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Image of Sacagawea.
This part of a famous portrait by Charles Russell, entitled Captain Lewis Meeting the Shoshones, shows one artist's idea of what Sacagawea might have looked like. Sacagawea's life was mainly a mystery.

An enigma wrapped in a mystery. The old saw fits Sacagawea pretty well.

The Shoshone woman has achieved legendary status in today's light. She is held up as the epitome of a brave and caring young woman, a Native American who became the most famous member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, save for the captains, and who has been memorialized on the dollar coin. Yet the details of her life and death remain a riddle some 200 years later.

The only facts known for certain about Sacagawea come from the year and a half she spent with her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, on the Lewis and Clark expedition. The captains' journals captured some of her roles and exploits on the trip west. Most everything else—the spelling of her name, her date of death, her life before and after the expedition—isn't quite so clear.

Sacagawea was born around 1790. She was the daughter of a Shoshone chief. At about the age of 10, she was kidnapped by the Hidatsa during a raid against the Shoshones. Her father was killed. She then lived hundreds of miles away in a Hidatsa village on the upper Missouri where she was either sold or gambled away to Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper. As was custom in the Indian villages, Charbonneau had multiple wives.

When Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea, she was late in her pregnancy with her first child with Charbonneau. During the winter at Fort Mandan, she gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste, who was nicknamed "Pomp" or "Pompey" by Clark for reasons that are not clear. The captains hired Charbonneau not only for his interpretation skills, but also for two advantages Sacagawea offered. First, the captains knew they would need someone to interpret with the Shoshones so that the expedition could buy horses from them to cross the Rockies. Second, having a woman and child was good public relations. It cemented the idea that this was a peaceful, scientific voyage.

The young woman was expected to pull her weight on the expedition. She did and then some. Her contributions gained her the respect of the captains over the course of the trip, judging by their journal entries. Early on, they referred to her as the "squar," or squaw, an Algonquian word meaning prostitute, a word used both by Indians and whites to refer to Indian women. Her name itself was spelled and pronounced several different ways. The spelling commonly used today has its roots in Hidatsa language and means bird woman.

Not long after leaving Fort Mandan in April 1805, Sacagawea proved her worth. She dove into the Missouri and saved valuable papers, supplies, instruments, and books after her husband nearly capsized the pirogue he was piloting. She survived a near-fatal illness a month later. On July 29, 1805, she, the baby, her husband, and Clark nearly drowned in a flash flood. A couple of weeks later Lewis reported that Clark severely reprimanded Charbonneau for beating his wife, which had been a frequent occurrence.


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