9 Facts About Sacagawea

Painting of Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea.
Painting of Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea. / Edgar Samuel Paxson, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you know anything at all about Sacagawea, you probably know that she was a guide on the Lewis and Clark Expedition (also known as the Corps of Discovery) to explore the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest, sagely leading her charges through unforgiving terrain with an almost mystical knowledge of the landscape.

In other words, you probably have it all wrong. The truth is that we don't have as much concrete information about Sacagawea as you might think, and much of what has seeped into the popular consciousness is more fiction than fact. Even her name is a topic that historians still argue about. Still, you can't tell the story of the United States without talking about Sacagawea's contributions to it, and there is plenty that we do know about her life that's just as impressive as the mythology. Here are nine facts about Sacagawea. [Note: All journal entries are presented sic throughout.]

1. Sacagawea was kidnapped by members of a rival tribe when she was about 12 years old.

Historians believe Sacagawea was born in 1788 or 1789 to the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, whose traditional homeland was near the Salmon River in what is now Idaho. The story goes that she was traveling with a buffalo hunting party in the fall of 1800 when the group was attacked by members of the Hidatsa tribe. Sacagawea was kidnapped and taken to the Hidatsa-Mandan settlement in the south-central part of present-day North Dakota.

2. She was married off to a French-Canadian fur trader just a few years later.

Sacagawea lived among the Hidatsa tribe until 1803 or 1804, when she and another Shoshone woman were either sold or gambled away to a French-Canadian fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, who lived among the tribe. Sacagawea would have been about 15 years old at the time; some sources say Charbonneau was born in 1758 while others cite his birth year as 1767, putting him either in his mid-thirties or mid-forties when Sacagawea became his wife.

3. Sacagawea was only 16 or 17 years old when she joined Lewis and Clark’s grueling expedition.

As far as historians know, the first written reference to Sacagawea dates to November 4, 1804, when Clark referred to her in his journal simply as one of the wives of the newly hired Charbonneau. (Charbonneau had adopted several aspects of Hidatsa culture, including polygamy.) That winter, the Corps of Discovery stayed in Fort Mandan, which they built just north of Bismark, North Dakota. In April of 1805, the expedition resumed their journey up the Missouri River, now along with Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and their infant son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, who Sacagawea had given birth to just months earlier. At this point, she would have been just 16 or 17 years old.

4. She wasn't technically a guide.

History—or, more accurately, pop culture—tends to remember Sacagawea as Lewis and Clark’s guide, but her role in the expedition was more complex. If we’re going to assign her a job title, “interpreter” might be a better fit. Though it was her husband who was formally employed by the Corps of Discovery in November 1804, Sacagawea was a big part of Toussaint Charbonneau’s pitch to the explorers. Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa, and Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French; their ability to translate multiple languages would make it easy for the expedition to trade for horses with the Shoshone in order to trek through the Rocky Mountains.

Sacagawea’s familiarity with the landscape was also helpful throughout the expedition. One notable example came during the return trip, when Sacagawea suggested the group travel through Montana's Bozeman Pass, rather than the Flathead Pass, due to Bozeman being a lower, safer trip. It's an area she recognized from her childhood, and Clark had learned to listen to her advice, writing, “The indian woman who has been of great Service to me as a pilot through this Country recommends a gap in the mountain more South which I shall cross.”

Just as important as her knowledge of the terrain, Sacagawea was also a skilled forager who could find and identify plants that were edible or medicinal. Her mere presence might also have been invaluable. In his journals, Clark writes that the presence of a Native American woman helped assure the tribes they encountered that the group’s intentions were peaceful; otherwise, they might have been mistaken for a war party

5. She helped save the expedition from what might have been a ruinous disaster.

On more than one occasion, though, Sacagawea’s contributions to the expedition were a bit more tangible. On May 15, 1805, Charbonneau, whom Lewis described in his journals as “perhaps the most timid waterman in the world,” was piloting one of the expedition’s boats when a strong wind nearly capsized the vessel. Charbonneau panicked and froze, allowing the boat to tip over onto its side. According to Lewis, he didn’t regain his composure until another crewman threatened to shoot him if he didn’t “take hold of the rudder and do his duty.”

