Oregon Focus: People to Know: Sacagawea

About Sacagawea

postage stamp with painting of Sacagawea wearing cradleboard and holding walking stick
Sacagawea is portrayed on a U.S. postage stamp.
Sacagawea was a Shoshone Indian woman who became famous for the help and guidance she rendered to the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Northwest in 1804-1806.
Sacagawea was born near present-day Lemhi, Idaho in about 1786. Her name translated means Bird Woman or White Bird Woman. As a young girl (12 to 14 years old), she was taken captive by the Hidatsa Indians, part of the Mandan tribes in the upper Missouri River region. In her teens she married the French-Canadian guide and interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau (she was either bought as a slave or won in a gambling game). When Charbonneau was hired by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, she came along with her newly born son, Jean Baptiste (nicknamed Pomp).
Having a woman with the expedition meant to the Native Americans that this was not a war party. Clark wrote, "A woman with a party of men is a token of peace." Thus, her presence no doubt helped their passage through hostile country.
painting of Indian woman lighting cooking fire with child on her back
A painting of Sacagawea and son Pomp. (Image courtesy Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation)
Sacagawea was strong traveler. Brave, competent, and industrious, she greatly aided the expedition by her quick reactions and sensitive dealing with the Native Americans they met. At one time when the waves of the river threatened to swamp their boat and wash valuable supplies away, Sacagawea grabbed her infant with one hand and the precious medicines, instruments, and papers with the other.
Through her, the group obtained horses from the Shoshone people for transportation across the Rocky Mountains. Later on they had to eat the horses to avoid starvation. Many times she pointed out the shortest or the easiest way to follow through the mountains.
The fate of Sacagawea after parting with the expedition is less clear. There is evidence that Sacagawea and Charbonneau traveled to St. Louis in 1809 to leave their son to be educated by William Clark of the expedition. According to contemporary sources, a woman identified as Charbonneau's wife and believed to be Sacagawea died in 1812 at Fort Manuel, in present-day South Dakota. Some biographers speculate, however, that the woman who died at Fort Manuel was Charbonneau's other wife and that Sacagawea eventually rejoined the Shoshone people at the Wind River reservation in Wyoming and died there in 1884.
Numerous statues, plaques, and monuments honor Sacagawea. One of the statues is in Portland's Washington Park.
painting of Indian woman pointing the way for explorers to travel
A painting of Sacagawea showing the way forward. (Image courtesy the The Granger Collection, New York)
Also see a notable Oregonian descriptions for Sacagawea | Meriwether Lewis | William Clark.

Suggestions for Teachers

Ask students to:
Discuss how Sacagawea learned about the wilderness. Why did she learn these things? From whom did she learn them?
Invite an expert to talk about wilderness survival techniques.
Draw scenes from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (write situations on cards for children to draw that relate challenges and dramatize solutions. Examples: need to cook a deer; came upon a waterfall in their boats; came upon an angry bear; a man breaks an arm; ran out of meat; etc. How might Sacagawea be better at solving these than the white man?
Visit a local historical museum to learn about explorers.
Write stories about Sacagawea using Native American picture writing.
Give oral reports on books about Sacagawea.
Form small groups to dramatize events on the expedition that included Sacagawea.
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