Sacagawea was born into the Lemhi Shoshone tribe around the year 1788. The Lemhi Shoshone lived in what is today known as the Lemhi River Valley in Idaho. Nothing more is known about Sacagawea’s early childhood.
In 1800, Sacagawea was captured by Hidatsa warriors during a raid that killed many people in her village. It was her Hidatsa captors who gave her the name Sacagawea, which means “Bird Woman.” The warriors brought Sacagawea to a Hidatsa-Mandan settlement in present-day North Dakota.
About a year later, when Sacagawea was only 13 years old, her captors forced her to marry French trapper Toussaint Charbonneau. Marriage was a common way for French trappers and Indigenous communities to solidify their trade relationships in the Great Lakes region. Some Indigenous women chose to marry French trappers to improve their own trade networks. But Sacagawea’s experience illuminates a darker side of the practice. Some young women were sexually exploited to further the interests of their communities. Toussaint was 20 years older than Sacagawea when they married. He was also already married to another Shoshone woman named Otter Woman, who he had purchased. We have no record of how Sacagawea felt about her marriage other than the circumstances were far from ideal.
In the fall of 1804, Merriweather Lewis and William Clark arrived in Hidatsa territory. They were the co-commanders of a division of the U.S. Army called the Corps of Discovery. The corps was formed by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the Louisiana Purchase and report back on the geography and natural resources of the lands. The corps could not safely travel during the winter months, so they built a temporary fort. Once the corps was settled for the season, Lewis and Clark sent out word that they were looking for interpreters. They needed people who could help them speak to Indigenous communities on their journey west.
Toussaint applied for the job in November 1804. In addition to his skills with Indigenous languages, Toussaint told Lewis and Clark that he had two Shoshone wives who would be able to smooth their passage through Shoshone lands. Lewis and Clark hired Toussaint and asked him to bring one of his wives. Toussaint chose Sacagawea, even though she was pregnant. We do not know how Sacagawea felt about this.
Toussaint and Sacagawea moved into the fort a week later. Clark gave her the nickname “Janey.” Sacagawea gave birth at the fort in February 1805. Toussaint and Sacagawea named their baby boy Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, but Lewis and Clarke called him “Little Pomp” or “Pompy.” Pompy was only two months old when he and his mother joined the Corps as they moved up the Missouri River in April 1805. Sacagawea was only 17 years old and carried Pompy on her back. She had to bring him along because it was unlikely he would survive without her.
Sacagawea’s job was to interpret for Lewis and Clark when they met with Indigenous communities. But she helped in many other ways also.
Sacagawea saved Lewis and Clark’s journals and papers when the boat carrying them up the Missouri River sank. They were so grateful they named a small river in her honor. The expedition made it to Shoshone territory in August 1805. Lewis and Clark needed horses from the Shoshone for the next leg of their expedition through the Rocky Mountains. They brought Sacagawea to their meeting to translate and hopefully aid their negotiations. When they arrived at the meeting, Sacagawea recognized the chief of the tribe as her long-lost brother. She was overjoyed to be reunited with her community, even if only for a short time.
Sacagawea’s job was to interpret for Lewis and Clark when they met with Indigenous communities. But she helped in many other ways also. The trip through the Rocky Mountains was more difficult than expected. The corps nearly starved to death. When they finally made it over the mountains, Sacagawea made food from local roots that helped the explorers regain their strength. When Lewis and Clark wanted a particularly magnificent otter skin robe as a gift for President Thomas Jefferson, Sacagawea traded her beaded belt to acquire it. Most importantly, Sacagawea and Pompy’s presence protected the expedition. Indigenous communities took their presence as a sign that the corps was a peaceful group, not a war party. Lewis and Clark knew that without Sacagawea they would surely have faced more aggression from the Indigenous communities.
But the journey was not easy for Sacagawea. She faced the same difficult landscape, harsh weather, and food shortages as the rest of the corps. In addition, she had the responsibility of caring for her infant son. She also most likely miscarried a second pregnancy in the summer of 1805. The physical and mental strain of her miscarriage left her so ill that both Lewis and Clark wrote about it in their journals. But Sacagawea recovered and carried on. She even developed an interest in the scientific aspects of the journey. When word of a washed-up whale carcass reached the Corps in 1806, Sacagawea insisted on accompanying the men to investigate. She wanted to see the natural wonder with her own eyes.
When the expedition ended, Sacagawea and Toussaint returned to their Hidatsa village. Pompy was about 18 months old at the time. He was a living testament to his mother’s perseverance and care. Clark wanted to adopt Pompy but instead invited the family to move to St. Louis, Missouri, where he could oversee the boy’s education. They made the move in 1809. In 1812, Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter named Lizette.
Historians don’t know for sure when Sacagawea died. The historical record indicates that she died of an illness shortly after her daughter was born in 1812. Clark adopted both of her children in 1813, which would not have been possible if city officials thought Sacagawea was still alive. But Indigenous oral traditions say that she left her husband in 1812 and married a member of the Comanche tribe. In this version, she eventually returned to the Shoshone village where she was born and died there in 1884.
Corps of Discovery: The name of the group Lewis and Clark led to explore the Louisiana territory between 1804–1806.
Hidatsa: Indigenous nation that once inhabited the Great Plains in what is today called North Dakota. Today, the main Hidatsa community is part of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation.
Lemhi Shoshone: A tribe of the Shoshone who lived in what is today known as the Lemhi River Valley in Idaho. Also known as the Akaitikka (Salmon Eaters). Today, the core of the Lemni Shoshone live on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho.
Mandan: Indigenous nation that once inhabited the Great Plains in modern-day North Dakota. Today, the main Mandan community is part of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation.
miscarriage: The unexpected end of a pregnancy before the fetus is old enough to survive.
Shoshone: Name for Indigenous bands that spoke a common language and inhabited lands that stretched from modern-day Nevada to Wyoming. Today, there are large Shoshone communities in Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming.
trapper: A person who traps wild animals and trades their fur.
How much agency did Sacagawea have over the events in her life?
Why was Sacagawea integral to the success of the Corps of Discovery?
Why is it important to know a historical figure’s whole story rather than just the highlights of their life? How does knowing more of Sacagawea’s life story change your understanding of her achievements?
Over the years, Sacagawea has become an American legend and her story has been adapted and changed to fit the ideals of different eras. Invite your students to find a book or article about Sacagawea and compare and contrast how her portrayal has changed over time. What gets included? What is left out? This is a useful way to introduce the concept of historiography.