The Early Years
Route of Lewis and Clark's
exploratory expedition (1804-1806) from St. Louis to
The history of Sacagawea's life is sketchy,
shrouded in mystery and myth. Much of what we know has been
passed down through oral history by the Hidatsa, Shoshone and Comanche Indian tribes. Not a
great deal is known about her as a young woman and even
less is known about her later life. But what we do know
At about the age of 11, Sacagawea was captured
by an Hidatsa raiding party and taken from her Shoshone
tribe. She was later sold into slavery with the Missouri
River Mandans. They then sold her (or gave her away in a
bet) to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader,
who made her his wife.
When Sacagawea was about 15 and six months
pregnant, Charbonneau was hired by Captains Lewis and Clark,
not so much for his own skills but for those of Sacagawea.
She knew several Indian languages, and being Shoshone, could
help Lewis and Clark make contact with her people and acquire
horses that were crucial to the success of the mission.
In fact, Sacagawea did help Lewis and Clark
find the Shoshone and trade for the horses they needed.
But her contribution far exceeded anything Lewis and Clark
had bargained for. She provided crucial knowledge of the
topography of some of the most rugged country of North America
and taught the explorers how to find edible roots and plants
previously unknown to European-Americans. With her infant
son bound to her back, she single-handedly rescued Captain
Clark's journals from the Missouri whitewater when their
boat capsized. If she had not, much of the record of the
first year of the expedition would have been lost to history.
Most crucially, however, Sacagawea and her
infant served as a "white flag" of peace for the expedition,
which was as much a military expedition as a scientific
one. They entered potentially hostile territory well armed
but undermanned compared to the Native American tribes they
met. Because no war party was ever accompanied by a woman
and infant, the response of the Native Americans was curiosity,
not aggression. They talked first, and Sacagawea often served
as the translator. Not a single member of the party was
lost to hostile action.
It is not surprising that after their trip
ended, the adventurers felt a lifelong debt to Sacagawea.
In fact, Clark wrote to Charbonneau that Sacagawea deserved
a greater reward than what the expedition gave her. His
sense of indebtedness to Sacagawea is reflected by Clark's
accepting, a few years later, responsibility for educating
Sacagawea's son and, after Sacagawea's death at the age
of 25, for a daughter as well. Sacagawea's grave is in Lander,