Category: Biography


Sacajawea (“Boat pusher”) or Sacagawea (“Bird woman/girl”) was a Shoshone Indian who, as a pregnant teenager, joined the Corps of Discovery (Lewis & Clark Expedition) with her husband/master, French-Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau when Lewis and Clark wintered at Fort Mandan in 1804-05.

Contrary to popular belief, Scagawea did not guide the Corps of Discovery on their journey to explore and document the Louisiana Purchase. However, her presence, along with that of her infant son Jean Baptiste “Pomp”, born in February 1805, smoothed the Corps’ way through Indian territory, marking their group as a peacable one rather than as a war party. Further, when good fortune brought the Corps in contact with Sacagawea’s own people, whom she hadn’t seen for several years, Sacagawea was able to translate and negotiate for horses and a guide.

Sacagawea (the spelling used consistently throughout all Corps documentation) was probably born around 1790. When she was young girl of about 10 or 11, an enemy tribe, the Hidatsa made a raid on the Shoshone, capturing Sacagawea among others. It was the Hidatsa who called her Sacagawea, and later sold her to Toussaint Charbonneau.

Sacagawea was of great service to the expedition, maintaining such a helpful, uncomplaining attitude, that it was commented on by all the men who kept diaries. She identified and gathered edible vegetation of all types, supplementing the men’s diets. On May 14, 1805, when a gust of wind upset the pirogue managed by Charboneau, critical documentation and instruments were in danger of being lost to the waters. Sacagawea kept a cool head and saved the materials which represented the scientific efforts of the expedition.

Captain William Clark, co-leader with Meriwether Lewis, was quite taken with Sacagawea and her infant son, mentioning her frequently in his journal. While the party wintered at Fort Clatsop in 1805-06, she complained of not being allowed to see the ocean. Clark took her and Charbonneau along with a party of two canoes to what is now Ecola State Park, where a whale had washed up on the beach. Concerned about her welfare at the hands of the abusive Charbonneau, Clark proposed taking the young Pomp to St. Louis with him, when the expedition returned to the United States, to be raised in safety. For her efforts in making the expedition successful, Lewis and Clark named a river “Sacajawea” in her honor.

After the successful completion of the Corps of Discovery expedition, Sacagawea’s history becomes murky. She and Charbonneau remained at Fort Mandan for some time, then moved to St. Louis in August of 1806 at Captain William Clark’s invitation. In March 1811, Charbonneau sold his land back to Clark and returned to the Dakotas with Sacajawea. Pomp remained in St. Louis in the care of Captain William Clark, who was the Indian Agent of the Louisiana Purchase at that time. Sacagawea either died of fever in 1812 at Fort Manuel in South Dakota, or lived for many more years, marrying a number of times and bearing several children, eventually meeting up with her son Pomp in Wind River, Wyoming and dying at age 96, a respected member of the Shoshone tribe.

© 2001-2006, originally published Jun 30, 2001