Sacagawea Statue Bismarck, ND
Shoshone Indian

Let me start this by saying how astonished I was that so much money was put into a marketing campaign when the new dollar coin came out. It was amusing to see President George Washingtion's paper head on a body doing some really neat things. I especially liked the one where he was driving the Lincoln. But, the campaign was on Washington retiring! Not a word was mentioned about who was on the new coin. As my friend and mentor Rico said to me, "The children out there still think that Pontiac is just a car!" So for our children, and to all interested people, here is the story of Sacagawea, pronounced Sa-ca-ja way, also know as Bird Woman. 

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, and interpreter, who claimed her as his wife. 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. 

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 parties’ 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 party 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. The leaders expected to have difficulties with hostile Indians, but they wrote in their journal that they experienced more difficulties from the navigation of the Missouri than dangers from the savages

While passing the mouth of the Yellowstone, the party continued up the main river until they came to the Great Falls fo the Missouri, a veil of spray 80 feet high descending between lofty cliffs of solid rock. Sacagawea showed them how to make wheels of cross-sections of the cotton wood, on which to carry the boats the 20 miles around the Falls. From there on Bird Woman was the guide. They had passed the gate of the Rockies and were in a labyrinth of streams and passes. At the three forks of the Missouri, which the explorers named after the three statesmen, Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin, they took the south Fork, the Shoshone trail. After a long journey, the tepees and grazing ponies in the Shoshone valley were a welcome sight. 

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 party 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 party where Shoshone was spoken, 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 the Clark’s manservant York, were counted equally with those of the captains and the men. As a result, the party 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 party. 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, "The Indian woman was very importunate to be permitted 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." Clark himself took Sacagawea and her husband to see the ocean on January 7, 1806. 

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 party 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. and 320 acres of land. 

In Portland, Oregon, Bismark, North Dakota, and other places, are statues honoring Bird Woman. A Montanta mountain pass, peak, and river also bear her name. 

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. Louis, 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 in 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. This theory was proven by Dr. Hebard 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. 

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Dr.Grace Raymond Hebard, Librarian, University of Wyoming, in her book,
Sacagawea: A Guide and Intepreter of the
Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Created September 15, 2000 ~ Updated July 5, 2005 by Who Else....PurpleHawk