The Saga of a Shoshone
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON She was a slave, a woman and an Indian.
And America might not be what it is today without Sacagawea.
She was probably born in 1790 in what is now
Idaho. A member of the Shoshone tribe, she was kidnapped
as a child by the Hidatsa tribe. The Hidatsas sold her as
a slave to the Mandan Sioux of modern-day North Dakota.
There are conflicting stories, but Sacagawea
ended up with a Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau.
One story says he won her and another Indian woman in a
bet. Others say Charbonneau bought the women. Whatever the
truth, by the winter of 1805, the two were a couple, and
Sacagawea was pregnant and near term. That sets the stage.
Two years earlier, President Thomas Jefferson
had sent emissaries to France to buy New Orleans. He believed
U.S. interests mandated that the city, near the mouth of
the Mississippi River, be part of the country. Alternatively,
the emissaries were to negotiate free navigation of the
But Napoleon had another idea. He needed money
and offered a deal: France's entire Louisiana Territory
for a then kingly $15 million. Jefferson jumped at
So what was out there? Before the Louisiana
Purchase, the United States of America ended at the Mississippi.
The fact is, white Easterners at the time knew more about
the face of the moon than the interior of the North American
continent and the U.S. government had just bought
800,000 square miles of it sight unseen.
Jefferson sent his private secretary, Army
Capt. Meriwether Lewis, to explore. Lewis recruited Lt.
William Clark and the Corps of Discovery and in 1804 set
off up the Missouri River into terra incognita. The all-male,
all-single, mostly soldier group was to map, observe and
record everything and to find a navigable water route to
Lewis and Clark realized they would need interpreters
to speak with the Indian tribes they expected to meet. In
1805, they wintered at the Mandan village along the Missouri.
There, they hired Charbonneau as an interpreter and guide.
Along with Charbonneau came Sacagawea. The
thinking was she could help translate when the expedition
reached her native area. The Indian teen-ager gave birth
to a son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, on Feb. 12, 1805, in
the Mandan village. The baby was strapped to his mother's
back when the expedition left the Mandans that April.
The expedition continued up the Missouri River.
Stories told over the years have Sacagawea guiding Lewis
and Clark through the wilderness, interpreting for them
and keeping them out of harm's way more than a few times.
There are contrarians.
Historian Stephen Ambrose, in "Undaunted
Courage," his book about the Lewis and Clark expedition,
contends Sacagawea was not a guide and that neither Lewis
nor Clark thought of consulting her even when she clearly
could have helped. The two seem to have asked for her advice
only once for a route when they entered her people's
hunting grounds. She pointed them up a tributary of the
What is not disputed are the events following
Sacagawea's reunion with her tribe on Aug. 15, 1805. If
what happened had been part of a Hollywood movie, critics
probably would have panned it as unrealistic. Lewis met
with the chief of the Shoshones. Sacagawea listened to the
parlay and then recognized the chief was her brother, Cameahwait.
Her relationship to the chief cemented the
expedition's standing with the tribe. It also may have been
the critical breakthrough Lewis and Clark needed to reach
the Pacific and return. They desperately needed Indian help
to get over the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana and Idaho.
Cameahwait sold horses to the travelers and
provided a guide to lead them across the Bitterroots. Even
with Shoshone help, the expedition suffered many hardships
going over the mountains. Had Sacagewea not helped them
establish a rapport with Cameahwait, the explorers would
certainly have fared far worse.
Eventually, Lewis and Clark met up with the
Nez Perce tribe and made their way to the Columbia River
and to the Pacific Ocean. They wintered over at the mouth
of the Columbia and started home in the spring. When the
party reached the Mandan village, Charbonneau and Sacagawea
Following the expedition, Clark offered to
school Jean Baptiste. Charbonneau and Sacagawea accepted
the offer and moved to the St. Louis area. They had a daughter
named Lizette and then moved back to the Mandan village
Sacagawea died of "putrid fever"
on Dec. 20, 1812, or maybe not. Shoshone oral tradition
says she returned to the Shoshones and settled at the Wind
River reservation in modern-day Wyoming. Tribal tradition
says she died on April 9, 1884, and is buried there.
A slave, an Indian and a woman, Sacagawea
received little respect during her lifetime. Today, the
United States recognizes her and her place in American history
through its new Golden Dollar coin. The front features a
portrait of her and a bundled Jean Baptiste.