Behind every great man is a great woman and behind most great family road trips is a mom who spent hours learning the routes, understanding the best places to stop to eat and keeping the peace with the locals. Luckily for Lewis and Clark during the Corps of Discovery expedition of 1804, those men had Sacagawea. Not quite the great American family road trip in the family truckster, but she was a seriously kick ass mom who kept the trip (and the Americans on it) alive.
Having recently completed the Louisiana Purchase, President Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and a whole crew of army dudes on the first expedition out west to get the lay of land, map things out and keep the American presence strong on the west coast. Read: show the French, British and native inhabitants that they were still boss and get in on some trading action with native peoples. Finding a way to the coastal waters of the west was a mega bonus. Awesome idea. Except it wasn’t as easy it sounded. With little knowledge of the land or the people they would encounter, the journey seemed perilous and was beyond dangerous. Enter our girl, Sacagawea.
Before crossing paths with the Lewis and Clark crew, Sacagawea was living with her polygamous French, fur trader husband, who “acquired” her from the Hidatsa, who kidnapped her from her people, the Shoshones when she was around 12 years old. Living near the Hidatsa, Lewis and Clark recognized the value in having a Shoshone translator on the trip to assist in working with and obtaining horses when they reached the Shoshone people. She, however, only spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. Her “husband” (who she was totally having a baby with, btw) could speak Hidatsa and French. Combine their languages with another crew member who could speak French and English and the most historically important game of telephone could be played.
So off they went. Sacagawea with her newborn son, her husband whose invite was by default to play the game of telephone, and the whole Lewis and Clark crew. Make no mistake, Lewis and Clark used many interpreters and native guides along their travels but Sacagawea was, quite literally, the expedition’s ride or die.
Just like they needed, she was able to get horses when they crossed paths with the Shoshone. She was able to forage for food and knew which berries and roots were medicinal to keep the squad healthy. She was rumored to have saved herself, her son, and a whole bunch of important documents when a boat capsized. Her knowledge of the land got her dubbed the “pilot” and she was able to navigate the expedition through tough terrain. She brought a sense of peace to the expedition and no matter what she was faced with remained calm.
Now, for all of the saving grace Sacagawea brought to the table, she was not given any reward for her service to the trip (seriously lame wage gap). Her husband was thrown about $500 bucks and some land. At the age of 25 (6 years after they parted ways with the expedition) after having given birth to her second child, Sacagawea passed away. Just a few months after that Meriwether Lewis adopted both of Sacagawea’s children and raised them as his own.
So there you have it in a much abbreviated telling of her story. Not a lot is actually known about her life, other than what was written in the journals of the expedition. We do know from first-hand accounts that she was very much the strong, unwavering woman behind one of the most notable Wild West stories of American history.