The Story of Sacajawea

by, Jo Carol Hebert

Setting the Stage of History 

1620.  English ‘Pilgrims’ found Plymouth Bay colony on the Atlantic Coast of America.

1776.  The 13th colonies of America are named the United States of America. 

1776.  Declaration of Independence from English rule is signed. Revolutionary War.  

1783.  England agrees that the colonies are “free and independent states”.

1789.  George Washington was elected first President of the United States.

1803.  Thomas Jefferson is the third President of America. Now, a total of 17 colonies.

The Louisiana Purchase

Thomas Jefferson was President when the United States bought 828,000 square miles of land – an area claimed by Napoleon of France. Called the “Louisiana Purchase’, this remarkable ‘real estate’ deal (for only 3 cents an acre) doubled the size of the United States. The area was a strip of land in the middle of the country. The land would be carved into fifteen future states.

Trails in the Wilderness

With this ‘purchase’, President Jefferson dreamed of expanding the United States westward. He ordered an expedition to observe, explore, survey and map lands west of the Louisiana Purchase. New settlers would need to know if the soil was good for farming. Where were the best and safest routes for travel? What wildlife would they encounter?  How high were the mountains? What Native Americans lived in the land? Also, President Jefferson had a great dream of finding a waterway passage that would cross the country from ‘sea to shining sea’ (from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean).

Lewis Meriwether and William Clark 

President Jefferson chose Lewis Meriwether, to lead the ‘Corps of Discovery’. Meriwether chose his friend, William Clark, to co-lead the venture. Both men had military experience.

1804. A crew of over forty military and civilian volunteers left from St. Louis, Missouri. Paddling up the treacherous ‘big muddy’ Missouri River, they entered the territory of North Dakota. They built Fort Mandan and camped for the winter. Below them were the friendly villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa Native American tribes. Unknown to them, Sacajawea’s life has led her to this very same site. 

Sacajawea: A Native American Child

1788. Sacajawea was born into the Lehmi band of Native Americans called the Shoshone (Sho-sho-nee). These Plains Indians lived along the Salmon River, an area which is on the border of the states of Idaho and Montana. Her Shoshone name was Boinaiv, which means Grass Maiden. Her father was the Chief of the village. 

Indigenous peoples of early America had no concept of ‘owning’ land. They believed that all elements of land, sky, and people were connected in one great ‘being’. The land provided all they needed and they took from the land only what they needed to survive. 

Sacajawea grew up in this culture in the foothills of the majestic Rocky Mountains. The Shoshone were nomadic ‘hunter-food gatherers’. They moved with the seasons. The women could pack up the ‘tipis’ (teepees) and break camp within an hour. 

In this lifestyle, the young girl learned to live off the land. She gathered food: seeds, pine nuts, and roots. She used sharp sticks to dig up licorice roots, and prairie turnips. She knew where to find the wild artichokes that the mice had buried for the winter. With the women, she would gather firewood, tend the fire, and cook. She knew how to weave baskets and decorate belts and moccasins with beads.

The Shoshone village followed the endless bison herds of the Great Plains. She helped skin, smoke and sun-dry the meat for storage. Sacajawea would prepare the bison hides for clothes and ‘tipis’. She was a child skilled to survive the harsh and unforgiving lifestyle of the great outdoors. But, she also woke each day to the wonders of nature – the sun that turned the prairie grasses golden, and a dome of cornflower blue sky that stretched above her. 

Kidnapped

1800.  Three Forks, Montana. When she was twelve years old, the Lemhi Shoshone tribe were camped for a bison hunt. A rival tribe called the Hidatsa captured Boinaiv and other children. They were taken from her homeland to the area of North Dakota. There she was renamed *Sacagawea which means Bird Woman

*Spelled ‘Sah-ga-ca-wea’, with a hard ‘g’ and a hard ‘c’  means ‘Bird Woman’ in the Hidatsa language. The Hidatsa language had no soft letter ‘j’. Spelled ‘Sacajewea’ (Sah-ca-je-we-a) means ‘Boat Launcher’ in the Shoshone language. The ‘Sacajewea’ spelling will be used in this article.

