Lemhi River Valley,
near present-day Salmon, Idaho
|Died||December 20, 1812 or 1884 (aged 24-94)
Fort Lisa, present-day North Dakota or Wyoming
|Other names||Sakakawea, Sacajawea, Sakagawea|
|Known for||Accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition|
|Children||Jean Baptiste Charbonneau
Sacagawea (// see below; May 1788 – December 20, 1812; see below for other theories about her death), also Sakakawea or Sacajawea, was a Lemhi Shoshone woman who helped the Lewis and Clark Expedition achieve each of its chartered mission objectives exploring the Louisiana Purchase. With the expedition, between 1804 and 1806, she traveled thousands of miles from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean, established cultural contacts with Native American populations, and researched natural history.
Sacagawea is an important part of the Lewis and Clark legend in the American public imagination. The National American Woman Suffrage Association of the early twentieth century adopted her as a symbol of women's worth and independence, erecting several statues and plaques in her memory, and doing much to spread the story of her accomplishments.
Reliable historical information about Sacagawea is very limited. She was born into an Agaidika (Salmon Eater) tribe of Lemhi Shoshone between Kenney Creek and Agency Creek near Salmon, Idaho in Lemhi County. In 1800, when she was approximately 12, she and several other girls were kidnapped by a group of Hidatsa in a battle that resulted in the deaths of several Shoshone: four men, four women, and several boys. She was taken as a captive to a Hidatsa village near present-day Washburn, North Dakota.
At approximately age 13, Sacagawea was taken as a wife by Toussaint Charbonneau, a Quebecois trapper living in the village. He also had taken another young Shoshone as wife, namely Otter Woman. Charbonneau was reported to have purchased both wives from the Hidatsa, or to have won Sacagawea while gambling.
Sacagawea was pregnant with her first child when the Corps of Discovery arrived near the Hidatsa villages to spend the winter of 1804–05. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark built Fort Mandan. They interviewed several trappers who might be able to interpret or guide the expedition up the Missouri River in the springtime. They agreed to hire Charbonneau as an interpreter because they discovered his wife spoke Shoshone, and they knew they would need the help of Shoshone tribes at the headwaters of the Missouri.
Clark recorded in his journal[Note 1] on November 4, 1804:
a french man by Name Chabonah, who Speaks the Big Belley language visit us, he wished to hire & informed us his 2 Squars (squaws) were Snake Indians, we engau (engaged) him to go on with us and take one of his wives to interpret the Snake language ...
Charbonneau and Sacagawea moved into the expedition's fort a week later. Clark nicknamed her "Janey".[Note 2] Lewis recorded the birth of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau on February 11, 1805, noting that another of the party's interpreters administered crushed rattlesnake rattles to speed the delivery. Clark and other European Americans nicknamed the boy "Little Pomp" or "Pompy".
In April, the expedition left Fort Mandan and headed up the Missouri River in pirogues. They had to be poled against the current and sometimes pulled from the riverbanks. On May 14, 1805, Sacagawea rescued items that had fallen out of a capsized boat, including the journals and records of Lewis and Clark. The corps commanders, who praised her quick action, named the Sacagawea River in her honor on May 20.
By August 1805, the corps had located a Shoshone tribe and was attempting to trade for horses to cross the Rocky Mountains. They used Sacagawea to interpret and discovered that the tribe's chief, Cameahwait, was her brother.
Lewis recorded their reunion in his journal:
Shortly after Capt. Clark arrived with the Interpreter Charbono, and the Indian woman, who proved to be a sister of the Chief Cameahwait. The meeting of those people was really affecting, particularly between Sah cah-gar-we-ah and an Indian woman, who had been taken prisoner at the same time with her, and who had afterwards escaped from the Minnetares and rejoined her nation.
And Clark in his:
...The Intertrepeter & Squar who were before me at Some distance danced for the joyful Sight, and She made signs to me that they were her nation,...
The Shoshone agreed to barter horses to the group, and to provide guides to lead them over the cold and barren Rocky Mountains. The trip was so hard that they were reduced to eating tallow candles to survive. When they descended into the more temperate regions on the other side, Sacagawea helped to find and cook camas roots to help them regain their strength.
As the expedition approached the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Coast, Sacagawea gave up her beaded belt to enable the captains to trade for a fur robe they wished to give to President Thomas Jefferson.
