Lewis & Clark among the Indians Appendix: A Note on Sacagawea

James P. Ronda© 1984University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

Readers of this book will undoubtedly wonder why the most famous Indian associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition is mentioned so infrequently. Over the past century a powerful mythology has grown up, making extravagant claims for Sacagawea as expedition guide and American heroine. Writers from Eva Emery Dye and Grace R. Hebard to Donald Culross Peattie and Anna Lee Waldo have fashioned narratives that go far beyond what can be known from reputable historical sources. When evidence runs thin, many writers have been all too willing to pass off fabrication for fact. Thus the claims still persist that Sacagawea single-handedly guided the expedition through unknown lands to the Pacific and that she died an old woman at Wind River, Wyoming in 1884. Such myths diminish Sacagawea and make a balanced evaluation of her genuine contributions more difficult. More important, they draw our attention away from those native men and women who made more fundamental contributions to the expedition's success.

What is reliably known about Sacagawea makes for only a brief biographical sketch. Sometime in the fall of 1800, the young Lemhi Shoshoni girl, then perhaps twelve or thirteen years old, was camped at the Three Forks of the Missouri with others from her band. As so often happened to northern Shoshonis who ventured out on the plains to hunt buffalo, the party at Three Forks was attacked by Hidatsa raiders. In the fighting that followed, several Shoshonis were killed. Among the prisoners taken were four boys and several women, including Sacagawea. Sometime between 1800 and 1804, she and one other Shoshoni captive were purchased by Toussaint Charbonneau, a trader with ties to the North West Company. When Lewis and Clark met Charbonneau at Fort Mandan on November 4, 1804, the trader and his family were living at the Awatixa Hidatsa village of Metaharta. Sacagawea was already pregnant and on February 11, 1805, she gave birth to a son named Jean Baptiste. When Toussaint Charbonneau was finally hired by Lewis and Clark as an interpreter, Sacagawea and her chid became part of the Corps of Discovery.

Three questions about Sacagawea have long fascinated Lewis and Clark scholars. The name of the Indian woman—its meaning and proper spelling—continues to spark considerable debate. Sacajawea, Sacagawea, and Sakakawea have all had their partisans. The concern about spelling is not just a quibble over orthography. If the woman's name was Sacajawea, the word might be Shoshoni , meaning "boat launcher." However, if the spelling is more properly Sacagawea, the name would be Hidatsa and translate as "Bird Woman." The journal evidence from Lewis and Clark appears as to support a Hidatsa derivation. On May 20, 1805, Lewis wrote: "Sah cagah we ah or bird woman's River" to name what is now Crooked Creek in north-central Montana. The most effective arguments for a Sacagawea spelling and a Hidatsa meaning are offered by Irving Anderson in his "Sacajawea, Sacagawea, Sakakawea?" (South Dakota History 8 [1978]:303–11). Anderson summarizes the previous literature and finds that the Sacagawea spelling best fits both the historical and linguistic evidence. However, it should be noted that an unpublished paper by Bob Saindon, "'Sacajawea': The Origin and Meaning of a Name," does raise important questions about the whole matter. Both Anderson and Saindon rely heavily on the findings of professional linguists, who in turn differ considerably in their conclusions. Along with the historian Donald Jackson, I have found the Sacagawea spelling most acceptable.

Far more important than the spelling and meaning of Sacagawea's name is the nature and scope of her contributions to the expedition. Perhaps the most persistent Lewis and Clark myth is that Sacagawea "guided" the party to the Pacific. In countless statues, poems, paintings, and books she is depicted as a westward-pointing pathfinder providing invaluable direction for bewildered explorers. In the interest of correction, there has been a tendency to underestimate Sacagawea's genuine achievements as a member of the Corps of Discovery. Not as important as George Drouillard or John Ordway, the young woman did make significant contributions to the expedition's success.

Those contributions can be discussed under four heads. When the expedition left Fort Mandan in April 1805, its most immediate need was to find the Shoshoni Indians and obtain horses for what was assumed would be an easy mountain portage to Pacific waters. Lewis and Clark certainly believed that Sacagawea would be of considerable value in the Shoshoni mission. They expected that she might recognize landmarks along the route and would provide general information about the location of Shoshoni camps. When Sacagawea became ill at the Great Falls of the Missouri, Lewis admitted, "This gave me some concern as well as for the poor object herself, than with the young child in her arms, as from the consideration of her being our only dependence for friendly negocition with the Snake Indians." [1] But just what the captains expected from her in those talks is not plain. For reasons that are now unclear, Sacagawea was not included in Lewis's advance party that finally made contact with the Shoshonis in August 1805. Good relations between the explorers and Cameahwait depended far more on promises of guns and trades than on any intercessions made by Sacagawea.

