this theory evolved through circumstances of mistaken identity, and that there is decisive documentary evidence that traces a complete chronology of her life, conclusively placing her at Fort Manuel (South Dakota), at the time of her death, December 20, 1812.
Sacagawea's story will change depending upon the account you're reading, the part of the country you're in, and the heritage of the author of the story. After the passage of so much time, it is unlikely that her movements after she left St. Louis will ever be known with certainty.
Various historians disagree over the derivation, spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of her name.
Although their flair for inspired spelling created some interesting variations, in every instance, including three additional spellings on Clark's maps, all three of the journalists who attempted to write it were consistent in the use of a "g" in the third syllable.
- To quote from a recent publication:
- "…Translated, her name means "Bird Woman," and in their attempts to spell the Indians words, Lewis and Clark used variations of "Sah-ca-gah-we-ah" and "Sah-kah-gar-we-a." (In 1814, when a version of the journals appeared, an editor changed the spelling to Sacajawea, which was the preferred spelling until recently, when most historians and official publications reverted back to Sacagawea.)" (Source: "Lewis and Clark. The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. An Illustrated History," by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Page 92.) Additional references to the Sacagawea spelling can be found in Stephen E. Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage" (Simon & Schuster, 1996).
Lewis gave not only his rendition of the spelling of her name but also its meaning. His journal entry for May 20, 1805, reads: "a handsome river of about fifty yards in width discharged itself into the shell [Mussellshell] river...this stream we called Sah-ca-gah-we-ah or bird woman's River, after our interpreter the Snake woman."
Lewis and Clark history scholars, together with the U. S. Geographic Names Board, the U. S. National Park Service, the National Geographic Society, Encyclopedia Americana, and World Book Encyclopedia, among others, have adopted the Sacagawea form.
The Bureau of American Ethnology, as early as 1910 had standardized the Sacagawea spelling in its publications. It is pronounced sä-cä´gä-we-ä, with a hard "g."
Over the years, a number of linguistic attempts to decipher the mystery of her name have been published.
Shoshoni advocates claim her as "Sacajawea" (pronounced sak´ä-jä-we-ä), a form of her name which has become widely popularized both in spelling and pronunciation, especially in the Far West.
This leads to complications however, because her name was never spelled "Sacajawea" by her contemporaries during her lifetime. Moreover, "Sacajawea" allegedly means the equivalent of "boat launcher" or "boat pusher" in Shoshoni, which contradicts Lewis and Clark's primary documentation, "bird woman."
The "Sacajawea" spelling derives from the 1814 narrative of the journey, edited by Nicholas Biddle.
Biddle worked from the captains' original longhand journal entries, correcting spelling and grammar, and substantially abridging many daily entries. Biddle gave no clue as to why he decided upon the "Sacajawea" spelling, when all of the primary documents available to him spelled the name with a "g." Apparently, the only basis for his spelling the name with a "j" was editorial prerogative.
Obviously, at the time of the creation of our chapter (1905) here in the "Far West," the preferred spelling was "Sacajawea," which we continue to use for our chapter name.
This information was gathered from many different sources, some of which are available on the Internet. Use either "Sacajawea" or "Sacagawea" in your favorite search engine to locate additional information on other sites. NSDAR is not responsible for any information found on non-DAR sites.