Who Was Sacagawea? - Facts, Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Experience the life and times of Sacagawea. Learn how this great interpreter affected the discoveries made by American explorers, Lewis and Clark. Then, take the quiz to evaluate your knowledge!

The Early Life of Sacagawea

Sacagawea was born circa 1788 to a Shoshone Indian chief in an area of the American West that is present-day Idaho. Much of her childhood years remain a mystery, since the Shoshone Indians relied on oral histories for recordkeeping; therefore, few, if any, written records of her existence have been found that substantially chronicle her early years.

Portrait Drawing of Sacagawea

One well-known event in Sacagawea's life took place when she was 12 years old. She was captured by a rogue band of Hidatsa Indians, enemies of the Shoshone, who took her to a place near modern Bismarck, North Dakota. There, among Hidatsa and Mandan Indians, she was sold into slavery. Her master was a French-Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau. Making her a conquest, he decided to wed her even though he was twenty years older. Sacagawea became pregnant soon after the marriage and later gave birth to a boy, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, on February 11, 1805 at Fort Mandan, an American post.

Sacagawea in Adulthood

President Thomas Jefferson, who managed the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, wanted Americans to survey this land and to find a waterway that joined the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He named the Northwest expedition the Corps of Discovery. Jefferson called upon Meriwether Lewis to serve as leader of the Corps of Discovery. Lewis selected William Clark, a former military superior, as his co-captain. Together, Lewis and Clark sought after the interpreters, Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau, for their skills in communicating with the Shoshone Indians. Lewis and Clark needed Sacagawea's assistance in asking the Shoshones to sell horses to the expedition team for their journey across the Rocky Mountains.

Map of the Lewis & Clark Expedition

Sacagawea was also helpful in other ways. While on land, she could find edible plants, roots, and berries for the team's food and medicine. She was also industrious on water and saved the cargo of a capsized boat she was riding in. Because Jean-Baptiste was with his parents during the expedition, Sacagawea represented a peaceful presence that kept dangerous Indian tribes at bay.

During the winter of 1805 to 1806, the Corps of Discovery stopped to rest at Fort Clatsop, which was near modern-day Astoria, Oregon. The team traveled onward in the spring and passed through the trails of Sacagawea's childhood before arriving in the Hidatsa-Mandan territory on August 14, 1806. For payment of his services, Toussaint Charbonneau received $500.33 and 320 acres of land. On the other hand, Sacagawea did not receive any form of compensation.

Sacagawea Guiding Lewis & Clark

The Later Life of Sacagawea

During the post-expedition years, Sacagawea's life was mysterious in that not much was written to document major events. However, it is known that she and her family traveled eastward to St. Louis, Missouri. There, Sacagawea met with Clark, to whom she was very close and called Pomp. Clark had promised that he would give land to her family, if she and Charbonneau would allow him to teach Jean-Baptiste.

By August of 1812, Sacagawea gave birth to Lisette, a daughter. This joyous occasion was marred by Sacagawea's illness, described as putrid or typhus fever. On December 22, 1812, Sacagawea died at the young age of 25 in Fort Manuel, which was near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota.

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