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Lewis and Clark interpreter on new coin
by Markus Fanke, editor emeritus

A Native American, a woman, a mother, a legend. Roughly 200 years after her efforts helping the expedition that mapped the northern United States, Sacagawea’s place in American history has been recognized by the United States on a new golden dollar coin. The front features a portrait of her and her bundled son on their way to one of the great adventures in U.S. history.

The daughter of a Shoshone chief, Sacagawea was kidnapped by Hidatsa Indians, enemies of the Shoshone tribe, who took her from her family and Idaho homeland to a Hidatsa village in North Dakota.

In 1804, Sacagawea was sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader who made her one of his two wives. Later that year, a group of explorers calling themselves the Corps of Discovery came to the village. They were lead by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the most famous American explorers of their time. They had been hired by President Thomas Jefferson to lead a crew of men west from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, in search of a Northwest Passage. Lewis and Clark spent the winter in Fort Mandan near the Hidatsa Indian village, and Charbonneau offered his services as an interpreter to the expedition. He spoke little English, but could speak Hidatsa.

Lewis and Clark were even more interested to find out Sacagawea spoke Shoshone. As Clark stated in his journals, Charbonneau was actually hired as an interpreter “through his wife.” If the expedition was to meet Shoshones, Sacagawea would translate to Hidatsa for Charbonneau, who would translate to French for the expeditions Francois Labiche who would make the final translation into English, for Lewis and Clark.

Sacagawea was 16 years old, and that winter she gave birth to her first child, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.

Sacagawea was the only woman in the 33-member party that journeyed to the Pacific Ocean and back. She carried Jean Baptiste, or “Pomp” as Clark affectionately called him, on a cradleboard as the Corps of Discovery went upriver in April of 1805. Her duties in the group included collecting edible plants, including roots and berries, for food and sometimes for medicine.

On May 14, 1805, Sacagawea’s boat, hit by a strong wind, capsized. She was able to recover supplies and important papers onboard, and her calm under pressure earned the compliments of both Lewis and Clark. In August of that year, they stumbled upon a group of Shoshones. Sacagawea had an emotional reunion with her brother, Cameahwait, who had become the Shoshones’ chief.

Thanks to Sacagawea, the Corps was able to purchase horses they needed for the trek through the Rocky Mountains. Her brother, Cameahwait, also sketched a map of the country to the west and provided a guide who took them through the mountains to the Néz Percé country, where the expedition could travel by river again.

Sacagawea continued to be valuable as the Corps and met new Indian tribes who had never seen white men before, and who were prepared to defend their lands. But as the Indians noticed her, they calmed down. A war party never traveled with a woman – especially a woman with a baby.

During the winter of 1806, which the expedition spent in Fort Clatsop, Ore., a whale was stranded on a beach a few miles south of them. Sacagawea complained, for the first time, as well as the last, because the men did not wish her to go with them to the site. “[T]he Indian woman was very impo[r]tunate to be permitted to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either,” Clark wrote in his journal January 6, 1806. Clark realized the injustice and permitted Sacagawea to come with them to the coast.

Coming back from the west coast, Sacagawea guided the explorers through the land of her childhood. The most important trail she used, which Clark described as “a large road passing through a gap in the mountain,” led to the Yellowstone River. Today it is known as the Bozeman Pass, Mont.

August 14, 1806, marked the end of Sacagawea’s historical journey as the Corps returned to the Hidatsa village. Charbonneau received $500.33 and 320 acres of land for his services. Sacagawea didn’t receive a penny, despite her importance to the success of the mission.

Clark later adopted Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, as well as her young daughter, Lisette. Clark evidently became fond of “Pomp” during their adventures. Lisette is believed not to have survived through infancy.

There is no real evidence of what happened to Sacagawea. Some documents indicate she died a few years after the expedition, and some indicate she lived to be 100. She played an invaluable role in the early exploration of the United States, by helping Lewis and Clark with interpretation as well as guiding. Not only did she help Lewis and Clark reach the West Coast, she also raised a great young explorer in Jean Baptiste, who worked with Kit Carson, and guided John C. Frémont, one of the most famous explorers in U.S. history. But that’s another story for another day.


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