Sacagawea was not an expedition guide in the usual sense of the word. When Lewis and Clark needed to make a critical decision in early June 1805 about the true channel of the Missouri, she took no part in the process. Much later, when the expedition needed guides, men like Old Toby, Tetoharsky, and Twisted Hair were hired for that duty. Only twice did Sacagawea provide what might be termed guide services. In late July and early August 1805, she recognized important geographical features on the way to find Shoshoni camps. On the return journey in 1806, Sacagawea accompanied Clark's party and provided the explorer with valuable information on what has since been named Bozeman Pass. For most of the transcontinental journey, Sacagawea was seeing country as new to her as it was to the captains. That she was not in the lead making trail decisions does not diminish the fact that when she did recognize a landmark, "this piece of information cheered the spirits of the party." [2]

Success in many of the expedition's Indian missions depended on reliable communication and translation. Both diplomacy and the collection of ethnographic information demanded the sort of communication that George Drouillard's signs could not always provide. One of Sacagawea's most important roles in the expedition was that of translator, or as Clark quaintly put it, "interpretress with the Snake Indians." She often worked as part of a long and cumbersome translation chain that took each native word through many speakers before reaching the captains. Sacagawea was able to continue those duties west of the Continental Divide because of the presence of Shoshoni prisoners among groups that did not speak Shoshoni . Talks with the Flatheads at Ross's Hole were conducted through such a prisoner, as were those on the return journey with the Walulas and Nez Perces .

The expedition also benefited from the physical presence of Sacagawea and her child. Indians who might have thought the explorers part of a war party were evidently reassured when they saw a woman and an infant in the group. Clark said as much when he wrote, "The Wife of Shabono our interpreter We find reconsiles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions. A woman with a party of men is a token of peace." [3]

If Sacagawea's life and accomplishments have been hotly debated, controversy has also swirled around the date and place of her death. When Grace R. Hebard published her Sacajawea in 1933, she claimed that the Indian woman had lived at Wind River, Wyoming, under the name Porivo until her death in 1884. As Irving Anderson points out in his closely argued "Probing the Riddle of the Bird Woman" (Montana: The Magazine of Western History 23 [1973]: 2–17), Hebard's book misinterpreted some evidence and neglected much more. Statements by William Clark and trader John C. Luttig make it plain that Sacagawea died on December 20, 1812, at Fort Manuel in present-day South Dakota. Most scholars now accept Clark's note in his Cash Book that Sacagawea was dead by the 1825–28 period and Luttig's note—"this Evening the wife of Charbonneau, a Snake Squaw, died of a putrid fever she was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged abt 25 years"—as substantial evidence for Sacagawea's early death.

From the time of the expedition itself, Sacagawea has prompted strong opinions. Lewis and Clark themselves wrote quite different evaluations of the woman and her place in expedition history. Lewis, evidently unimpressed with her, declared, "If she has enough to eat and a few trinkets I beleive she would be perfectly content anywhere." [4] Clark did not share what seems the ill-concealed contempt in those lines. He wrote to Toussaint Charbonneau after the journey was over, "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 at the Mandans ." [5] Clark's care for the Charbonneau children after the expedition is yet another measure of his esteem for their mother.

Readers in search of a balanced treatment of Sacagawea might begin with Irving Anderson, "Probing the Riddle of the Bird Woman," Montana: The Magazine of Western History 23 (1973): 2–17, and E. G. Chuinard, "The Bird Woman: Purposeful Member of the Corps or Casual 'Tag-Along,'" Montana: The Magazine of Western History 26 (1976): 18–29. Also of considerable value are Irving Anderson, "A Charbonneau Family Portrait," American West 17 (1980): 4–13, 63–64; C. S. Kingston, "Sacajawea as a Guide—The Evaluation of a Legend," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 35 (1944): 2–18; Blanche Schroer, "Boat-Pusher or Bird-Woman? Sacagawea or Sacajawea?" Annals of Wyoming 52 (1980): 46–54. The best book-length treatment is Harold P. Howard, Sacajawea (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). Ella P. Clark and Margot Edmonds, Sacagawea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979) must be read with caution since it uncritically accepts the notion of a Sacagawea who lived into the 1880s. Recent novels about Sacagawea, including Anna Lee Waldo, Sacajawea (New York: Avon Books, 1979) must be read as fiction, not history. Their claims to historical accuracy are dubious at best and misleading at worst.


B A E       Bureau of American Ethnology

Field Notes.       Osgood, Ernest, S., ed. The Field Notes of Captain William Clark, 1803–1805. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.

Gass, Journal.       Gass, Patrick. A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery. Edited by David McKeehan. 1807. Reprint, with preface by Earle R. Forrest. Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, 1958.

Ordway, Journal.       Quaife, Milo M., ed. The Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway. Madison: Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1916.

Thw.       Thwaites, Reuben G., ed. The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 8 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1904–1905.

Whitehouse, Journal.       "The Journal of Private Joseph Whitehouse." In Thw. 7:29–190.


1. Thw 2:162–63. (back)
2. Ibid. 2:260. (back)
3. Ibid. 3:111. (back)
4. Ibid. 2:283. (back)
5. Clark to Charbonneau, August 20, 1806, Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:315. (back)