As an Evolving Symbol of American Indian Women
                                                                                  by Lara Marks

    Who was Sacagawea? Who has she become? These questions are central to understanding Sacagawea, in her own right, in the context of the nineteenth century, and in today's setting.  Sacagawea was an American Indian woman, the only one on Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition. Despite the fact that we only have a year and a half of her life documented, and because there is so little written or known about American Indian women of her day, she has become a symbol to many Americans. The details of Sacagawea's life have been debated throughout history as people search for the real story. Just as little exists in terms of American Indian women in artwork and literature during the early 1800's, we have little to work with when it comes to Sacagawea. Here I present what we DO know about her, and why Americans have a desire to continue to commemorate her today.

1804: The Expedition                 1812: Death
1884: Death Revisited                1932: The Debate Begins
1996: Sudden Popularity            1998: Sacagawea as a Symbol

1804: The Expedition

    The story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s 1804 expedition west is one of those
great American stories, the kind that gets passed from generation to generation.  The Corps of
Discovery consisted of a diverse group of people, including a Native America woman named
Sacagawea.  The importance of her role as interpreter and guide on that voyage has been debated
throughout history.  Since the years of Lewis and Clark’s trip, it has not always been clear who
Sacagawea was, how exactly she helped Lewis and Clark, when she died, or even how her name
was spelled. People have a tendency to misinterpret her by either romanticizing, idealizing, or
minimizing her contribution to the expedition.  (Howard, vi). Several authors’ portrayals of
Sacagawea can determine what she did, how popular culture views her today. Despite the sparse
facts that Americans have about Sacagawea, they continue to hold her up as a heroine of
American history by surrounding her legacy with romance,  mystery, and intrigue.
 In order to give Sacagawea her rightful place in history, one must first look at what she
actually did do on the expedition by turning to Lewis and Clark’s journals. They do not mention
Sacagawea very often. When they do, it is about the good that she did as a helpful member of the
Corps, she was compassionate, and very useful.  Although some say that Sacagawea was not
indispensable, she certainly eased the way for Lewis, Clark, and their men. We are unsure of
how much of a help Sacagawea was in guiding Lewis and Clark, but we do know that her presence strengthened the crew’s morale (Howard 150-1).
The Trapper's Bride by Alfred Jacob Miller
(Courtesy of People in the West)
    When Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian, she was living in a Hidatsa-
Mandan village near modern-day North Dakota.  Sacagawea had been kidnapped by the Hidatsas
and then sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, who took her as one of his wives.  Sacagawea, like
many American Indian women of her day, did not have much choice over her husband, or where
she would live.  While studying Sacagawea, it is important to understand that what she did and
where she was not determined by her own freewill; she joined the expedition partly by accident.
Lewis and Clark signed Charbonneau and Sacagawea on as “an interpreter team” to assure that
Lewis and Clark could get the horses they need from the Shoshone Indians.  Sacagawea could
speak Shoshone and Hidatsa; Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French. One of the Corps
members spoke French and English. This complex process allowed the two captains to
communicate with the Indian groups and chiefs that they met. (PBS). Some history books
suggest that Charbonneau was the only interpreter and Sacagawea was just his wife.  In fact,
Sacagawea played a very important role in the interpretations and meetings with the Indian
tribes.  But even Lewis and Clark referred to Sacagawea as “wife to one of our interprs”
(DeVoto 256). “The One Eyed Chief arived and we . . . spoke to the Indians through a Snake boy
Shabono and his wife.  We informed them who we were, where we came from & our intentions
towards them, which pleased them very much” (380). Sacagawea and her husband,
Charbonneau, were hired to act as translators to ensure that the Corps could communicate with
the Indian tribes. In this instance, Sacagawea's translating skills enabled the Corps to trade for
horses that would determine whether or not they could continue. Sacagawea was not only an
interpreter on the expedition, she helped in many other ways as well.  She collected food, like
roots and berries. Also, as the Corps returned from the Pacific Ocean, through Sacagawea’s
homeland, she guided them through the area that she knew well. (PBS).
    To look at what Sacagawea actually did on the expedition shows perhaps why Americans
would tend to idealize or romanticize her character.  Sacagawea was a pregnant teenage girl on
the expedition and she did all the same things that the other thirty members of the Corps did.
The other men were strong, military men who were used to hard work, long days and nights, and
rough traveling; Sacagawea may not have been. When she joined the expedition, Sacagawea was
six months pregnant, and after a painful birth, she carried her infant son across the country with
her. Like the rest of the Corps, Sacagawea experienced illnesses and injuries.  On February
eleventh, 1805, Lewis wrote, “about five oClock this evening one of the wives of Charbono
[Sacajawea] was delivered of a fine boy.  It is worthy of remark that this was the first child
which this woman had boarn, and as is common in such cases her labour was tedious and the
pain violent . . .” (DeVoto 80). Giving birth is something that some people consider a very
private, miraculous, and intense event.  If Sacagawea, at the age of sixteen, gave birth and then
had to carry that baby on her back, it makes sense that some modern-day thinkers believe her to
be a special, crucial figure of strength and motherhood.
    It is impossible to fully understand how Lewis and Clark felt about Sacagawea or even
how they treated her. Most of what they wrote of her was positive, but there are instances where
Lewis and Clark seemed to be unaware of how Sacagawea might be feeling or thinking in a
situation. Even Lewis and Clark, like some people of today, might have simplified Sacagawea
into nothing more than a happy-go-lucky Indian girl. On July twenty-eighth, 1805, Lewis wrote,
“Sah-cah-gar-we-ah o[u]r Indian woman was one of the female prisoners taken at that time; tho I
cannot discover that she shews any immotion of sorrow in recollecting this even, or of joy in
being restored to her native country; if she has enough to eat and a few trinkets to wear I believe
she would be perfectly content anywhere” (DeVoto, 171). Their backgrounds or cultural
influences may have caused Lewis and Clark to simplify Sacagawea or take her for granted.
Despite their attitude, what Lewis and Clark, a primary source, wrote about Sacagawea is still
the only direct statement about Sacagawea’s character.  What historians or others do to her
legend has less to do with Sacagawea herself than with what they want in a heroine or legend.
See for yourself what Lewis and Clark wrote about Sacagawea.

