Crossing the western half of the United States by car or airplane is an awe-inspiring experience. From the Great Plains of the Dakotas to the sharp peaks of the Rockies, it’s not hard to imagine the America of long ago: the sheer brutality of the vast wilderness mixed with the reverence of its majestic beauty.
What is hard to imagine, at least for me, is the courage (or craziness) it took to travel this land without the benefit of interstates…or GPS…or even maps. And yet this task was undertaken over a hundred years ago by a group known as Corps of Discovery, led by a pair of men now synonymous with exploration and advancement: Capitan Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark.
President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the expedition in an effort to map the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, as well as find a practical route across land to the Pacific Ocean. He also wanted the team to study the plant and animal life in the new territory (legend says Jefferson believed the pair might encounter a wooly mammoth or two along the way). Most of all, however, Jefferson hoped to establish an American presence on the land, not only in an effort to keep away settlers from rival powers, such as the English or Spanish, but also to declare American sovereignty over the tribal lands that now existed within its borders, something he anticipated would be met with resistance by Native Americans who had called the land home for hundreds of years. He encouraged Lewis and Clark to do everything in their power to make peace with the tribes they encountered in order to establish trust and respect between the two cultures who must now occupy one land.
Though her name and legend has been romanticized in popular culture, often portrayed as a Native American “princess” or feminist icon, the life and accomplishments of the real woman are much richer and far-reaching than novels or movies portray.
The daughter of a Shoshone chief, Sacagawea was born around 1788 in Idaho. At age twelve, she and several other girls from her tribe were kidnapped by members of the Hidatsa tribe and held captive in their village near what is now Bismarck, South Dakota.
At age thirteen, she was sold into a marriage with Toussaint Charbonneau, a Quebecois trapper who lived in the village. He also took another young Shoshone woman as wife. Sacajewa, barely above a child herself, was now in a nonconsensual, polygamist marriage with a man well over two decades her senior. By the time Lewis and Clark arrived in their village in November 1804, she was already pregnant with her first child.
The Corps of Discovery waited out the winter of 1804-1805 in the Hidatsa village. During that time, Lewis and Clark interviewed several trappers, searching for someone who could interpret and guide their expedition up the Missouri River come springtime. Charbonneau was chosen because of his wife; Sacajewea’s ability to speak Shoshone would come in handy when they approached Shoshone-occupied land further up river, especially since the team hoped to purchase horses from the tribe.
The team left the village in April 1805–especially impressive because Sacajewea had just given birth only two months before to a boy she named Jean Baptiste. Strapping the baby on her back, she headed west with a group of thirty men.
The journey was arduous for the men who, despite their skills, were unfamiliar with the terrain and wildlife. Within only a few short weeks, Sacajewea proved worth as more than just an interpreter by helping identify edible plants and berries as well as medicinal herbs. She helped the team navigate passes through uncharted mountains and often walked along the shore as the other men boated in an effort to scout ahead for obstacles. In one particular instance, the boat she was riding in capsized during a sudden squall but–incredibly–Sacajewea was able to gather books, papers, navigational instruments, and other provisions before abandoning ship…all while managing to save both herself and her newborn baby.
Perhaps her greatest accomplishment, however, went beyond the practical. Her mere presence among what could have otherwise been viewed as a suspicious and perhaps threatening group of strangers led instead to an aura of peace as they approached and appealed to the various Native American tribes along their journey. On a mission that could have led to tension at best, violence at worse, Sacajewea was able to broker, if not an agreement, at least an understanding between two very different sets of people in order to keep bloodshed at bay.
The expedition reached the Pacific coast in November 1805, successful and for the most part unscathed. After returning briefly to her village, Sacajewea and Charbonneau moved to St. Louis in 1809, where they reunited with Clark and farmed for a few years before returning to the fur-trapping life out west. Sacajewea’s son, however, remained with Clark, who had grown quite fond of the boy, in order to receive an education. Sacajewea gave birth to a daughter, Lisette, in 1811.
Details of her life after this point are a little murky. Some say she died at Fort Manuel in South Dakota in 1812. Some say she left her Charbonneau, traveled across the Great Plains, and married into the Comanche tribe, later returning to the Shoshone and dying in 1884. What is known, however, was that after 1812, Clark looked after both Jean Baptiste and Lisette, ultimately becoming their legal guardian.
Over the years, Sacajewea’s legend has grown, most notably after the publication in 1902 of the book The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark. Written by suffragist Eva Emery Dye, who readily admitted to the embellishment of her portrayal, Sacajewea was ascribed as a “genuine Indian princess,” a caricature of female bravery and intelligence–an image that has followed her to this day and led to her embrace by the National American Woman Suffrage Association and various feminist groups around the country.
And while this celebration of her personage is not necessarily wrong, let us remember Sacajewea for who she truly was: a real woman, a caring mother, and a key figure behind the success of the first exploratory team to map the western United States. From an early age, her life was marked by violence, bloodshed, and circumstances she was powerless to control. And yet, through it all, she remained strong, persevering through hardship and protecting a heart that still believed in good things yet to come. Although decades of violence and unrest would soon exist between white settlers and Native Americans, Sacajewea remains a symbol of hope and a testament to the strength of real women everywhere.