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1804: The Expedition
The story of Meriwether Lewis and William ClarkпїЅs 1804 expedition west is one of those
great American stories, the kind that gets passed from generation to generation. The Corps of
Discovery consisted of a diverse group of people, including a Native America woman named
Sacagawea. The importance of her role as interpreter and guide on that voyage has been debated
throughout history. Since the years of Lewis and ClarkпїЅs trip, it has not always been clear who
Sacagawea was, how exactly she helped Lewis and Clark, when she died, or even how her name
was spelled. People have a tendency to misinterpret her by either romanticizing, idealizing, or
minimizing her contribution to the expedition. (Howard, vi). Several authorsпїЅ portrayals of
Sacagawea can determine what she did, how popular culture views her today. Despite the sparse
facts that Americans have about Sacagawea, they continue to hold her up as a heroine of
American history by surrounding her legacy with romance, mystery, and intrigue.
In order to give Sacagawea her rightful place in history, one must first look at what she
actually did do on the expedition by turning to Lewis and ClarkпїЅs journals. They do not mention
Sacagawea very often. When they do, it is about the good that she did as a helpful member of the
Corps, she was compassionate, and very useful. Although some say that Sacagawea was not
indispensable, she certainly eased the way for Lewis, Clark, and their men. We are unsure of
how much of a help Sacagawea was in guiding Lewis and Clark, but we do know that her presence strengthened the crewпїЅs morale (Howard 150-1). The Trapper's Bride by Alfred Jacob Miller (Courtesy of People in the West) When Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian, she was living in a Hidatsa-
Mandan village near modern-day North Dakota. Sacagawea had been kidnapped by the Hidatsas
and then sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, who took her as one of his wives. Sacagawea, like
many American Indian women of her day, did not have much choice over her husband, or where
she would live. While studying Sacagawea, it is important to understand that what she did and
where she was not determined by her own freewill; she joined the expedition partly by accident.
Lewis and Clark signed Charbonneau and Sacagawea on as пїЅan interpreter teamпїЅ to assure that
Lewis and Clark could get the horses they need from the Shoshone Indians. Sacagawea could
speak Shoshone and Hidatsa; Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French. One of the Corps
members spoke French and English. This complex process allowed the two captains to
communicate with the Indian groups and chiefs that they met. (PBS). Some history books
suggest that Charbonneau was the only interpreter and Sacagawea was just his wife. In fact,
Sacagawea played a very important role in the interpretations and meetings with the Indian
tribes. But even Lewis and Clark referred to Sacagawea as пїЅwife to one of our interprsпїЅ
(DeVoto 256). пїЅThe One Eyed Chief arived and we. spoke to the Indians through a Snake boy
Shabono and his wife. We informed them who we were, where we came from & our intentions
towards them, which pleased them very muchпїЅ (380). Sacagawea and her husband,
Charbonneau, were hired to act as translators to ensure that the Corps could communicate with
the Indian tribes. In this instance, Sacagawea's translating skills enabled the Corps to trade for
horses that would determine whether or not they could continue. Sacagawea was not only an
interpreter on the expedition, she helped in many other ways as well. She collected food, like
roots and berries. Also, as the Corps returned from the Pacific Ocean, through SacagaweaпїЅs
homeland, she guided them through the area that she knew well. (PBS).
To look at what Sacagawea actually did on the expedition shows perhaps why Americans
would tend to idealize or romanticize her character. Sacagawea was a pregnant teenage girl on
the expedition and she did all the same things that the other thirty members of the Corps did.
The other men were strong, military men who were used to hard work, long days and nights, and
rough traveling; Sacagawea may not have been. When she joined the expedition, Sacagawea was
six months pregnant, and after a painful birth, she carried her infant son across the country with
her. Like the rest of the Corps, Sacagawea experienced illnesses and injuries. On February
eleventh, 1805, Lewis wrote, пїЅabout five oClock this evening one of the wives of Charbono
[Sacajawea] was delivered of a fine boy. It is worthy of remark that this was the first child
which this woman had boarn, and as is common in such cases her labour was tedious and the
pain violent. пїЅ (DeVoto 80). Giving birth is something that some people consider a very
private, miraculous, and intense event. If Sacagawea, at the age of sixteen, gave birth and then
had to carry that baby on her back, it makes sense that some modern-day thinkers believe her to
be a special, crucial figure of strength and motherhood.
It is impossible to fully understand how Lewis and Clark felt about Sacagawea or even
how they treated her. Most of what they wrote of her was positive, but there are instances where
Lewis and Clark seemed to be unaware of how Sacagawea might be feeling or thinking in a
situation. Even Lewis and Clark, like some people of today, might have simplified Sacagawea
into nothing more than a happy-go-lucky Indian girl. On July twenty-eighth, 1805, Lewis wrote,
пїЅSah-cah-gar-we-ah o[u]r Indian woman was one of the female prisoners taken at that time; tho I
cannot discover that she shews any immotion of sorrow in recollecting this even, or of joy in
being restored to her native country; if she has enough to eat and a few trinkets to wear I believe
she would be perfectly content anywhereпїЅ (DeVoto, 171). Their backgrounds or cultural
influences may have caused Lewis and Clark to simplify Sacagawea or take her for granted.
Despite their attitude, what Lewis and Clark, a primary source, wrote about Sacagawea is still
the only direct statement about SacagaweaпїЅs character. What historians
or others do to her
legend has less to do with Sacagawea herself than with what they want in a heroine or legend.
