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Sacagawea: The Saga of a Shoshone

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 2000 – She was a slave, a woman and an Indian. And America might not be what it is today without Sacagawea.

She was probably born in 1790 in what is now Idaho. A member of the Shoshone tribe, she was kidnapped as a child by the Hidatsa tribe. The Hidatsas sold her as a slave to the Mandan Sioux of modern-day North Dakota.

There are conflicting stories, but Sacagawea ended up with a Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. One story says he won her and another Indian woman in a bet. Others say Charbonneau bought the women. Whatever the truth, by the winter of 1805, the two were a couple, and Sacagawea was pregnant and near term. That sets the stage.

Two years earlier, President Thomas Jefferson had sent emissaries to France to buy New Orleans. He believed U.S. interests mandated that the city, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, be part of the country. Alternatively, the emissaries were to negotiate free navigation of the river.

But Napoleon had another idea. He needed money and offered a deal: France's entire Louisiana Territory for a then- kingly $15 million. Jefferson jumped at it.

So what was out there? Before the Louisiana Purchase, the United States of America ended at the Mississippi. The fact is, white Easterners at the time knew more about the face of the moon than the interior of the North American continent -- and the U.S. government had just bought 800,000 square miles of it sight unseen.

Jefferson sent his private secretary, Army Capt. Meriwether Lewis, to explore. Lewis recruited Lt. William Clark and the Corps of Discovery and in 1804 set off up the Missouri River into terra incognita. The all-male, all-single, mostly soldier group was to map, observe and record everything and to find a navigable water route to the Pacific.

Lewis and Clark realized they would need interpreters to speak with the Indian tribes they expected to meet. In 1805, they wintered at the Mandan village along the Missouri. There, they hired Charbonneau as an interpreter and guide.

Along with Charbonneau came Sacagawea. The thinking was she could help translate when the expedition reached her native area. The Indian teen-ager gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, on Feb. 12, 1805, in the Mandan village. The baby was strapped to his mother's back when the expedition left the Mandans that April.

The expedition continued up the Missouri River. Stories told over the years have Sacagawea guiding Lewis and Clark through the wilderness, interpreting for them and keeping them out of harm's way more than a few times. There are contrarians.

Historian Stephen Ambrose, in "Undaunted Courage," his book about the Lewis and Clark expedition, contends Sacagawea was not a guide and that neither Lewis nor Clark thought of consulting her even when she clearly could have helped. The two seem to have asked for her advice only once -- for a route when they entered her people's hunting grounds. She pointed them up a tributary of the Beaverhead River.

What is not disputed are the events following Sacagawea's reunion with her tribe on Aug. 15, 1805. If what happened had been part of a Hollywood movie, critics probably would have panned it as unrealistic. Lewis met with the chief of the Shoshones. Sacagawea listened to the parlay and then recognized the chief was her brother, Cameahwait.

Her relationship to the chief cemented the expedition's standing with the tribe. It also may have been the critical breakthrough Lewis and Clark needed to reach the Pacific and return. They desperately needed Indian help to get over the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana and Idaho.

Cameahwait sold horses to the travelers and provided a guide to lead them across the Bitterroots. Even with Shoshone help, the expedition suffered many hardships going over the mountains. Had Sacagewea not helped them establish a rapport with Cameahwait, the explorers would certainly have fared far worse.

Eventually, Lewis and Clark met up with the Nez Perce tribe and made their way to the Columbia River and to the Pacific Ocean. They wintered over at the mouth of the Columbia and started home in the spring. When the party reached the Mandan village, Charbonneau and Sacagawea stayed behind.

Following the expedition, Clark offered to school Jean Baptiste. Charbonneau and Sacagawea accepted the offer and moved to the St. Louis area. They had a daughter named Lizette and then moved back to the Mandan village in 1811.

Sacagawea died of "putrid fever" on Dec. 20, 1812, or maybe not. Shoshone oral tradition says she returned to the Shoshones and settled at the Wind River reservation in modern-day Wyoming. Tribal tradition says she died on April 9, 1884, and is buried there.

A slave, an Indian and a woman, Sacagawea received little respect during her lifetime. Today, the United States recognizes her and her place in American history through its new Golden Dollar coin. The front features a portrait of her and a bundled Jean Baptiste.

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