Born around 1788, near the Continental Divide on the present-day Idaho-Montana border, Sacagawea, also spelled Sacajawea, was a Shoshone Indian who, as an interpreter, traveled thousands of miles in the desert with the Lewis and Clark expedition from the Mandan villages. -Hidatsa in the Dakotas to the Pacific Northwest.
Separating fact from legend in Sacagawea’s life is difficult; historians disagree on the dates of her birth and death and even her name. In Hidatsa, Sacagawea translates to “Bird Woman”. Alternatively, Sacajawea means “Boat Launcher” in Shoshone. Others favor Sakakawea. The travel diaries of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark generally support the Hidatsa derivation.
A Lemhi Shoshone woman was about 12 years old when a Hidatsa raiding party captured her near the head of the Missouri River around 1800. They enslaved her and took her to their Knife River villages near present-day Bismarck, Dakota. from North; she was bought by the French Canadian fur merchant Toussaint Charbonneau who made her one of her wives around 1804. They resided in one of the Hidatsa villages, Metaharta.
When the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived in the Mandan-Hidatsa villages and built Fort Mandan for the winter of 1804–05, they hired Charbonneau as an interpreter to accompany them to the Pacific Ocean. As she did not speak the native language and because the expedition needed to communicate with the Shoshones to acquire horses to cross the mountains, the explorers agreed that the pregnant Sacagawea should also accompany them. On February 11, 1805, she gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste.
Starting on April 7, the expedition ascended to Missouri. On May 14, Charbonneau nearly capsized the white pirogue (boat) in which Sacagawea was traveling. Staying calm, he recovered important documents, instruments, books, medicines and other indispensable valuables that would have otherwise been lost. During the following week, Lewis and Clark named a tributary of the Mussellshell River “Bird Woman’s River” after her. She proved invaluable in numerous ways: searching for edible plants, making moccasins and clothing, as well as dispelling suspicions of approaching Indian tribes through her presence; a woman and a child accompanying a group of men indicated peaceful intentions.
In mid-August, the expedition encountered a band of Shoshone led by Sacagawea’s brother, Cameahwait. The brother and sister reunion had a positive effect on Lewis and Clark’s negotiations for the horses and guidance that allowed them to cross the Rocky Mountains. Upon reaching the Pacific coast, she was able to express her opinion on where the expedition would spend the winter and her request to visit the ocean to see a beached whale was granted. She and Clark loved each other and performed numerous acts of kindness for each other, but the romance between them only occurred in later fictions.
Sacagawea was not the expedition’s guide, as some have mistakenly portrayed her; however, she recognized landmarks in southwestern Montana and informed Clark that Bozeman Pass was the best route between the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers on the return trip from her.