    Lewis and Clark seem to have appreciated all the work that Sacagawea did, especially
one day when the boat Sacagawea was in flipped over and Sacagawea was able to save some of
the papers and important items that went overboard. Ambrose writes

    “All this time, Sacagawea was calm, collected, and invaluable.  As
     Lewis put it the following day, ‘The Indian woman to whom I
     ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person on board at
     the time of the accedent, caught and preserved most of the light
     articles which were washed overboard.’ Whether he praised her, or
     upbraided her husband, he did not say.” (Ambrose 225).

If Lewis was to describe Sacagawea as someone with “fortitude and resolution,” it is
probable that he usually treated her with respect. It is unclear how Lewis and Clark treated
Sacagawea on a regular basis.  Did they ignore her, treat her as a slave, or did they treat her with
respect, sensitivity, and kindness? On one occasion when Charbonneau began to beat
Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark stepped in to stop. This action shows a desire on their part to
protect her, as well as their need to keep their men in line.
    “One wonders too how the man who could be so observant about so many things,
     including the feelings and point of view of his men, could be so unobservant and
     Sacagawea’s situation.  A slave, one of only two in the party, she was also the
     only Indian, the only mother, the only woman, the only teen-aged person.  Small
     wonder she kept such a tight grip on her emotions” (260).

Ambrose suggests that Lewis was “unobservant,” possibly ignoring the sensitivity of
Sacagawea’s situation.  Did Sacagawea keep a “tight grip on her emotions” because she need to
protect herself and her baby? Was she constantly making sure she was safe? The contradicitons
and inconsistences in the journals distract from the real picture of Sacagawea at the same time
that they give insight into her personality.  Even though the journals is a primary source, they are
certainly not objective; if they were, then there would be no “mystery of Sacagawea” today.
 On August 14th 1806, the Corps returned to the place where they first found Sacagawea.
Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and their son stayed behind as Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis
and the East.  Charbonneau was given $500.33 and 320 acres of land, whereas Sacagawea was
given nothing except the experience of the trip and of seeing the Pacific Ocean. What did
Sacagawea sacrifice to go on that expedition? Was she adequately rewarded for her efforts?

1812: Death

Most modern day biographies of Sacagawea, bird woman, tell us that she died at Fort Manuel in South Dakota, at the age of 25, after giving birth to a daughter, Lisette.

1884: Death Revisited

The alleged year of death of Sacajawea, boat launcher, according to Shoshoni oral tradition and Grace Raymond Hebard, author of Sacajawea.

1932: The Debate Begins

Her Death: In 1932, Grace Raymond Hebard published the first account suggesting that Sacajawea died in April of  1884.

