Sacagawea

For around three years, I steadily wrote around 600 brief entries for www.biography-center.com. Currently only cached views are available, but I am posting the texts for some that I wrote, as part of my writing portfolio.

Sacagawea Charbonneau ( 1788–1812 ) Category ( Explorers ) [suggest a correction]

Born into the Shoshone American Indian tribe in 1788, Sacagawea is famous for accompanying Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they explored and discovered the American West between 1804 and 1806. She holds a special place in American history and mythology because of the nature of the role she played in making the expedition a resounding success for the United States and the Jefferson administration. Sacagawea’s very presence on the expedition often defined that success, since most of the indigenous tribes encountered by Lewis and Clark recognized the presence of a female member as a sign of peaceful intent on the part of the expedition. Thus, there were few conflicts between the American Indians and the party of European Americans. When Sacagawea (called “Janey” by Clark) gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste, while on the trail, her status as a symbol of peace was significantly enhanced, and the expedition continued to proceed with little conflict from other groups.

Little is known of Sacagawea’s life prior to joining the expedition. It is known that she was very young, fifteen, when she met Lewis and Clark. Her knowledge of American Indian culture and folkways, as well as an understanding of the terrain, proved to be invaluable to the expedition. She was apparently a quick and clever thinker as well, as evidence from eyewitnesses supports an occasion when Sacagawea risked her own life to save valuable records of the journey written by Lewis and Clark.

Sacagawea was recommended to join the expedition by her husband, French trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, when he learned that Lewis and Clark sought someone who could speak the Shoshone language (or “Snake” language), and who also had some knowledge of the areas to which they would be traveling. Her affiliation with the Shoshone tribe insured her language skills. Her knowledge of geography came as a result of being kidnapped by an enemy tribe when she was a young child. The tribe took Sacagawea and others from Idaho, where she was born, into South Dakota. By the time she was fifteen and joined the expedition, she was well acquainted with the terrain and route planned by Lewis and Clark. During the expedition she was joyfully reunited with her brother and other members of her native tribe. Clark recorded the experience in his journal, providing vivid detail of the young Shoshone woman’s reunification with her family of origin.

Once the expedition was finished, Sacagawea and her husband remained among the Hidatsa tribe (the tribe who had kidnapped her years earlier) for three years. In 1809 they accepted Clark’s invitation to move to St. Louis, Missouri. At that time Clark assumed responsibility for Jean-Baptiste’s education. Sometime before 1812 she gave birth to a daughter, Lizette. Sacagawea disappears from the historical record. Some documents suggest that she died in 1812, and at about that time Clark records in his journal that Sacagawea was dead. Rumors and stories of her survival after this date continue to be of interest to some historians, though thus far there is no established record or proof of this. Further support of Sacagawea’s 1812 death exists in the Orphans Court Records in St. Louis, Missouri. On August 11,1813, William Clark became the guardian of Jean-Baptiste and Lizette Charbonneau. This record is significant since at that time in the State of Missouri, a child could be designated an orphan only if both parents were confirmed dead.

Sacagawea lives on in American history and folklore. She is featured in several works of fiction, has a number of parks named for her, and most recently, an American Indian woman holding a baby — representing Sacagawea and baby Jean-Baptiste — appears on the U.S. “Sacagawea Dollar,” first minted in 2000.

Image: Golden Sacagawea dollar coin.