10 Facts About the Bold, Brave Life of Sacagawea

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 Survive

    Her Family Ties Helped the Expedition Survive
    Photo: 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.

  • She Voted Long Before the 19th Amendment

    She Voted Long Before the 19th Amendment
    Photo: 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.”