   Beyond Lewis and Clark’s formal documentation of Sacagawea’s life for the year and
half they were together, there exists nothing else to prove what Sacagawea did for the rest of her
life.  There are two main version of what happened to her, and the date of her death is dependent
of what must have transpired. Why has Sacagawea become such a popular character with such
great significance when the only part of her life that was documented was the year and a half
that she spent with Lewis and Clark? There is little that we know about her life after she left the
 There are two main theories about what could have happened to Sacagawea, a Shoshoni
legend, and another. One, which is mostly widely held today, says that Sacagawea died after
giving birth to a daughter in 1812 at the age of 25 at Fort Manuel, a fur trading outpost in South
Dakota (Howard).The other version of Sacagawea’s life is one that many people believed for
years because it was the version passed down in Shoshoni oral history. In her book, Sacajawea,
Grace Raymond Hebard contends that she met and has proof for the theory that Sacagawea had
moved with Charbonneau, their two sons, and Charbonneau’s new wife, Eagle, to a reservation.
The story goes that Sacagawea died in 1884, not 1812; the reason people think she died in 1812
was because Charbonneau’s other wife died, and their identities were mixed up.  The clerk at
Fort Manuel wrote on December 20, 1812, “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 about 25
years. She left a fine infant girl” (qtd. in Hebard 160). The two competing versions of
Sacagawea’s death work to continue the mystery and the intrigue that comes from the fact that
so much of her character is unknown.  Sacagawea dying in 1812 is not as much of a “fun” story.
If Sacagawea died at an old age, there is much more to her life than anyone can ever know.
Living to an old age makes Sacagawea live longer in the minds of Americans, sort of making her

Sacagawea statue
(Courtesy of Women's Wire)

Her name: Spelling and Pronunciation

    Part of the difficulty that allowed the debate to go on over Sacagawea is the many names
she had during her lifetime, because of her moving about the country from tribe to tribe, and her
Indian heritage and the tradition of Indian names.  The difficulty people had in pronouncing and
spelling her name contributed to the confusion surrounding the date of her death.  Throughout
the journals, Lewis and Clark spelled Sacagawea’s name with a “g,” taking her name to mean
“bird woman” in Shoshone. But the woman who claimed to be Sacagawea spelled her name
“Sacajawea” which means “boat launcher.”  

Shoshone or Comanche Name
English Translation
Sacagawea Bird woman 
Sacajawea boat launcher
Wadze-wipe Lost woman
Bah-ribo Guide of White river men 
Pohe-nine Grass Maiden
Bazil’s mother of Bazil Umba  
Porivo  Chief
A-va-je-me-ar Went-a-long-way
Nyah Suwite  constant lover
Yanb-he-be-joe  the Old Comanche woman
Lewis and Clark spelled Sacagawea's names inconsistently.   
Some of their spellings and  references:   

Sah-kah-gar-we-a, Sah-ca-gee-we-ah, Sah-car-gar-weah, Sacarjawea, and Sacajawea.   
She was referred to as the Indian squar, wife of Charbonneau, the Indian woman, Janey. 

Why did historians and other people spend so much time attempting to determine the correct spelling and pronunciation of
Sacagawea’s name and her date of death?  There is something about Sacagawea’s mystery. This
unknown quality to her excites or entices people’s imaginations. Today, most stories about
Sacagawea use the spelling with a “g,” but the debate is still discussed.  Some people like to
keep the truth shrouded so that Sacagawea can remain an enigma, more of the material of which
legends are made.
 Some historians contend that it is improbable that Sacagawea thought about the
importance of the voyage she was on, or her part in it.  The legend of Sacagawea continues
today, with historian Steven Ambrose’s book about Lewis and Clark’s expedition, Undaunted
Courage, reaching the number one spot of the New York Times Bestseller list. (Women's Wire).
This book portrays Sacagawea as an important character, but Lewis and Clark as the two
mastermind-explorer-soldiers behind the expedition. Ambrose suggests the expedition was a
great adventure. A recent PBS Ken Burns documentary also created new found interest in Lewis
and Clark and Sacagawea. Two totally different forms of media, both attacking the same subject.
Why did the public snatch these two versions of the expedition up? Americans love adventures
full of scary challenges and great heroes who had a a hand in creating America.  Not everyone
always needs or wants to look at the primary sources or find out the real events. There is fun in
the mystery, the myth, and the legend.