Life with the Hidatsa

The Hidatsa were a more settled agricultural people. They put her to work in the fields to plant and harvest crops. Sacajawea missed her family. She yearned to hear the stories of the elders around the night campfire. No longer would she dance with the women in the Bison Dance. But she was a Shoshone woman. She accepted her fate. Later she married a French-Canadian fur-trader named Toissaint Chabonneau. Their first child, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, was born in February, 1805.

Sacajawea Enters History

Lewis and Clark had many challenges to overcome in preparation for their great journey. Two major problems to solve were the need for a language ‘interpreter’ and a scout (guide). The expedition would be passing through Shoshone tribal lands. The vast territory westward was unknown to them. Charbonneau and his wife, Sacajawea were hired to fulfill both of these important needs.  

The Journey Begins

Spring comes, and with the melting snow, Lewis and Clark leave Fort Mandan. With them are Charbonneau and Sacajawea. Her 2-month old baby, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, is strapped safely in a cradleboard on her back.  

During the first leg of the journey, the group encountered rugged terrain, waterfalls that blocked their direct passage, rattlesnakes and grizzly bears. Lewis and Clark were soon to find out what a good choice they had made in this obscure wife of Charbonneau.

Quick-Thinking Averts a Tragedy  

Continuing by water, suddenly, high winds caused the boat carrying Sacajawea to capsize!  The boat turned over. The crew scrambled to survive.  In the midst of this chaos, Sacajawea had the presence of mind to save vital maps, medical supplies, and journals, and preserving her and her child’s life. (Charbonneau could not swim). Lewis and Clark are impressed with her sensible deed and commended her highly. They name a stream of the river after Sacajawea.

My People – My Brother

The explorers reached the Three Forks area of the river. Sacajawea recognizes Beaverhead Rock, a landmark of her Shoshone childhood homeland. There, she reunites with her brother, Cameahwait, now the Great Chief of the Lemhi Shoshone. The group camped on the very site where Sacajawea was kidnapped by the Hidatsa. 

Here, Sacajawea’s language skills are most valuable. As an ‘interpreter’ between the two cultures, she helps to effect an important trade for horses. The people will walk over the towering heights of the Rocky Mountains. But, horses were essential to carry supplies. With Sacajawea interpreting between the two cultures, Lewis and Clark gain information about the best route through the mountains.  

Sacajawea Shines

Her presence and the baby proved to be a positive factor for the expedition. A woman and child in the group was a sign that the explorers were peaceful and not warlike.

Clark became fond of little Jean-Baptiste and nicknamed him, ‘Pompey’. He called Sacajawea, ‘Janey’.

Lewis noted in his journals that when the expedition stopped for dinner, “Sacajawea busied herself in search for the wild artichokes . . . and procured a good quantity of these roots.”

Fort Clatsop

Through dangers, disease, starvation, and impossible obstacles, the weary travelers reached the Pacific Ocean. We can only imagine the joy, awe, and relief the expedition felt at this success. They built Fort Clatsop in the current state of Oregon and camp there for the winter. In the Spring, they began the long, but now, familiar journey back home.

The Rest of the Story

Charbonneau bought land and tried to farm. But, soon, he returned to fur-trading. Sacajawea stayed with her husband until she died at the early age of twenty-five.  Clark became the guardian for her children, ‘Pompey’ and a daughter, Lisette, who is thought to have died young. Jean-Baptise Charbonneau was given a good education and traveled in Europe. He became recognized in his own right as a reliable scout and frontiersman. 

The Journals of Lewis and Clark present two years of historical information about the deeds and the character of Sacagewea. Her Shoshone people have their sacred traditions of her life that they hold dear.

Sacajawea did not set out to become famous. She was an ordinary person who exhibited the highest qualities of human nature in the most difficult of circumstances.

Like Squanto to the Pilgrims, she was a friend to strangers in a foreign land. 

She belongs with the heroes of American history, a quiet voice of everyday courage.

Categories: Biographies, History

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