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 Gave Birth Only Two Months Before the Expedition
Sacagawea was pregnant when Lewis and Clark rolled into North Dakota in 1804, and she ended up giving birth to a son a mere two months before their expedition headed west. Like the badass woman she was, Sacagawea swaddled up her two-month-old son, Jean Baptiste Carbonneau (his father was a French fur trader), and set off toward the Rockies in 1805.
Trekking with baby Jean Baptiste not only allowed mother and baby (whom Captain Clark nicknamed “Pompy”) to stay together after the birth, but it also served as a symbol of peace to any potential foes Lewis and Clark’s team might encounter while on the journey. A group of men traveling with a mother and her infant child would have been treated with a lot less suspicion than a group of men questing alone. If you look closely at the image of Sacagawea on the US gold dollar coin, you’ll see Jean Baptiste in a carrier on her back.
She was Kidnapped and Married by Age 13
In 1800, when Sacagawea was around 12 years old, a group of Hidatsa Indians kidnapped her, along with several other girls in her Shoshone tribe. At the time, the Hidatsa and the Shoshone were enemy tribes, and Sacagawea’s kidnap came as retribution for an earlier battle between the two. After her kidnap, Sacagawea was taken by the French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau as one of his two wives. They lived among the Hidatsa Indians in North Dakota. Sacagawea was around 13 years old at the time of her marriage to Charbonneau, and it is through him that she was taken on as interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Her Family Ties Helped the Expedition SurvivePhoto: Alfred Jacob Miller - Walters Art Museum / via Wikimedia Commons
Somewhere before the Rocky Mountains, the expedition team encountered a group of Shoshone Indians. Given the uncertain relationships between the two groups, this could have been a fairly intense experience. However, Sacagawea quickly recognized the group’s leader as her brother Cameahwait. Because of her close kinship ties, Sacagawea helped the expedition purchase horses from her brother’s group. The purchase of these horses is what enabled the expedition to cross the Rocky Mountains.
She Rescued Lewis and Clark's Journals from Sinking in a Storm
There’s a river in north-central Montana named the Sacagawea River after one Sacagawea's many daring exploits. The expedition team was attempting to cross the then-unnamed Sacagawea River. The team used these little, flat-bottomed boats called pirogues for their river fordings, and, although they were light, the pirogues were not the most... reliable method for getting across.
On May 14, 1805, several pirogues capsized on a crossing, and lots of supplies tumbled out of the boats, including the journals and notes of Lewis and Clark. Sacagawea was the quick-thinking hero who rescued the journals from the water. Historically speaking, this was a pretty important moment, because those journals documented and preserved everything we know about the Lewis and Clark Expedition today.