Although no two accounts of her life are the same, Sacagawea is famous for being a courageous young woman who played a significant role in the settling of the West. When she was only eleven years old, her tribe, the Shoshone—who lived in present-day Idaho—was attacked by the Hidatsa, a rival Indian tribe. She was captured by an enemy brave and taken from her home.
As a slave in North Dakota, Sacagawea learned a new language and new skills. Unlike the Shoshone, the Hidatsa stayed in one place (near present-day Bismarck). They built homes from clay and timber and farmed the land. Here, Sacagawea became one of Toussaint Charbonneau’s many Native American wives. Some say Sacagawea was bought by the French Canadian fur trader. Others say he won her in a gambling bet.
In 1804, Charbonneau was employed by Lewis and Clark to accompany them on their expedition west through the Louisiana Territory. Charbonneau was an experienced fur trapper and trader and could make himself understood by most of the river Indians. Lewis and Clark were also aware of how useful Sacagawea could be on their journey, especially if they came in contact with her old tribe.
Sacagawea was, at this time, only sixteen years old and expecting a first child. She delivered a baby boy just two months before they set out on their journey. The baby was christened Jean Baptiste Charbonneau and nicknamed “Pomp,” meaning “firstborn” in the Shoshoni language.
Some of the men thought the young woman and her new baby would be a hindrance on the trip. Others felt it would be wise to have them in their party. They hoped Sacagawea and Pomp would be seen as symbols of peace so that their expedition would not be mistaken by the Indian tribes as a war party.
On April 7, 1805, the Lewis and Clark party set out on their expedition to explore the unknown Northwest. The group consisted of thirty-one explorers, Charbonneau, sixteen-year-old Sacagawea, and two-month-old Pomp. The newborn was strapped to Sacagawea’s back on a cradleboard.
Sacagawea proved to be a great help on the journey. She knew more about the Indians they encountered than anyone else in the group. Oftentimes she would save the men from starvation by finding fruits and nuts that small animals had hidden for the winter. Captain Clark wrote in his journal that she was cheerful and did not complain.
The group traveled to the land of the Shoshone tribe where Sacagawea learned that many of her relatives had been kidnapped or killed in the attack five years before. Much to her delight, her brother survived and was now the tribe’s chief. Sacagawea negotiated a trade that enabled the expedition to obtain much needed horses to continue their journey.
Nature’s elements made the trip a grueling one. Gnats and mosquitoes were thick in number. Rattlesnakes were a constant danger. The weather was extreme and seldom in their favor. Still they forged ahead and made it to the Pacific Ocean. By the time the expedition returned home, the group had traveled through present-day Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.
Sacagawea was a remarkable woman whose perseverance and resourcefulness while traveling with the Lewis and Clark Expedition helped make the journey west a success. According to the National Park Service, there are more monuments to honor Sacagawea than any other woman in U.S. history.