Clark's journal entry for November 20, 1805 reads:
"one of the Indians had on a roab made of 2 Sea Otter Skins the fur of them were more butifull than any fur I had ever Seen both Capt. Lewis & my Self endeavored to purchase the roab with different articles at length we precured it for a belt of blue beeds which the Squar—wife of our interpreter Shabono wore around her waste...." [sic]
When the corps reached the Pacific Ocean, all members of the expedition—including Sacagawea and Clark's black manservant York— voted on November 24 on the location for building their winter fort. In January, when a whale's carcass washed up onto the beach south of Fort Clatsop, Sacagawea insisted on her right to go see this "monstrous fish".
On the return trip, they approached the Rocky Mountains in July 1806. On July 6, Clark recorded "The Indian woman informed me that she had been in this plain frequently and knew it well... She said we would discover a gap in the mountains in our direction..." which is now Gibbons Pass. A week later, on July 13, Sacagawea advised Clark to cross into the Yellowstone River basin at what is now known as Bozeman Pass. Later, this was chosen as the optimal route for the Northern Pacific Railway to cross the continental divide.
While Sacagawea has been depicted as a guide for the expedition, she is recorded as providing direction in only a few instances. Her work as an interpreter certainly helped the party to negotiate with the Shoshone, however, her greatest value to the mission may have been simply her presence during the arduous journey, which demonstrated the peaceful intent of the expedition. While traveling through what is now Franklin County, Washington, Clark noted, "The Indian woman confirmed those people of our friendly intentions, as no woman ever accompanies a war party of Indians in this quarter," and, "the wife of Shabono our interpeter we find reconsiles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions a woman with a party of men is a token of peace."
As he traveled downriver from Fort Mandan at the end of the journey, Clark wrote to Charbonneau:
"You have been a long time with me and conducted your Self in Such a manner as to gain my friendship, your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans. As to your little Son (my boy Pomp) you well know my fondness of him and my anxiety to take him and raise him as my own child ...If you are desposed to accept either of my offers to you and will bring down you Son your famn [femme, woman] Janey had best come along with you to take care of the boy untill I get him ...Wishing you and your family great success & with anxious expectations of seeing my little danceing boy Baptiest I shall remain your Friend, William Clark" [sic]
After the expedition, Charbonneau and Sacagawea spent three years among the Hidatsa before accepting William Clark's invitation to settle in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1809. They entrusted Jean-Baptiste's education to Clark, who enrolled the young man in the Saint Louis Academy boarding school. Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter, Lizette, sometime after 1810.
According to Bonnie "Spirit Wind-Walker" Butterfield, historical documents suggest Sacagawea died in 1812 of an unknown sickness:
A few months later, 15 men were killed in an Indian attack, on Fort Lisa, then located, at the mouth of the Bighorn River. John Luttig and Sacagawea's young daughter were among the survivors. Toussaint Charbonneau was mistakenly thought to have been killed, at this time, but he apparently lived to at least age 80. He had signed over formal custody of his son to William Clark in 1813.
As further proof that Sacagawea died in 1812, Butterfield writes: "An adoption document made in the Orphans Court Records in St. Louis, Missouri, states, 'On August 11, 1813, William Clark became the guardian of 'Tousant Charbonneau, a boy about ten years, and Lizette Charbonneau, a girl about one year old.' For a Missouri State Court at the time, to designate a child as orphaned and to allow an adoption, both parents had to be confirmed dead in court papers."
The last recorded document citing, Sacagawea's existence appears in William Clark's original notes written between 1825–1826. He lists the names of each of the expedition members and their last known whereabouts. For Sacagawea he writes: "Se car ja we au- Dead." (Jackson, 1962)."
There is no later record of Lizette among Clark's papers. It is believed that she died in childhood.
Sacagawea's son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau continued a restless and adventurous life. He carried lifelong celebrity status as the infant who went with the explorers to the Pacific Ocean and back. When he was 18, he was befriended by a German Prince, Duke Paul Wilhelm of Württemberg, who took him to Europe. There, Jean-Baptiste spent six years living among royalty, while learning four languages and fathering a child in Germany named Anton Fries.
