Sacagawea was a young girl, just 16 or 17 years old and pregnant, when Lewis and Clark arrived at the Mandan villages in what is now central North Dakota. But she wasn’t Mandan, or even from the neighboring Hidatsa tribe. She came from the heart of the Rocky Mountains from the Shoshone tribe, who Lewis and Clark called the Snake Indians. When she was 12 years old, she had been kidnapped and taken as a slave. Her captors were Hidatsa, and she accompanied them down the Missouri. The Hidatsa then sold her to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French trapper.
As Lewis and Clark’s expeditionary party moved west, they built Fort Mandan near a large Hidatsa village, home of the Mandan tribe. At Fort Mandan, Charbonneau sought out the party and offered his services as an interpreter. He could speak Hidatsa, Minataree, and French. By the end of that first long, harsh winter, Lewis and Clark had contracted with Charbonneau as an interpreter, and Sacagawea had given birth to a son, Jean Baptiste. The infant was just four months old when Charbonneau, Sacagawea and little Jean Baptiste joined expedition.
Sacagawea became an invaluable member of the expedition. Her courage and knowledge of native plants, languages, and terrain all contributed to the success of the expedition. She served as an interpreter, and was the only person on the trip who could speak Shoshone. Sacagawea also offered the party a measure of protection. Since women and infants were never included in war parties, the natives they encountered assumed that they were on a peaceful mission.
On April 7, 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition set out for the land of the Shoshone Indians in the Rocky Mountains, where Sacagawea’s knowledge of the land became extremely useful. As the Corps of Discovery pushed upstream and into what is now Montana, it was heading into a landscape no one had seen before, save one member of the party—Sacagawea was going home. She began to recognize the mountains in the distance. As the party made their way up the Jefferson River, she pointed out the Beaver’s Head and other landmarks she remembered as a child.
Not only was her knowledge important to the success of the expedition, but her courage as well. Sacagawea saved many of the expeditions scientific instruments, specimens and even Lewis and Clark’s journals when the boat Charbonneau was steering almost turned over on May 14, 1805, on the upper Missouri River. Her husband couldn’t swim, and as other members of the party scrambled to paddle the waterlogged boat to shore, she remained calm and stayed with the boat, reaching out into the heavy waves to retrieve nearly all of the Corps’ important papers and instruments.
Sacagawea took center stage when the Corps finally came into contact with her people, the Shoshone, near present-day Dillon, Montana. In an amazing twist of fate, the tribe’s chief, Cameahwait, was none other than Sacagawea’s brother. Were it not for Sacagawea and Cameahwait, the party likely would not have been outfitted for the weeks ahead of them. Lewis and Clark were able to secure many horses, and even an experienced guide to take them across the mountains.
When the Corps returned to St. Louis later that year, Sacagawea and Charbonneau stayed at the Mandan villages in present-day North Dakota. Charbonneau was paid $500 for his services. Despite her immense contribution to the expedition, Sacagawea received nothing. Clark offered to take Pomp, Sacagawea's son also known as Jean Baptiste, to raise him as his own son and educate him. In 1809, Charbonneau and Sacagawea brought Pomp to St. Louis, and Clark kept his promise. He raised and educated little Jean Baptiste as one of his own. Sacagawea died shortly after giving birth to her second child, a girl she named Lisette, in 1812 at Fort Manuel, a fur-trading post located in what is now present-day South Dakota. Clark adopted Lisette and raised her as his own as well.
In 2000, Sacagawea's face (or Sacajawea) was minted onto a dollar coin, following in Susan B. Anthony's footsteps. The coin depicts the Shoshone woman Sacagawea, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, carrying her son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Artist Glenna Goodacre used a 22-year-old Shoshone woman named Randy'L He-dow Teton young Sacagawea's model. US Mint.