What Were the Rolls Played by Sacagawea, Her Husband and Son During in the Lewis
and Clark Expedition?
Sacagawea (also spelled Sagagawea, Sakakawea) was born into a band of Northern Shoshone Indians, whose base
was the Lemhi Valley of central Idaho. Her name translates as "Bird Woman" (Hidatsa) or "Boat
The Northern Shoshone, sometimes referred to as Snake Indians (a name given them by the French because of the
use of painted snakes on sticks to frighten their enemies), were a wandering people, living by hunting, gathering, and
fishing. As a child, Sacagawea traveled through the mountains and valleys of Idaho, northwest Wyoming, and
western Montana. In 1800, at about age twelve, Sacagawea and her kin were encamped during a hunting foray at the
Three Forks of the Missouri (between modern Butte and Bozeman, Montana) when they were attacked by a war
party of Hidatsas (also called Minnetarees), a Siouan tribe; about ten Shoshone were killed and Sacagawea and several
other children were made captives. Sacagawea was taken to reside with the Hidatsas at the village of Metaharta near
the junction of the Knife and Missouri Rivers (in modern North Dakota).
Shortly after her capture, Sacagawea was sold as a wife to fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau. A French-
Canadian who had developed skills as an interpreter, Charbonneau had been living with the Hidatsas for five
years. At the time that Sacagawea became his squaw, Charbonneau had one or two other Indian wives.
All that is known of Sacagawea for certain is found in the journals and letters of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark,
and several other participants in the expedition of the Corps of Discovery, 1804-1806, along with meager references
in other sources. The Lewis and Clark party, commissioned by President Thomas
Jefferson to find a route to the Pacific and to make scientific observations along the way, traveled on the
first leg of their journey up the Missouri River to the mouth of the Knife River, near which they established Fort
Mandan (near modern Bismarck, North Dakota) as their winter headquarters. The site was in the vicinity of Mandan
and Hidasta villages. Here the expedition's leaders made preparations for the next leg of their journey and collected
information on the Indians and topography of the far West.
Sacagawea's association with the Lewis and Clark Expedition began on November 4, 1804, when she
accompanied her husband to Fort Mandan. She presented the officers with four buffalo robes. Charbonneau
was willing to serve as interpreter, but only on condition that Sacagawea be permitted to go along on the
journey. After agreeing to those terms, Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau. At Fort Mandan on February
11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Thus, along with the some thirty men, the
"squaw woman" and baby became members of the exploring group.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition set out from Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805. Charbonneau and Sacagawea at
different times were referred to in the journals as "interpreter and interpretess." Sacagawea's knowledge of Hidatsa
and Shoshonean proved of great aid in communicating with the two tribes with which the expedition primarily had
contact. Later, when the expedition made contact with Pacific Coast Indians, Sacagawea managed to assist in
communicating with those peoples even though she did not speak their language.
Her services as a guide were helpful only when the expedition sought out Shoshone Indians in the region of
the Continental Divide in order to find direction and assistance in leaving the mountains westward. Carrying
her baby on her back in cord netting, Sacagawea stayed with one or several of the main groups of
explorers, never venturing out scouting on her own. Little Baptiste had the run of the camp, and Clark,
unlike Lewis, became very fond of both baby and mother.
Several times on the westward journey Sacagawea was seriously ill, and once she and Baptiste were nearly
swept away in a flash flood. In May of 1805, Sacagawea demonstrated her resourcefulness by retrieving
many valuable articles that had washed out of a canoe during a rainstorm. Lewis and Clark named a stream
"Sâh-câ-ger we-âh (Sah ca gah we a) or bird woman's River," which at a later time was renamed Crooked
Creek. Not the least of Sacagawea's contributions was finding sustenance in the forests, identifying flora
that Indians considered edible. She helped to gather berries, wild onions, beans, artichokes, and roots. She
cooked and mended clothes.
Reaching the Three Forks of the Missouri, Sacagawea recognized landmarks and rightly conjectured where
the Shoshone might be during the hunting season. A band of these Indians was found along the Lemhi River.
Sacagawea began "to dance and show every mark of the most extravagant joy . . . sucking her fingers at the
same time to indicate that they were of her native tribe," Clark stated in his journal. The tribe's leader,
Cameahwait, turned out to be Sacagawea's brother. Lewis and Clark established a cordial relationship with
Sacagawea's kinsmen, and were able to obtain twenty-nine horses and an Indian guide through the rest of
the mountains. Coming down from the mountains, the exploring party made dugout canoes at the forks of
the Clearwater River, and then followed an all-water route along that stream, the Snake River, and the
Columbia River to the Pacific Coast. At the mouth of the Columbia River, just below present Astoria,
Oregon, the adventurers built Fort Clatsop, where they spent the winter.
Sacagawea was an important asset as the expedition covered the final phase of the journey. "The wife of
Shabono our interpreter," wrote William Clark on October 13, 1805, "reconsiles all the Indians, as to our
friendly intentions a woman with a party of men is a token of peace."
Besides her recognition of topography that aided in finding the Shoshones, Sacagawea's other contribution
as guide occurred on the return trip. During the crossing of the eastern Rockies by Clark's party (Lewis
took the more familiar northerly route), while Sacagawea showed Clark the new route from Three Forks
through the mountains by way of the Bozeman Pass to the Yellowstone River. Lewis and Clark reunited near
the junction of the Missouri and the Yellowstone.
Nearing their home, Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and infant Jean-Baptiste stayed with the expedition down
the Missouri River only as far as the Hidatsa villages at the mouth of the Knife River.
On April 17, 1806, the family of Sacagawea "took leave" of the exploring group. Clark offered to take
Sacagawea's baby, whom Clark called "Pomp," with him to St. Louis to be reared and educated as his
adopted son. Sacagawea, who consented to the proposal, insisted that the infant, then nineteen months old,
be weaned first.
With the conclusion of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, details about Sacagawea's life become very
sketchy. In the fall of 1809, the Charbonneau family visited St. Louis. Charbonneau purchased a small farm
on the Missouri River just north of St. Louis from Captain William Clark, who had been named Indian
superintendent for the Louisiana Territory.
In 1811, Charbonneau sold back the tract to Clark. Sacagawea yearned to return to her homeland.
Charbonneau enlisted in a fur trading expedition conducted by Manuel Lisa. In April of 1811, Sacagawea and
Charbonneau headed up river in one of Lisa's boats. One observer on board at the time commented that
Sacagawea appeared sickly.
Sacagawea left Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau with Clark in St. Louis. On August 11, 1813, an orphan's court
appointed Clark as the child's guardian. Sacagawea's son went on to have a far-ranging career. At age
eighteen, he joined a western tour of the young Prince Paul Wilhelm of Württemberg, and afterward went
to Europe, where he resided with the prince for six years. He returned to America in 1829, and again
explored the western country, then he was employed as a fur trapper for fifteen years by the American
Fur Company. He later served as an army guide during the Mexican War. Joining the gold rush of 1849,
Jean-Baptiste set up residence in Placer County, California. Traveling to the gold mines in Montana in May
of 1866, he died of pneumonia. Copyright 2010.
For more details click on the Sacagawea links on the navigation bar at the left.
Drumm, Stella M., ed. (1920). Journal of a Fur-trading Expedition on the Upper Missouri: John Luttig,
1812-1813. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society.
Lewis, Meriwether (1969). Original journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806. New
York: Arno Press.
Schroer, Blanche (1970). Boat-pusher or Bird-Woman? Sacagawea or Sacajawea? Annals of Wyoming.