Sacagawea (c. 1788-1812) may not be widely known outside of the United States, but her exploits are well worthy of the history books. She served as a guide and interpreter on the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) to map the newly purchased territory of Louisiana and beyond.
Her achievements are made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was just a teenager when she embarked on the expedition that would go on to define much of 19th-century America’s understanding of its western frontiers. And on top of that, she was a new mother who completed the journey with her baby in tow.
Here are 10 facts about Sacagawea, the Native American teenager who became a famous explorer.
1. She was born a member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe
Precise details about Sacagawea’s early life are hard to come by, but she was born around 1788 in modern-day Idaho. She was a member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe (which literally translates as Eaters of Salmon), who lived along the banks of the Lemhi River Valley and upper Salmon River.
2. She was forcibly married off aged 13
Aged 12, Sacagawea was captured by the Hidatsa people after a raid on her community. She was sold by the Hidatsa into marriage a year later: her new husband was a French-Canadian trapper between 20 and 30 years her senior called Toussaint Charbonneau. He had previously traded with the Hidatsa and was known to them.
Sacagawea was probably Charbonneau’s second wife: he had previously married a Hidatsa woman known as Otter Woman.
3. She joined the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804
After the Louisiana Purchase was completed in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned a new unit of the United States Army, the Corps of Discovery, to study the newly acquired land for both commercial and scientific purposes. At this point, the whole of the United States was barely mapped, and vast swathes of land in the west were still under the control of local Native American groups.
Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark led the expedition, which ended up spending the winter of 1804-1805 in a Hidatsa village. Whilst there, they looked for someone who could help guide or interpret as they travelled further on up the Missouri River come springtime.
Charbonneau and Sacagawea joined the expedition team in November 1804: between his trapping skills and her ties to the land and ability to speak local languages, they proved a formidable team and a vital addition to the expedition’s ranks.
4. She took her infant son on the expedition
Sacagawea gave birth to her first child, a son named Jean Baptiste, in February 1805. He accompanied his parents on the Lewis and Clark expedition when they embarked in April 1805.
5. She had a river named in her honour
One of the earliest tests of the expedition was travelling up the Missouri River in pirogues (small canoes or boats). Going against the current was tiring work and proved challenging. Sacagawea impressed the expedition with her quick thinking after she successfully rescued items from a capsized boat.
The river in question was named the Sacagawea River in her honour by the explorers: it is a tributary river of the Musselshell River, located in modern-day Montana.
6. Her ties to the natural world and local communities proved invaluable
As a native Shoshone speaker, Sacagawea helped smooth over negotiations and trades, and occasionally convinced Shoshone people to serve as guides. Many also believe the presence of a Native American woman with an infant was a sign to many that the expedition came in peace and was not a threat.
Sacagawea’s knowledge of the natural world also proved useful in times of hardship and famine: she could identify and gather edible plants, such as camas roots.
7. She was treated as an equal within the expedition
Sacagawea was well respected by the men on the expedition. She was permitted to vote on where the winter camp should be set up, to help barter and complete trade deals, and her advice and knowledge were respected and listened to.
8. She ended up settling in St. Louis, Missouri
After returning from the expedition, Sacagawea and her young family spent another 3 years with the Hidatsa, before accepting an offer from Clark to settle in the town of St. Louis, Missouri. Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter in this time, Lizette, but it’s thought she died in infancy.
The family remained close to Clark, and he took responsibility for Jean Baptiste’s education in St. Louis.
9. She is thought to have died in 1812
According to most documentary evidence, Sacagawea died of an unknown sickness in 1812, aged around 25. Sacagawea’s children came under the guardianship of William Clark the following year, suggesting at least one of their parents was dead due to the legal processes of the time.
Some Native American oral histories suggest that, in fact, it was around this time Sacagawea left her husband and returned to the Great Plains, marrying again and living to a ripe old age.
10. She has become an important symbolic figure in the United States
Sacagawea has become an important figure in the history of the United States: she was particularly looked up to as a figurehead by feminist and female suffrage groups in the early 20th century as an example of female independence and the worth that women could provide.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association adopted her as their symbol around this time and shared her story far and wide across America.