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Sacajawea (Bird Woman) was the Indian woman who helped lead Lewis and Clark's famous expedition to the Pacific Ocean.


Sacajawea was born in what is now the state of Idaho, around 1790. She was born into the Shoshone tribe; however, when Sacajawea was about 10 years old, she was captured by the Hidatsa tribe, which lived near the present-day area of Washburn, North Dakota. She was reared by the Hidatsa until she and another Shoshone woman were sold to the French-Canadian trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau.

The Lewis and Clark expedition spent the winter of 1804-1805 at Fort Mandan in the Dakotas. Charbonneau and Sacajawea joined the expedition on its passage up the Missouri River. They hired Charbonneau as a guide, and when they discovered Sacajawea would be coming with them, they were pleased. After all, a woman with a child would indicate that the expedition was peaceful, and she could translate for them.

Sacajawea was just 16 years old when she gave birth to her first child at the fort during the winter. Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was born in Febuary 1805. He was also given the Shoshone name, Pomp, meaning First Born.

The expedition and following

Contrary to popular belief, Sacajawea did not "guide Lewis and Clark across the continent." She did translate for them and offered some geographic guidance and confirmation in the Three Forks area, where she had lived as a child. She also showed them edible plants.

On August 15, 1805, while the expedition was crossing the Continental Divide, Sacajawea was re-united with her Shoshone tribe. She learned that all of her family had died except for two brothers and the son of her eldest sister. One of her brothers, Cameahwait, was the chief. The tribe agreed to sell horses and food to the party. Her brother sketched a map of the country ahead to the west and provided them a guide, Old Toby. He led them through the mountains safely on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1806, when the expedition was completed, Sacajawea and her husband and son returned to Fort Mandan. Captain Clark wrote to Charbonneau and invited him to come to St. Louis, Missouri with his family. He agreed and they moved near St. Louis, where Jean Baptiste was schooled. However, in March 1811, Charbonneau sold his land to Clark and returned with Sacajawea to the Dakotas. They left their son in St. Louis with Captain Clark, so he could continue his education. Captain Clark was the Indian Agent of the Louisiana Purchase at that time.

Sacajewa disappears from history

After this point, what happened to Sacajawea is uncertain. Two differing stories exist; neither is backed by any proof. The first story is that she died on December 20, 1812. This comes from the records of John C. Luttig, the clerk at Fort Manuel, South Dakota. He wrote "This evening the wife of Charbonneau, a Snake [Shoshone] squaw, died of putrid fever. She was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years. She left a fine infant girl." John Luttig returned to St. Louis with a baby whom he called “Sacajawea’s Lizette.” He had applied to be her guardian, along with a boy called “Toussaint,” but the records show his name crossed out and Captain William Clark’s written in. Sacajawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, was also called Toussaint.

The other story comes from Shoshone oral tradition. It avers that Sacajawea did not die in 1813, but eventually returned to her tribe on the Wind River Reservation. This tradition claims she died there on April 9, 1884, a venerated and influential member of the tribe. Her remains are said to be buried between those of her son, Jean Baptiste, and her sister's son, Bazil, whom she adopted. A monument of the woman called Sacajawea is over the grave on the reservation. Numerous accounts by people living at that time indicate that it was Sacajawea who traveled with Lewis and Clark to the great water and that the woman who died at Fort Manuel was another wife of Toussaint Charbonneau.

Sacajawea has been honored by having a river, a peak, and a mountain pass named after her. Monuments and memorials to her stand at Portland, Oregon, Armstead, Montana, Three Forks, Montana, Bismarck, North Dakota, and Lewiston, Idaho.

See also Significant Native American Leaders and Important and Famous Women in America.