The Spirit and Legacy of Sacagawea

By: Jenna Ruhlman

A Unique Beginning

Sacagawea was an incredibly influential figure in the settlement and development of the western United States. She aided Lewis and Clark on their famous journey exploring the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. As a translator, peacemaker, and guide, she helped with the exploration, and indirectly, settlement, of the new territory.

According to some sources, Sacagawea was born in 1788. Other sources argue that she was born in 1790. Sacagawea was born the daughter of the chief of the Lemhi band of the Shoshone Indians. Their tribe resided in the Rocky Mountains in the Salmon River region of Idaho. When a bad drought occurred in their homeland, Sacagawea's tribe became nomads, travelling from place to place in order to survive. This allowed Sacagawea to learn and develop many of the same wilderness survival skills that she used while on her journey with Lewis and Clark.

Sacagawea's birth name, given to her by the Shoshone, was "Boinaiv," which means "grass maiden." However, when she was kidnapped at the age of ten, in 1800, by the Hidasta, she was renamed "Sacagawea," which means "bird woman." This moniker is how she is referred to today. The Hidasta were a rival tribe to the Shoshone, and when they kidnapped Sacagawea, they took her to Missouri. There, Sacagawea was purchased by Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper, who then married her.

The Expedition Commences

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson, the president of the United States at the time, bought the land included in the Louisiana Purchase from France for $15 million. This sudden increase of United States territory doubled the size of the country. Jefferson selected Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition to explore the new land. Lewis in turn brought his friend Second Lieutenant William Clark. They were accompanied by 31 "volunteers" who formed the Corps of Discovery. In reality, some of these "volunteers" were not volunteers at all, having been forced to choose between execution for crimes they committed or the uncertain and likely death that comes with exploring the unknown.

The group left from the city of St. Louis, Missouri on May 14,1804. They would not return until September of 1806. After all, they had many tasks to accomplish. Under Jefferson's orders, they were to find a Northwest Passage, which was an all-water route that would take ships across the entire North American continent, a useful tool for trade and transportation to Asia. Lewis and Clark were also asked to make maps and survey the newly acquired land; inspect and observe the native plants, animals, and environment; and greet and learn about the trade and culture of the Native Americans who lived in the area.

Sacagawea Arrives on the Scene

First, the Corps of Discovery ventured from St. Louis up the Missouri River. This led them to the Great Plains region of the new territory. While there, they met Charbonneau, whom they hired as their navigator. However, when they met his wife, Sacagawea, they decided she would be useful on the expedition for her many skills. Sacagawea agreed to accompany her husband on the journey. However, she was also pregnant and in no state to set off on the adventure through the Rocky Mountains that lay ahead. The Corps of Discovery spent the winter with the Mandan Indians, while Sacagawea had her baby. After having her son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed "Pompy," on February 11, 1805, Sacagawea and the entourage left the Plains on April 7, 1805. Pompy was only two months old, and of course, he accompanied his parents on the journey, riding in a carrier on Sacagawea's back.

Under Sacagawea's guidance, the group reached the Rocky Mountains in the spring of 1805 and the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805, thus proving that a Northwest Passage did not exist. Throughout the journey, Sacagawea served as an ambassador, symbol of peace, and translator to Native Americans, aiding Lewis and Clark with their goal to become familiar with them. In addition, she served as a navigator after her husband was proved to be not very competent. She also aided the group as a food gatherer and expert in wilderness survival. Not only did Sacagawea help the Corps of Discovery by accompanying them on their expedition, she also helped herself! During the journey, Sacagawea discovered her birth tribe and was reunited with them once more.

Later Life

After reaching the Pacific Ocean, the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis, Missouri. However, Sacagawea's return is somewhat contested. According to sources, she might have returned to Missouri with Lewis and Clark and died of "putrid fever" in 1812. However, she also might have returned to the Wind River Indian Reservation, to live with her rediscovered family. There, she would have died of old age in 1884.

Since Sacagawea lived in a time period in which photography did not exist yet, and a culture and environment in which documentation was not a priority, she does not have much official documentation of her life, especially when she was younger. Most of her life story has been passed down by word of mouth and in the letters and notes written by Lewis and Clark during the journey. Sacagawea has become a very important figure in American history and in the hearts of Americans everywhere. She is honored so much that in 2000 she was featured on a special edition U.S. dollar coin.

The Unforgettable Legacy

Sacagawea's incredible bravery and heroism on the expedition was a wonderful example of the impact that women, as well as Native Americans can make on our country and it has inspired many people. She is the perfect example of how hard work does reap rewards. Even though she was not paid for her services by Lewis and Clark, her bravery has earned her much respect.

'The Lewis and Clark expedition traveled nearly 8,000 miles, collecting more than 300 species of plants and animals. They also recorded the first detailed maps of the vast new region. Though they did not discover a Northwest Passage, their incredible journey paved the way for westward expansion.' (History Channel/ A&E Television Networks, LLC). Sacagawea was as much a part of this as any other person on the journey, most would say, a very important part of it. As a translator, peacemaker, guide, and survivalist, Sacagawea was likely the main reason that the expedition was so successful. Due to her passion and spirit, Sacagawea has reaped the reward of her incredible journey and earned a place in America's history books, and hearts, forever.