If you took American History in school and paid attention at all, then you probably heard the name Sacagawea at least once during your studies. But who was Sacagawea? And what did she do? Born in the early nineteenth century, Sacagawea was a Shoshone Indian woman from Idaho who served as an interpreter and field guide on Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Expedition. This expedition, you might recall, mapped the United States from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Coast.
Obviously, you could probably figure out that Sacagawea lived a bold, brave life just from that fact. However, the more you read about Sacagawea, the more impressive this woman is. Not only was she the only woman on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but she was also a teenager who had just given birth. It’s no wonder suffragists saw a model of tough, independent womanhood in Sacagawea. Read on to discover more of the amazing, tough-as-nails details of Sacagawea’s life that you might not have learned in history class.
She Voted Long Before the 19th AmendmentPhoto: US Post Office / via Wikimedia Commons
Once the Expedition reached Astoria, Oregon, they voted on where to build their winter fort, and Sacagawea was given a vote on the matter. Although by today’s logic the fact that Sacagawea was given a vote on where the expedition should build a fort for the winter might seem like a mundane fact, it wasn’t at all so at the time. Think about it: Sacagawea was essentially a prisoner - kidnapped, married at age 13, and enlisted into the service of Anglo-European mapmakers who would lay the groundwork for the western expansion of the US (and the decimation of many Native American populations). However, she made such a solid impression on an expedition composed entirely of Anglo-European men that they let her vote on big decisions of the expedition.
This significance wasn’t lost on the National American Women Suffrage Association. They took Sacagawea on as a symbol of women’s worth and independence, erecting many statues in her honor.
She Demanded to See the Ocean, and She Did
Captain Lewis’s journal from the expedition contains record of Sacagawea demanding to see the Pacific Ocean once the team reached Astoria, Oregon. While the group was in Astoria, local Native Americans told them about a whale that had been stranded on a beach nearby. Sacagawea, after all the miles she had traveled and worked with a baby in tow, wanted to see the Pacific as well as the alien creature stranded on the beach. And apparently she said so.
On January 6, 1806, Lewis wrote in his journal that “[The] Indian woman was very impo[r]tunate to be permitted to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either.”
She Wasn’t Romantically Involved with Lewis or Clark, and She Wasn’t a PrincessPhoto: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Nicholas Biddle, and Paul Allen / via Wikimedia Commons
Fictional and romantic accounts of Sacagawea as the love interest of Lewis or Clark and/or as an "Indian princess" are untrue. There is nothing in the historical record to suggest that Sacagawea was anything other than an amiable and knowledgeable traveling guide to the two men.
Similarly, the idea that Sacagawea was a “princess” is a fiction that was constructed by the novelist and suffragette Eva Emery Dye. Dye said she “created Sacajawea” from the “old tales” of the expedition to make a more compelling heroine and symbol of female bravery. As historians suggest, though, we don’t need Sacagawea to have been a romantic princess to make her convincingly impressive, her actual feats on the historical survey speak for themselves.
No One Is Sure How She Died
Very little is known about Sacagawea’s life after she parted ways with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the year and cause of her death are debated among different historical traditions. Many historical accounts cite her as coming down with “putrid fever” (possibly typhus) after the birth of her daughter Lizette in August of 1812. According to this record, she died on December 22, 1812, in Fort Manuel, North Dakota. She was 25 years old. However, some Native American oral traditions record Sacagawea leaving her husband Charbonneau in 1812, crossing the Great Plains, and marrying into a Comanche tribe. In this framework, she died in 1884 after returning to the Shoshone.