After his infant son died, Jean-Baptiste came back from Europe in 1829 to live the life of a Western frontiersman. He became a gold miner, hotel clerk, and in 1846, led a group of Mormons to California. While in California he became a magistrate for the Mission San Luis Rey. He disliked the way Indians were treated in the Missions and left to become a hotel clerk in Auburn, California, once the center of gold rush activity.
After working six years in Auburn, the restless son of Sacagawea left in search of riches in the gold mines of Montana. He was 61 years old, and the trip was too much for him. He became ill with pneumonia and died in a remote area near Danner, Oregon, on May 16, 1866.
Some American Indian oral traditions relate that rather than dying in 1812, Sacagawea left her husband Charbonneau, crossed the Great Plains, and married into a Comanche tribe. She was said to have returned to the Shoshone in Wyoming in 1860, where she died in 1884.
The question of Sacagawea's final resting place caught the attention of national suffragists seeking voting rights for women, according to author Raymond Wilson. Wilson argues that Sacagawea became a role model whom suffragettes pointed to "with pride." Wilson goes on to note:
In 1925, Dr. Charles Eastman, a Dakota Sioux physician, was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to locate Sacagawea's remains. Eastman visited many different Native American tribes, to interview elderly individuals who might have known or heard of Sacagawea, and learned of a Shoshone woman at the Wind River Reservation with the Comanche name Porivo (chief woman). Some of the people he interviewed said that she spoke of a long journey wherein she had helped white men, and that she had a silver Jefferson peace medal of the type carried by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He found a Comanche woman called Tacutine who said that Porivo was her grandmother. She had married into a Comanche tribe and had a number of children, including Tacutine's father Ticannaf. Porivo left the tribe after her husband Jerk-Meat was killed.
According to these narratives, Porivo lived for some time at Fort Bridger in Wyoming with her sons Bazil and Baptiste, who each knew several languages, including English and French. Eventually, she found her way back to the Lemhi Shoshone at the Wind River Indian Reservation, where she was recorded as "Bazil's mother". This woman died on April 9, 1884, and a Reverend John Roberts officiated at her funeral.
It was Eastman's conclusion that Porivo was Sacagawea. In 1963, a monument to "Sacajawea of the Shoshonis" was erected at Fort Washakie on the Wind River reservation near Lander, Wyoming, on the basis of this claim.
The belief that Sacagawea lived to old age and died in Wyoming was widely disseminated in the United States in the biography Sacajawea (1933) by University of Wyoming professor and historian Grace Raymond Hebard. Critics have called into question Hebard's 30 years of research, which led to the biography of the Shoshone woman. Hebard presents a stout-hearted woman in her portrayal of Sacajawea that is "undeniably long on romance and short on hard evidence, suffering from a sentimentalization of Indian culture".
In her novel Sacajawea (1984), Anna Lee Waldo explored the story of Sacajawea's returning to Wyoming 50 years after her departure. The author was well aware of the historical research supporting an 1812 death, but she chose to explore the oral tradition.
A long-running controversy has surrounded the correct spelling, pronunciation, and etymology of the woman's name, however, linguists working on Hidatsa since the 1870s have always considered the name's Hidatsa etymology essentially indisputable. The name is a compound of two common Hidatsa nouns, cagáàga [tsaɡáàɡa] 'bird' and míà [míà] 'woman'. The compound is written as Cagáàgawia 'Bird Woman' in modern Hidatsa orthography, and pronounced [tsaɡáàɡawia] (/m/ is pronounced [w] between vowels in Hidatsa). The double /aa/ in the name indicates a long vowel and the diacritics a falling pitch pattern. Hidatsa is a pitch-accent language that does not have stress, therefore, in the Hidatsa pronunciation all syllables in [tsaɡáàɡawia] are pronounced with roughly the same relative emphasis, however, most English speakers perceive the accented syllable (the long /aa/) as stressed. In faithful rendering of the name Cagáàgawia to other languages, it is advisable to emphasize the second, long syllable, not the last, as is common in English.
The name has several spelling traditions in English. The origin of each tradition is described in the following sections.
Sacagawea // is the most widely used spelling of her name, and is pronounced with a hard "g" sound, rather than a soft "g" or "j" sound. Lewis and Clark's original journals mention Sacagawea by name seventeen times, spelled eight different ways, each time with a "g". Clark used Sahkahgarwea, Sahcahgagwea, Sarcargahwea, and Sahcahgahweah, while Lewis used Sahcahgahwea, Sahcahgarweah, Sahcargarweah, and Sahcahgar Wea.
The spelling Sacagawea was established in 1910 as the proper usage in government documents by the United States Bureau of American Ethnology, and is the spelling adopted by the United States Mint for use with the dollar coin, as well as the United States Board on Geographic Names and the U.S. National Park Service. The spelling is used by a large number of historical scholars.
Sakakawea // is the next most widely adopted spelling, and the most often accepted among specialists. Proponents say the name comes from the Hidatsa language tsakáka wía, "bird woman". Charbonneau told expedition members that his wife's name meant "Bird Woman", and in May 1805 Lewis used the Hidatsa meaning in his journal:
Sakakawea is the official spelling of her name according to the Three Affiliated Tribes, which include the Hidatsa, and is widely used throughout North Dakota (where she is considered a state heroine), notably in the naming of Lake Sakakawea, the extensive reservoir of Garrison Dam on the Missouri River.
The North Dakota State Historical Society quotes Russell Reid's book Sakakawea: The Bird Woman:
Nevertheless, Irving W. Anderson, president of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, argued:
The name Sacajawea or Sacajewea //, in contrast to the Hidatsa etymology, is said to be derived from Shoshone Saca-tzaw-meah, meaning "boat puller" or "boat launcher". It is the preferred spelling used by the Lemhi Shoshone people, some of whom claim that her Hidatsa captors merely reinterpreted her existing Shoshone name in their own language, and pronounced it in their own dialect – they heard a name that approximated "tsakaka" and "wia", and interpreted it as "bird woman", substituting the hard "g/k" pronunciation for the softer "tz/j" sound that did not exist in the Hidatsa language.
The use of this spelling almost certainly originated from the use of the "j" spelling by Nicholas Biddle, who annotated the Lewis and Clark Expedition's journals for publication in 1814. This use became more widespread with the publication of the 1902 novel The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark, written by Eva Emery Dye. It is likely Dye used Biddle's secondary source for the spelling, and her highly popular book made it ubiquitous throughout the United States (previously most non-scholars had never even heard of Sacagawea).
Rozina George, great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Cameahwait, says the Agaidika tribe of Lemhi Shoshone do not recognize the spelling or pronunciation Sacagawea, and schools and other memorials erected in the area surrounding her birthplace use the spelling Sacajawea.
Idaho native John Rees explored the "boat launcher" etymology in a long letter to the United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs written in the 1920s; it was republished in 1970 by the Lemhi County Historical Society as a pamphlet entitled "Madame Charbonneau" and contains many of the arguments in favor of the Shoshone derivation of the name.
The spelling Sacajawea, although widely taught until the late twentieth century, is generally considered incorrect in modern academia. Linguistics professor Dr. Sven Liljeblad from the Idaho State University in Pocatello has concluded that "it is unlikely that Sacajawea is a Shoshoni word.... The term for 'boat' in Shoshoni is saiki, but the rest of the alleged compound would be incomprehensible to a native speaker of Shoshoni." The spelling has subsided from general use, although the corresponding "soft j" pronunciation persists in American culture.
Some fictional accounts speculate that Sacagawea was romantically involved with Lewis or Clark during their expedition,[which?] however, while the journals show that she was friendly with Clark and would often do favors for him, the idea of a romantic liaison was created by novelists who wrote about the expedition much later. This fiction was perpetuated in the Western film The Far Horizons (1955).
Several movies, both documentaries and fiction, have been made about, or featuring, Sacagawea.
In 1967, the actress Victoria Vetri, under the name Angela Dorian, played Sacajawea in the episode "The Girl Who Walked the West" of the syndicated television series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Robert Taylor. Dick Simmons played Meriwether Lewis in this episode; Don Matheson, William Clark, and Victor French, Charbonneaux.
Two early twentieth-century novels shaped much of the public perception of Sacagawea. The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark (1902), was written by American suffragist Eva Emery Dye and published in anticipation of the expedition's centennial. The National American Woman Suffrage Association embraced her as a female hero, and numerous stories and essays about her appeared in ladies' journals. A few decades later, Grace Raymond Hebard published Sacajawea: Guide and Interpreter of Lewis and Clark (1933) to even greater success.
Media related to Sacagawea at Wikimedia Commons