8.4-8.5.8 History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. Performed during the years 1804-5-6. By order of the Government of the United States.
One of the most famous members of the Corps of Discovery was Sacajawea, a Native American woman who accompanied the expedition from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean and back. She was a Lemhi Shoshone woman from present-day Montana. When only 12 or 13 years old, she and several other children had been captured by hostile Hidatsa warriors when the Shoshone were on a hunting expedition on the Great Plains. Sacajawea was later purchased by Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trapper who had interacted with the Hidatsa people. Against her will, she became his wife. As the expedition made their way up the Missouri River, they spent the winter of 1804 – 1805 among the Hidatsa and Mandan people in present-day North Dakota. There, they met Charbonneau and hired him to be their interpreter as the expedition continued westward. The explorers also knew that Charbonneau’s wife — then just 16 years old — was Shoshone. Her presence might allow the Americans to have friendly relations with the Shoshone people, whom they expected to meet as they approached the Rocky Mountains.
In 1805 and 1806, Sacajawea joined Lewis and Clark on the difficult journey across the continent along with her newborn son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. (Later, after Sacagawea tragically died of a disease in 1812, Clark invited Jean-Baptiste to live with him in St. Louis and paid for his education.) Although historical myth has often held up Sacajawea as having “guided” Lewis and Clark, her true importance was as a translator, easing the explorers’ communication with many Native American tribes. The presence of a woman and her baby on the expedition also reassured Native people they met that the party’s intentions were peaceful. This excerpt from the Lewis and Clark journals from August 1805 describes Sacajawea’s joyful reunion with her people, the Shoshone, in present-day Montana.
How does this excerpt help you to understand Sacajawea as a person (rather than simply a famous historical figure)?
When the Shoshone and the Americans met, what customs did the Indians undertake to welcome Lewis and Clark and show their good intentions?
In what way did the chief, Cameahwait (who turned out to be Sacajawea’s brother), offer the explorers vital assistance?
There is much that remains unclear about Sacajawea, including the spelling and meaning of her name: “Sacagawea” and “Sakakawea” also have their advocates among historians. For example, “Sacagawea” supports the interpretation that this was a Hidatsa name — given by her captors’ society — meaning “Bird Woman.” In Native American societies, taking captives and trading or selling them was common. However, they were not exactly used as slaves. Instead, captives were often integrated into their new communities, and while their labor and other contributions were valued, they could also marry. (This context may help students to understand Sacajawea’s personal story, and how she came to join the Lewis & Clark Expedition as Charbonneau’s wife.)
Sacajawea’s precise contributions to the expedition are still debated by scholars. Her primary role was as a translator. The Corps of Discovery often had to engage in elaborate chains of translation with the tribes they met — including multiple Native languages, translation into French (which Charbonneau spoke), then to English. This communication was crucial to their mission of establishing peaceful diplomatic ties with Indians of the Louisiana Purchase. Sacajawea played a key role in this translation process, even among tribes outside of her ancestral territory. There were also times — when the expedition was in territory familiar to Sacajawea from her youth — when she did “guide” Lewis and Clark. Finally, some incidents recorded in the journals show that Sacajawea helped in other ways, such as thinking quickly and rescuing the expedition journals after a boat capsized — whereas Lewis and Clark often portrayed her husband, Charbonneau, as less useful. Most important, Sacajawea’s mythological status as a guide to the expedition — often portrayed in statues and other artwork — underplays her vital role as a translator.
In this journal entry, we see a more intimate portrait of Sacajawea, during a joyful reunion with her people. This encounter with the Shoshone — whose chief, Cameahwait, was her brother — resulted in the Corps of Discovery acquiring horses for their difficult crossing of the Rockies. (Sacajawea’s role here is also debated by experts: was the personal connection as important as the Americans’ ability to promise future trade with the Shoshone, including providing guns?) Eighth-grade students are of a similar age to Sacajawea at the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Ask them to ponder what it would have been like to be in her shoes — and what power, if any, Sacajawea had over her own situation. She showed immense fortitude in making this difficult wilderness journey while caring for her infant son.
over, conducted him to a sort of circular tent or shade of willows. Here he was seated on a white robe; and the chief immediately tied in his hair six small shells resembling pearls, an ornament highly valued by these people, who procured them in the course of trade from the seacoast. The moccasins of the whole party were then taken off, and after much ceremony the smoking began. After this the conference was to be opened… Sacajawea was sent for; she came into the tent, sat down, and was beginning to interpret, when in the person of Cameahwait she recognised her brother: she instantly jumped up, and ran and embraced him, throwing over him her blanket and weeping profusely: the chief was himself moved, though not in the same degree.
[Later that day] we explained to them in a long harangue the purposes of our visit… We told them of their dependance on the will of our government for all future supplies of whatever was necessary either for their comfort or defence; that as we were sent to discover the best route by which merchandize could be conveyed to them...; that we were under the necessity of requesting them to furnish us with horses to transport our baggage across the mountains, and a guide to show us the route, but that they should be amply remunerated for their horses, as well as for every other service they should render us. ...The speech made a favo[August 17, 1805 - Nicholas Biddle edition of Lewis & Clark journals]
On setting out at seven o'clock, captain Clarke with Chaboneau [Toussaint Charbonneau] and his wife walked on shore, but they had not gone more than a mile before captain Clarke saw Sacajawea, who was with her husband one hundred yards ahead, began to dance, and show every mark of the most extravagant joy, turning round him and pointing to several Indians, whom he now saw advancing on horseback, sucking her fingers at the same time to indicate that they were of her native tribe. [Clark] went towards the forks [of the Missouri River] with the Indians, who as they went along, sang aloud with the greatest appearance of delight. We soon drew near to the camp, and just as we approached it a woman made her way through the croud towards Sacajawea, and recognising each other, they embraced with the most tender affection.
The meeting of these two young women had in it something peculiarly touching, not only in the ardent manner in which their feelings were expressed, but from the real interest of their situation. They had been companions in childhood, in the war with the Minnetarees [the Hidatsa] they had both been taken prisoners in the same battle, they had shared and softened the rigours of their captivity, till one of them had escaped... with scarce a hope of ever seeing her friend relieved from the hands of her enemies.
While Sacajawea was renewing among the women the friendships of former days, captain Clarke went on, and was received by captain Lewis and the chief, who after the first embraces and salutations were urable impression: the chief in reply thanked us for our expressions of friendship towards himself and his nation, and declared their willingness to render us every service.