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Sacagawea helped to blaze a trail into American history

Sacagawea
Mark Fredrickson

During 1803, in dire need of funds to fill his war-strapped coffers, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte sold the United States the parcel of land known as the Louisiana Purchase for ₣60,000,000 (francs) ($11,250,000 – US 1803). The transaction also served to clear an outstanding debt the US held against France in the amount of ₣18,000,000 ($3,750,000 – US 1803). This acquisition literally doubled the size of the young country, encompassing an area approximately 800,000 square miles in size and stretching the western boundary closer to the Pacific Ocean. The acreage included territory which would one day become the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota; in addition to portions of Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Canada was also on the receiving end with a section that later became the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Possessing a mind filled with geopolitical and scientific terms, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to learn more about this new acquisition in reference to topography. Thus, he turned to his personal secretary, Meriweather Lewis, to acquire the information necessary to satisfy the president’s curiosity. Joining with his friend, William Clark, Lewis and a group dubbed the Corps of Discovery, the team of explorers traveled through the mysterious new land. Over the course of the next two years, this daring assemblage journeyed 8,000 miles and gazed upon the breath-taking beauties of their new findings; while also encountering unknown dangers, put upon them by both man and nature. Though successfully earning its place in the history books of America and the world, the Lewis & Clark Expedition would have probably surrendered its distinction to another had it not been for one remarkable young woman.

Thought to have been born around 1788, Sacagawea (sa-cog-ah-we-ah or sa-ka-ja-we-ah) was a member of the Shoshone Indian tribe. Due to the fact Native Americans at this time had no written language, little is known of her early years. The village of her birth was located in the northern Rocky Mountains, an area of eastern Idaho and western Montana. Sacagawea’s people were hunters and fine horsemen. Though they hunted buffalo on the plains, they made their home in the mountains in an effort to seek refuge from other tribes who were their enemies.

Around the age of 11, Sacagawea went out to gather food with some of her tribe members, when suddenly a band of Hidatsa Indians attacked and carried her off to their village where she became their prisoner. At the age of 12, she was married to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader. It is unknown if he paid for her outright or if he won her through gambling. Though at this time she probably felt there was little value to her life; in the not-too-distant future, she would play one of the greatest roles in all of American history.

During the fall of 1804, Lewis & Clark reached the Mandan Indian settlement in what is now North Dakota. Here they spent the winter and met Sacagawea and her husband. Bulging with child at the time, Sacagawea was 16. Her son, Jean Baptiste (“Pomp’) was born a short time later. The Corps of Discovery agreed to hire Charbonneau as a guide, but only if Sacagawea would accompany them.

As the Corps headed up the Missouri River, Sacagawea’s value began to be revealed. When a sudden blast of wind caused the boat to tip over, Charbonneau began to scream in fear, but Sacagawea remained calm. She quickly began to gather the various items floating in the water, thus saving valuable instruments, maps and supplies.

One of Sacagawea’s greatest benefits to the band was the fact she was Shoshone. Her people were known to have horses, something the expedition was in dire need of if they hoped to cross the Rocky Mountains before winter arrived. Unfortunately, none of the tribe could be found. Having learned the landmarks of her native territory before she was captured, the day came when Sacagawea spotted Beaverhead Rock. This landmark told her she was not far from home. When the group finally located a band of Shoshone, the leader turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother, Cameahwait.

The only person in the group to know the Shoshone tongue, Sacagawea helped Lewis & Clark acquire the horses they needed from her brother’s band. Now the Corps of Discovery was able to cross the Rockies and they reached the Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1805.

As the Corps began the trip home, they returned to the Mandan villages on August 14, 1806. Here they said goodbye to Sacagawea and her family. Captain Clark had developed a fondness for Sacagawea and Pomp (Shoshoni for "Leader"). He named a large rock “Pompey’s Pillar” and carved his name (Wm. Clark – July 25, 1806) into it.

The Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1809. Before leaving, Captain Clark offered to raise four-year-old Pomp and provide him an excellent education. Little of Sacagawea’s life is known after they left. She and Charbonneau would later travel to St. Louis. Pomp’s sister, Lizette, was born shortly before Sacagawea died and she too was adopted by Captain Clark.

On December 20, 1812, a journal entry written by a clerk at Fort Manuel (located in present day South Dakota) stated, “This evening, the wife of Charbonneau . . . died of [a] fever. She was a good and best woman in the fort, age about 25.” Though her name was not mentioned, she was most certainly Sacagawea.

Unlike his mother, Jean Baptiste lived a long life. Traveling with a German prince, Paul Wilhelm, Duke of Wurttmberg, he explored much of Europe. He later returned to the western United States, where he traveled extensively with Charbonneau, and became a well-known explorer and guide. His various journeys played a part in Pomp becoming fluent in many languages. Pomp died in Danner, Oregon at the age of 61 on a journey to Montana in search of gold.

The legacy of the brave young Indian guide is kept alive today throughout the United States. In 2000, the US Mint struck a new $1 coin with her likeness, and that of Pomp, on the obverse. Statues, paintings, mountains, rivers and lakes throughout the nation now bear the name, “Sacagawea”.