Many facts about the famed Shoshone guide Sacagawea’s life, particularly the dates of her birth and death, are unknown. However, all records portray her as a valued member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which first explored the land beyond Missouri and paved the way for westward expansion. She distinguished herself as brave and resourceful on a long journey, traveling in a party of men, across uncharted land.
Sacagawea was born in a Shoshone village in Idaho. As a young girl, she was captured by the Hidatsa tribe. Later, she became the teenage wife of the French trader Toussaint Charbonneau, who traveled with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a government mission to explore the western half of the United States.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition left St. Louis on a two-year journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1804. Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, was born during the trip. A Native American with a baby was a clear indication to watchful eyes that the explorers were not a war party. The group was considered friendly and left alone as it traveled through the territories of many different tribes. Though some historians refer to her as a guide, most say she served as an interpreter since she spoke both the Shoshone and Hidatsa languages. The journals of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis refer to her helpfulness and her courage. They do not give a consistent spelling of her name.
It is believed that Sacagawea died in her twenties from an illness. However, there are claims that she moved back to live with the Shoshone and lived to be an old woman. No portraits were made during her lifetime, but her image has been widely depicted in art, statues, monuments, a postage stamp, and a dollar coin.
A teenage girl in black braids,
wearing a deerskin shift
and beaded moccasins,
with a baby bundled on her back.
That’s how we imagine her
in statues, postage stamps, and dollar coins.
Sacagawea: no one knows for sure
what she looked like, when she died,
or even how to spell her name.
Only her presence
recorded in journals
Spotted from afar,
her feminine form spiraled
like smoke in the air—a signal
to lower weapons and watch.
She was more than a guide,
she was a guardian,
protecting the men by her side.