Sacagawea Biography – Family, Tribe, Husband, Children, Expedition, & Death
Sacagawea was a member of the Native American tribe called Lemhi Shoshone. She holds a unique place in the history of the United States because of the vital role she played during the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition of the early 19th century. As an important member of the expedition, she helped guide the team through rigorous and quite dangerous regions.
Below is an in-depth look at Sacagawea’s biography, including her family, tribe, children, and her contribution to America’s Westward Expansion.
Sacagawea: Fast facts
Born – May, c. 1788 in Lemhi River Valley (now Salmon, Idaho)
Nationality – Lemhi Shoshone from Northern Shoshone
Death – c. December 20, 1812; Fort Lisa, North Dakota, or April 9, 1884
Spouse – Toussaint Charbonneau
Children – Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (born on February 11, 1805) and Lizette (Lisette) Charbonneau
Best known for – serving as guide and interpreter for Captains Lewis and Clark during the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Also known as – Sacajawea, Sakakawea
Family and tribe
Not much reliable information exist about the origin story of Sacagawea; however, it is commonly held that Sacagawea was born around 1788 into an influential Native American tribe called Agaidika, who were also called Lemhi Shoshone. It is worth mentioning that the name of the tribe translates into English as ‘Salmon Eater’. The location of Sacagawea’s tribe could be pinned at a place near present-day Idaho-Montana border.
The Hidatsa attack
At around 12 years of age, Sacagawea’s world was rocked when her tribe was attacked by a group of warriors from Hidatsa. The attack left many Shoshone members dead, particularly men. Sacagawea and a number of girls were kidnapped by the warriors and taken to the Hidatsa tribe – a place near present-day Washburn, North Dakota.
Although not much historical information exists about the conditions that she lived in at the hands of her Hidatsa captors, it is safe to assume that Sacagawea was treated quite unfairly. Kidnaping of young girls from rival tribes was a common phenomenon back then; and the girls that were kidnapped were mostly likely hastened (without their consent obviously) into adapting into their new environment.
In Sacagawea’s case, it did not take too long before her captors bundled her up and sold her into a marriage that she definitely did not consent to. She was given (sold) in marriage to a French-Canadian trapper called Toussaint Charbonneau. Sacagawea became Charbonneau’s second wife, behind a woman called Otter Woman. Like Sacagawea, Otter Woman was a Shoshone (likely a Southern Shoshone) purchased by Charbonneau from the Hidatsa tribe.
Why did Sacagawea accompany Lewis and Clark on their expedition?
Tasked by then-U.S. president Thomas Jefferson to explore and collect data in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, the Corps of Discovery set out on an expedition in 1804. The leaders of the Corps were Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark. Upon arriving at a place near the Hidatsa village, Lewis and Clark built a fort called Fort Mandan to house them for the 1804/05 winter months. While there, the explorers explored the area to find a skilled trapper who could aid them in their expedition.
Captains Lewis and Clark settled on Toussaint Charbonneau because they reasoned that he was the best person capable of helping them navigate through the unknown region. Charbonneau came with an added advantage in the sense that he had two wives – Sacagawea and Otter Women – who were natives of Shoshone. Lewis and Clark desperately needed to be in good terms with Shoshone tribes in order to safely make their way up the headwaters of the Missouri River.
Another very important reason for choosing Charbonneau and Sacagawea was that the latter was pregnant. The explorers figured that being in the company of a native Shoshone pregnant woman would make their expedition team look less threatening or hostile. As a result, the explorers hoped that they would less likely be attacked by Native Americans in the region. This likely explains why the Otter Woman did not tag along, as Sacagawea’s pregnancy was enough reason to allay any fears among Native Indians that could harm the expedition group of Lewis and Clark.
Another added advantage was the fact that Sacagawea spoke the language. This meant that communication between the American explorers and Native Americans would be way easier than had they embarked on the expedition alone.
Did you know: Captain Clark nicknamed Sacagawea “Janey”?
As part of their preparations, Sacagawea and her husband Charbonneau was allowed to stay in Fort Mandan for the winter months of 1804/05.
On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to a baby boy called Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. To quicken the delivery one of the Natives in the area gave Sacagawea some doses of rattlesnake concoctions. The baby was later nicknamed “Little Pomp” by Captain Clark.
Sacagawea’s role during the Lewis & Clark Expedition
After the winter passed, the Lewis and Clark expedition set out to climb up the Missouri River. They travelled in native canoes called pirogues (piragua), bracing against the current which sometimes made the trip very arduous and risky.
In one incident that happened on May 14, 1805, one of the canoes carrying vital supplies of the expedition tipped over. Had it not been for the timely and heroic work of Sacagawea vital journals, provisions and clothes would have been lost. Sacagawea rescued majority of the fallen items, proving her worth to the team. As a sign of appreciation of her efforts, the leaders of the expedition named the river the Sacagawea River, which is a tributary of the Musselshell River found in north-central Montana.
By August 1805, the expedition group had made their way to a Shoshone village. Coincidentally, the tribe’s chief was Sacagawea’s brother, Cameahwait, who she was absolutely excited to see. Lewis and Clark could easily communicate to the tribe using Sacagawea and Charbonneau as their interpreters.
