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Sacagawea Statue (Bismark, ND)
Sacagawea Statue (Bismarck, ND)

In 1800, when she was about 12 years old, Sacagawea was kidnapped by a war party of Hidatsa Indians -- enemies of her people, the Shoshones. She was taken from her Rocky Mountain homeland, located in today’s Idaho, to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages near modern Bismarck, North Dakota. There, she was later sold as a slave to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader who claimed Sacagawea and another Shoshone woman as his “wives.” In November 1804, the Corps of Discovery arrived at the Hidatsa-Mandan villages and soon built a fort nearby. In the American Fort Mandan on February 11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to her son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, who would soon become America’s youngest explorer.

Captain Clark wrote that the “great object was to make every letter sound” in recording Indian words in their journals. The pronunciation of Sacagawea’s name in years since the expedtion as “Sacajawea” does not match “Sah-cah' gah-we-ah,” the way that the captains recorded the young Shoshone woman’s name. In fact, her name -- made by joining the Hidatsa words for bird (“sacaga”) and woman (“wea”) -- was written 17 times by the explorers in their journals and on their maps, and each time it was spelled with a “g” in the third syllable.

The Shoshones possessed horses that the expedition needed to cross the Bitterroot Mountains. The captains felt that because of her Shoshone heritage, Sacagawea could be important in trading for horses when the Corps reached the western mountains and the Shoshones. While Sacagawea did not speak English, she spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. Her husband Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French. In effect, Sacagawea and Charbonneau would become an intepreter team. As Clark explained in his journals, Charbonneau was hired “as an interpreter through his wife.” If and when the expedition met the Shoshones, Sacagawea would talk with them, then translate to Hidatsa for Charbonneau, who would translate to French. The Corps’ Francois Labiche spoke French and English, and would make the final translation so that the two English-speaking captains would understand.

Sacagawea, with the infant Jean Baptiste, was the only woman to accompany the 33 members of the permanent party to the Pacific Ocean and back. Baptiste, who Captain Clark affectionately named “Pomp” or “Pompy” for his “little dancing boy” frolicking, rode with Sacagwea in the boats and on her back when they traveled on horseback. Her activities as a member of the Corps included digging for roots, collecting edible plants and picking berries; all of these were used as food and sometimes, as medicine. On May 14, 1805, the boat Sacagawea was riding in was hit by a high wind and nearly capsized. She recovered many important papers and supplies that would otherwise have been lost, and her calmness under duress earned the compliments of the captains.

On August 12, 1805, Captain Lewis and three men scouted 75 miles ahead of the expedition’s main party, crossing the Continental Divide at today’s Lemhi Pass. The next day, they found a group of Shoshones. Not only did they prove to be Sacagawea’s band, but their leader, Chief Cameahwait, turned out to be none other than her brother. On August 17, after five years of separation, Sacagawea and Cameahwait had an emotional reunion. Then, through their intepreting chain of the captains, Labiche, Charbonneau, and Sacagawea, the expedition was able to purchase the horses it needed.

Sacagawea turned out to be incredibly valuable to the Corps as it traveled westward, through the territories of many new tribes. Some of these Indians, prepared to defend their lands, had never seen white men before. As Clark noted on October 19, 1805, the Indians were inclined to believe that the whites were friendly when they saw Sacagawea. A war party never traveled with a woman -- especially a woman with a baby. During council meetings between Indian chiefs and the Corps where Shoshone was spoke, Sacagawea was used and valued as an interpreter.

On November 24, 1805, when the expedition reached the place where the Columbia River emptied into the Pacific Ocean, the captains held a vote among all the members to decide where to settle for the winter. Sacagawea’s vote, as well as the vote of Clark’s "manservant" York, were counted equally with those of the captains and the men. As a result of the election, the Corps stayed at a site near present-day Astoria, Oregon, in Fort Clatsop, which they constructed and inhabited during the winter of 1805-1806.

While at Fort Clatsop, local Indians told the expedition of a whale that had been stranded on a beach some miles to the south. Clark assembled a group of men to find the whale and possibly obtain some whale oil and blubber, which could be used to feed the Corps. Sacagawea had yet to see the ocean, and after willfully asking Clark, she was allowed to accompany the group to the sea. As Captain Lewis wrote on January 6, 1806, “[T]he Indian woman was very impo[r]tunate to be permited to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either.”

During the expedition’s return journey, as they passed through her homeland, Sacagawea proved a valuable guide. She remembered Shoshone trails from her childhood, and Clark praised her as his “pilot.” The most important trail she recalled, which Clark described as “a large road passing through a gap in the mountain,” led to the Yellowstone River. (Today, it is known as Bozeman Pass, Montana.) The Corps returned to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages on August 14, 1806, marking the end of the trip for Sacagawea, Charbonneau and their boy, Jean Baptiste. When the trip was over, Sacagawea received nothing, but Charbonneau was given $500.33 and 320 acres of land.

Six years after the expedition, Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter, Lisette. On December 22, 1812, the Shoshone woman died at age 25 due to what later medical researchers believed was a serious illness she had suffered most of her adult life. Her condition may have been aggravated by Lisette’s birth. At the time of her death, Sacagawea was with her husband at Fort Manuel, a Missouri Fur Company trading post in present-day South Dakota. Eight months after her death, Clark legally adopted Sacagawea’s two children, Jean Baptiste and Lisette. Baptiste was educated by Clark in St. Lous, and then, at age 18, was sent to Europe with a German prince. It is not known whether Lisette survived past infancy.

During most of the 20th century, several generations of Americans have believed a theory that originated in 1907 by Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard, Librarian, University of Wyoming. According to Dr. Hebard’s theory, a person who lived to age 100 on the Wind River Indian Reservation (Wyoming) was the Sacagawea of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Alleged to have been “Sacajawea,” which was interpreted to mean “boat launcher,” that woman died and was buried on the reservation on April 9, 1884. Dr. Hebard formalized her theory in her 1932 book, Sacagawea: A Guide and Intepreter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The only written documents that have been found positively identifying that elderly woman are the listing of her name on a November 1, 1877 census roll of the Wind River Shoshone and Bannock Indians, and the woman’s April 9, 1884 death certificate. Both of these official documents clearly record her name as “Bazil’s Mother.” At age 100 in 1884, Bazil’s Mother would have been born in 1784, making her 21 years old in 1805 -- the year Sacagawea set out with Lewis and Clark. Most 20th century books, encyclopedias, and movies have perpetuated this theory, creating the mistaken identity of the Wind River woman.