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
wrapped in a mystery. The old saw fits Sacagawea pretty well.
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.
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
elsethe spelling of her name, her date of death, her life
before and after the expeditionisn't quite so clear.
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.
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.
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
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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