Lewis and Clark seem to have appreciated all the work that Sacagawea did, especially
one day when the boat Sacagawea was in flipped over and Sacagawea was able to save some of
the papers and important items that went overboard. Ambrose writes
пїЅAll this time, Sacagawea was calm, collected, and invaluable. As
Lewis put it the following day, пїЅThe Indian woman to whom I
ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person on board at
the time of the accedent, caught and preserved most of the light
articles which were washed overboard.пїЅ Whether he praised her, or
upbraided her husband, he did not say.пїЅ (Ambrose 225).
If Lewis was to describe Sacagawea as someone with пїЅfortitude and resolution,пїЅ it is
probable that he usually treated her with respect. It is unclear how Lewis and Clark treated
Sacagawea on a regular basis. Did they ignore her, treat her as a slave, or did they treat her with
respect, sensitivity, and kindness? On one occasion when Charbonneau began to beat
Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark stepped in to stop. This action shows a desire on their part to
protect her, as well as their need to keep their men in line.
пїЅOne wonders too how the man who could be so observant about so many things,
including the feelings and point of view of his men, could be so unobservant and
SacagaweaпїЅs situation. A slave, one of only two in the party, she was also the
only Indian, the only mother, the only woman, the only teen-aged person. Small
wonder she kept such a tight grip on her emotionsпїЅ (260).
Ambrose suggests that Lewis was пїЅunobservant,пїЅ possibly ignoring the sensitivity of
SacagaweaпїЅs situation. Did Sacagawea keep a пїЅtight grip on her emotionsпїЅ because she need to
protect herself and her baby? Was she constantly making sure she was safe? The contradicitons
and inconsistences in the journals distract from the real picture of Sacagawea at the same time
that they give insight into her personality. Even though the journals is a primary source, they are
certainly not objective; if they were, then there would be no пїЅmystery of SacagaweaпїЅ today.
On August 14th 1806, the Corps returned to the place where they first found Sacagawea.
Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and their son stayed behind as Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis
and the East. Charbonneau was given $500.33 and 320 acres of land, whereas Sacagawea was
given nothing except the experience of the trip and of seeing the Pacific Ocean. What did
Sacagawea sacrifice to go on that expedition? Was she adequately rewarded for her efforts?
Most modern day biographies of Sacagawea, bird woman, tell us that she died at Fort Manuel in South Dakota, at the age of 25, after giving birth to a daughter, Lisette.
1884: Death Revisited
The alleged year of death of Sacajawea, boat launcher, according to Shoshoni oral tradition and Grace Raymond Hebard, author of Sacajawea.
1932: The Debate Begins
Her Death: In 1932, Grace Raymond Hebard published the first account suggesting that Sacajawea died in April of 1884.
Beyond Lewis and ClarkпїЅs formal documentation of SacagaweaпїЅs life for the year and
half they were together, there exists nothing else to prove what Sacagawea did for the rest of her
life. There are two main version of what happened to her, and the date of her death is dependent
of what must have transpired. Why has Sacagawea become such a popular character with such
great significance when the only part of her life that was documented was the year and a half
that she spent with Lewis and Clark? There is little that we know about her life after she left the
There are two main theories about what could have happened to Sacagawea, a Shoshoni
legend, and another. One, which is mostly widely held today, says that Sacagawea died after
giving birth to a daughter in 1812 at the age of 25 at Fort Manuel, a fur trading outpost in South
Dakota (Howard).The other version of SacagaweaпїЅs life is one that many people believed for
years because it was the version passed down in Shoshoni oral history. In her book, Sacajawea,
Grace Raymond Hebard contends that she met and has proof for the theory that Sacagawea had
moved with Charbonneau, their two sons, and CharbonneauпїЅs new wife, Eagle, to a reservation.
The story goes that Sacagawea died in 1884, not 1812; the reason people think she died in 1812
was because CharbonneauпїЅs other wife died, and their identities were mixed up. The clerk at
Fort Manuel wrote on December 20, 1812, пїЅThis evening the wife of Charbonneau, a snake
squaw, died of a putrid fever. She was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25
years. She left a fine infant girlпїЅ (qtd. in Hebard 160). The two competing versions of
SacagaweaпїЅs death work to continue the mystery and the intrigue that comes from the fact that
so much of her character is unknown. Sacagawea dying in 1812 is not as much of a пїЅfunпїЅ story.
If Sacagawea died at an old age, there is much more to her life than anyone can ever know.
Living to an old age makes Sacagawea live longer in the minds of Americans, sort of making her
Sacagawea statue (Courtesy of Women's Wire)
Her name: Spelling and Pronunciation
Part of the difficulty that allowed the debate to go on over Sacagawea is the many names
she had during her lifetime, because of her moving about the country from tribe to tribe, and her
Indian heritage and the tradition of Indian names. The difficulty people had in pronouncing and
spelling her name contributed to the confusion surrounding the date of her death. Throughout
the journals, Lewis and Clark spelled SacagaweaпїЅs name with a пїЅg,пїЅ taking her name to mean
пїЅbird womanпїЅ in Shoshone. But the woman who claimed to be Sacagawea spelled her name
пїЅSacajaweaпїЅ which means пїЅboat launcher.пїЅ
Shoshone or Comanche NameSource: www.mathcs.bethel.edu