But while Charbonneau was busy “crying to his god for mercy,” Sacagawea got to work. According to Clark’s journals, the boat was carrying the expedition’s “papers, Instruments, books, medicine, a great proportion of our merchandize, and in short almost every article indispensibly necessary” to their mission. When some of these items floated into the water, Clark says they were “nearly all caught by [Sacagawea].” That’s pretty impressive, since she was also busy keeping herself and her infant son from drowning.

Lewis and Clark were so grateful that, a few days later, they named a branch of a Missouri River tributary in Sacagawea’s honor. The Sacagawea River is a 30-mile waterway in what is now north-central Montana.

6. Sacagawea received no compensation for her work during the expedition.

Since it was technically Charbonneau who had been hired by the Corps, it was he who received payment for the work: 320 acres of land and about $500. Sacagawea was not compensated at all.

This didn’t seem to sit well with Clark, who wrote to Charbonneau: “Your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her.” Perhaps that’s part of the reason Clark offered to make sure the couple’s young son, whom Clark had affectionately called “Little Pomp” during the expedition, received a quality education. He eventually became Jean-Baptiste’s godfather and ultimately, after Sacagawea’s death, his legal guardian.

7. There is some debate about how—and when—Sacagawea died.

Many historians believe Sacagawea died in December 1812, likely of typhus, when she was about 25 years old. She had given birth to a daughter, Lisette, earlier that year, and it’s thought that her health declined afterward. That’s the account recorded by a clerk at Fort Manuel [PDF], where Sacagawea was living at the time, and the one accepted by Clark and most history texts.

Other evidence that cropped up during the 20th century indicated that Sacagawea, living under the name Porivo, died in 1884 in Wind River, Wyoming, near age 100. This was most famously embraced by at least one historian, the University of Wyoming’s Grace Raymond Hebard, who wrote a 1933 biography titled Sacajawea. Lewis and Clark historian James P. Ronda argued that Hebard might have misinterpreted (or neglected) some evidence to come to this conclusion. And while the 1884 theory has its supporters, most sources, including U.S. government websites, agree with the evidence that Sacagawea died in 1812.

8. Sacagawea is thought to be the most memorialized woman in U.S. history.

The National Park Service claims there are “more statues dedicated to Sacagawea than to any other American woman.” (Some of those statues are controversial for their depiction of Sacagawea, however, and at least one has been removed.) The U.S. Navy has named three ships after her over the years; the U.S. Postal Service released a Sacagawea stamp in 1994; and the U.S. Mint issued Sacagawea golden dollar coins from 2000 to 2008. Sacagawea has also been memorialized in the names of parks, schools, playgrounds, and cultural and interpretive centers all over the country.

9. The spelling and pronunciation of Sacagawea is a contested issue.

There’s a great deal about Sacagawea that we just aren’t sure about, including how to spell and pronounce her name. Lewis and Clark spelled her name several different ways throughout their journals, and historians have disagreed about whether the proper spelling is Sacajawea, Sakakawea, or Sacagawea; whether it’s pronounced with a soft g or a hard one; and which syllable gets the emphasis. It’s a culturally significant question: If her name is pronounced with a soft g, it’s likely a Shoshone word meaning “boat launcher.” But if the g is hard and the spelling is closer to “Sacagawea,” it's probably a Hidatsa word meaning “bird woman."

According to Washington University history professor Peter Kastor, the spelling “Sacajawea,” with the accompanying soft g sound on the j, became the prominent one simply because that's the one the Philadelphia-based editor picked when Lewis and Clark’s journals were published. Kastor and many historians agree that “Sacagawea,” with a hard g, is probably more historically correct. That is unless you’re talking to a historian from North Dakota, where official state policy dictates her name be spelled “Sakakawea.”

Additional Source: Lewis and Clark: An Illustrated History by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns