Separating fact from legend in Sacagawea’s life is difficult; historians disagree on the dates of her birth and death and even on her name. In Hidatsa, Sacagawea (pronounced with a hard g) translates into “Bird Woman.” Alternatively, Sacajawea means “Boat Launcher” in Shoshone. Others favour Sakakawea. The Lewis and Clark journals generally support the Hidatsa derivation.
A Lemhi Shoshone woman, she was about 12 years old when a Hidatsa raiding party captured her near the Missouri River’s headwaters about 1800. Enslaved and taken to their Knife River earth-lodge villages near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, she was purchased by French Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau and became one of his plural wives about 1804. They resided in one of the Hidatsa villages, Metaharta.
When explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived at the Mandan-Hidatsa villages and built Fort Mandan to spend the winter of 1804–05, they hired Charbonneau as an interpreter to accompany them to the Pacific Ocean. Because he did not speak Sacagawea’s language and because the expedition party needed to communicate with the Shoshones to acquire horses to cross the mountains, the explorers agreed that the pregnant Sacagawea should also accompany them. On February 11, 1805, she gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste.
Departing on April 7, the expedition ascended the Missouri. On May 14, Charbonneau nearly capsized the white pirogue (boat) in which Sacagawea was riding. Remaining calm, she retrieved important papers, instruments, books, medicine, and other indispensable valuables that otherwise would have been lost. During the next week Lewis and Clark named a tributary of Montana’s Mussellshell River “Sah-ca-gah-weah,” or “Bird Woman’s River,” after her. She proved to be a significant asset in numerous ways: searching for edible plants, making moccasins and clothing, as well as allaying suspicions of approaching Indian tribes through her presence; a woman and child accompanying a party of men indicated peaceful intentions.
By mid-August the expedition encountered a band of Shoshones led by Sacagawea’s brother Cameahwait. The reunion of sister and brother had a positive effect on Lewis and Clark’s negotiations for the horses and guide that enabled them to cross the Rocky Mountains. Upon arriving at the Pacific coast, she was able to voice her opinion about where the expedition should spend the winter and was granted her request to visit the ocean to see a beached whale. She and Clark were fond of each other and performed numerous acts of kindness for one another, but romance between them occurred only in latter-day fiction.
Sacagawea was not the guide for the expedition, as some have erroneously portrayed her; nonetheless, she recognized landmarks in southwestern Montana and informed Clark that Bozeman Pass was the best route between the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers on their return journey. On July 25, 1806, Clark named Pompey’s Tower (now Pompey’s Pillar) on the Yellowstone after her son, whom Clark fondly called his “little dancing boy, Pomp.”
The Charbonneau family disengaged from the expedition party upon their return to the Mandan-Hidatsa villages; Charbonneau eventually received $409.16 and 320 acres (130 hectares) for his services. Clark wanted to do more for their family, so he offered to assist them and eventually secured Charbonneau a position as an interpreter. The family traveled to St. Louis in 1809 to baptize their son and left him in the care of Clark, who had earlier offered to provide him with an education. Shortly after the birth of a daughter named Lisette, a woman identified only as Charbonneau’s wife (but believed to be Sacagawea) died at the end of 1812 at Fort Manuel, near present-day Mobridge, South Dakota. Clark became the legal guardian of Lisette and Jean Baptiste and listed Sacagawea as deceased in a list he compiled in the 1820s. Some biographers and oral traditions contend that it was another of Charbonneau’s wives who died in 1812 and that Sacagawea went to live among the Comanches, started another family, rejoined the Shoshones, and died on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation on April 9, 1884. These accounts can likely be attributed to other Shoshone women who shared similar experiences as Sacagawea.
Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, traveled throughout Europe before returning to enter the fur trade. He scouted for explorers and helped guide the Mormon Battalion to California before becoming an alcalde, a hotel clerk, and a gold miner. Lured to the Montana goldfields following the Civil War, he died en route near Danner, Oregon, on May 16, 1866. Little is known of Lisette’s whereabouts prior to her death on June 16, 1832; she was buried in the Old Catholic Cathedral Cemetery in St. Louis. Charbonneau died on August 12, 1843.
Sacagawea has been memorialized with statues, monuments, stamps, and place-names. In 2000 her likeness appeared on a gold-tinted dollar coin struck by the U.S. Mint. In 2001 U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton granted her a posthumous decoration as an honorary sergeant in the regular army.