1996: Sudden Popularity

Sacagawea, inducted into the Missouri Hall of Fame
(Courtesy of Famous Missourian)

    Some historians contend that it is improbable that Sacagawea thought about the importance of the voyage she was on, or her part in it.  The legend of Sacagawea continues today, with historian Steven Ambrose’s book about Lewis and Clark’s expedition, Undaunted Courage, reaching the number one spot of the New York Times Bestseller list. (Women's Wire). This book portrays Sacagawea as an important character, but Lewis and Clark as the two mastermind-explorer-soldiers behind the expedition. Ambrose suggests the expedition was a great adventure. A recent PBS Ken Burns documentary also created new found interest in Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea. Two totally different forms of media, both attacking the same subject. Why did the public snatch these two versions of the expedition up? Americans love adventures full of scary challenges and great heroes who had a a hand in creating America.  Not everyone always needs or wants to look at the primary sources or find out the real events. A mystery, a myth, and a legend are the stuff of which fun is made. 

1998: Sacagawea as a Symbol

Her face on the new Dollar Coin

A committee, headed by the Secretary of the treasury Robert Rubin, was searching for an
American woman to replace Susan B. Anthony on the dollar coin. They chose an image
“inspired by” Sacagawea, since there are no pictures of what she really looked like. They see her
as a symbol of liberty that can represent courageous American women.  When asked to explain
their decision, Philip Diehl, the chairman, said,
          “She was simply a woman of exemplary physical courage and stamina, who 
     through a remarkable confluence of circumstances contributed to the success of
     one of the greatest American adventures. . . She has heroism and the element of
     tragedy. She was reclaimed from history for our generation” (Women’s Wire).
 Americans may have “reclaimed” Sacagawea, but they have reclaimed from her story what they
wanted to.  A majority of people wish to see her as a representative American Indian woman
who did much for the nation; they continue her legacy by holding her up as a symbol, and this
symbol is made “better” by the debate that people can still have about her life.  Diehl’s  quote
represents what most Americans probably think of Sacagawea.  Sacagawea was a slave who was
not even thought of as a real American. She was accidentally involved in the expedition, and
Americans know very little about her. Despite all these realities that could be considered to go
against Sacagawea being any sort of politically correct legend, she has become a sort of romantic
symbol of American women.  This could be attributed to the few women in the 19th century who
are known by people today. When Americans find one woman who was part of something great,
they grab her and hold her up for all to see.  It is important not to say that Sacagawea was the
heroine of the expedition at the same time we cannot say she did not aide them at all.
Sacagawea was not the most important member of the Corps, but her presence was valuable to 
Lewis and Clark, the Corps, and therefore, America.
   Newsweek, a weekly popular periodical, mentions Sacagawea’s upcoming appearance on
the dollar coin, responding with,  “You can only wonder.  What might the Christian right have to
say upon learning that the plucky teen was an unwed mother who schlepped her baby and lover
along with her? Next to that, the yelps over the new $20 will seem like petty change”
(Newsweek). The authors are already anticipating controversy over Sacagawea, or at least some
light-humored discussion.  This controversy is the modern day world, imposing itself and its
morals on history. How will this predicted controversy compare to the debates and controversy
that has always plagued Sacagawea’s legend?

  Sacagawea can be a role model for women because she was a wife and a mother at the
same time as she was working hard for what was the best for the expedition. She must have had
an incredible amount of strength to carry her baby on her back while gathering food, walking
nearly across a continent, and acting as a sort of “ambassadress” to all the Indian nations.
(Possible Coin Designs courtesy of the U.S. Mint)

What is Sacagawea's legacy?

It is a legacy that is still changing as we look at what she actually did and what she is supposed to have done. “Americans are sentimental about their heroines. More memorials honor Sacajawea than
any other American woman” (Howard, vii).  Regardless of the actual facts that suggest
Sacagawea significantly helped Lewis and Clark, her legend continues because people want it to.
She has been “reclaimed from history,” and that reclaimed person is not necessarily the same
one that actually existed.


 Sacagawea Statue Bismark, ND
(Courtesy of PBS Online)
     Why is the United States still commemorating Sacagawea today? There are many parks
and schools named after Sacagawea. There are statues of her, carrying her son on her back,
looking like a brave, courageous young woman. Sacagawea is a figure for many groups,
including some looking for leaders: women, Native Americans, mothers, and explorers. Today
Americans are searching for heros, especially women who they can hold up as role models, or
women who played a part in creating America.

Sacagawea Links
This page was created by Lara Marks.
Last revised by the author 12/16/98.
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