Due to the cordial relationship that was built, the team bartered horses so as to make it across the Rocky Mountains. Again, Sacagawea proved immensely useful during the negotiations for the horses. Chief Cameahwait even gave the expedition team a number of guides to help them make it across the cold and infertile Rocky Mountains.
Read More: Timeline and Interesting Facts about the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Bearing in mind that the Rocky Mountains they had to cross was barren, the Lewis and Clark expedition team resorted to eating tallow candles to survive. They would scrape by until they finally made it to warmer regions of the mountain, where Sacagawea cooked camas roots (Indian/wild Hyacinth). The medicinal properties of the roots helped revitalize members of the expedition.
The fur robe for President Thomas Jefferson
Sacagawea’s commitment to the cause of the Lewis and Clark expedition was unwavering. On many occasions, she put her life, and even that of her infant child, on the line in a bid to see to it that the expedition attained its objectives. As a sign of kind gesture, she traded in her beautifully designed beaded belt for a fur robe that was later gifted to President Thomas Jefferson. The fur robe was purchased at a region close to the mouth of the Columbia River.
Sacagawea is perhaps the first woman in the nation’s history to vote. Upon arriving at the Pacific Coast, all members of the expedition, including Sacagawea and York, Clark’s black servant (slave perhaps), voted on an important decision. The vote, which took place on November 24, had to do with the location for a winter fort. It was unheard of for an early 19th-century American woman or Black man to have voting rights.
To put things into perspective, it took the nation a whopping 100 years before women got the right to vote. And African Americans had no modicum of rights or freedom until the American Civil War ended in 1865.
The expedition team was way ahead of its time. It mostly treated the Indians in their company in a fair manner. In return, Sacagawea paid their kindness with invaluable help, providing vital information for their trip back home. The inclusion of Sacagawea communicated the peaceful intent of the explorers, as no reasonable team bent on invading or conquering would come along with a woman and an infant child.
In 1812, Sacagawea, the famed woman who helped Lewis and Clark in their expedition, died of unknown causes. This account of her death was from Bonnie “Spirit Wind-Walker” Butterfield. Henry Brackenridge, a fur trader in Missouri, placed the time of her death around 1811. According to Brackenridge, Sacagawea was struck ill and died in 1812. She was survived by her husband and children, according to those accounts.
According to some Native Americans, Sacagawea did not die in 1812; instead, she is believed to have left her husband and headed to the Great Plains, where she tied the knot with a man from the Comanche tribe. The story goes on to say that she returned to her tribe Shoshone in 1860 before dying in 1884.
Coin, Statues and Plaques in Sacagawea’s memory
In 2000, the U.S. Mint minted the Sacagawea dollar to honor the heroic efforts of this Shoshone woman. The coin featured Sacagawea’s image as well as that of her infant son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Because no image of hers exists, the U.S. Mint used the face of Randy’L He-dow Teton – a Shoshone-Bannock woman – for Sacagawea’s image on the obverse side of the coin. The reverse side of the coin has the Eagle in flight with the Latin words E pluribus unum (Out of many, one) – the traditional motto of the United States
There is a lake in North Dakota called Lake Sakakawea. The National Forest Service manages the Sacajawea Memorial Area at Lemhi Pass in the Rocky Mountains. There is a very famous bronze statue of her, which was created by artist Harry Jackson, to honor her monumental achievements during the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In Pasco, Washington, there is a park called the Sacajawea State Park. Across the country, there are several statues of her, including the ones at Three Forks, Montana; Bismarck, North Dakota; Astoria, Oregon; St. Louis, Missouri; Mobridge, South Dakota; Kansas City, Missouri; and Fort Worth, Texas.
Sacagawea’s Children – Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau and Lizette Charbonneau
Sacagawea gave birth to two children – Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau (born in February 1805) and Lizette Charbonneau (around 1810). Not much is known about Lizette; it is been stated that she may have died at a very young age.
After the Lewis and Clark expedition, she and her husband lived with the Hidatsa for about three years. In 1809, she moved with her family to St. Louis, Missouri.
She and her husband allowed Captain Clark to raise Jean-Baptiste (aka Pompy). Jean-Baptiste enrolled at a boarding school called Saint Louis Academy. He followed in the footsteps of his parents and Captain Clark by becoming an explorer himself.
After spending a number of years in Europe in the court of Duke Paul Wilhelm of Wuttemberg, returned to America and became a gold miner. He also had a number of hotel ventures. In 1946, he was appointed a magistrate at the Mission San Luis Rey in California. After spending the bulk part of his adult life searching for gold and riches, he passed away in Oregon on May 16, 1866. He was 61.
Other interesting facts about Sacagawea
- Sacagawea’s history was used by countless national suffragists – activists that promoted voting rights for women – as a role model. Groups such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association used her image to promote women’s value and contribution to the nation. There were calls from those groups to the federal government to honor her with statues and monuments.
- In 1963, a monument – “Sacajawea of the Shoshonis” – was erected at Fort Washakie near Lander, Wyoming.
- In Shoshone, her name is spelled ‘Sacajawea’, which means ‘boat puller’ or ‘boat launcher’
- Her other name ‘Sakakawea’ means ‘bird woman’ in Hidatsa.