When the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery–31 men, one woman, and one dog–set off from Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805 to explore the land west of the Mississippi River, they were accompanied by an Indian woman interpreter named Sacajawea.
Born a member of the Agaidika tribe in 1788 near present day Salmon, Idaho, she was captured by a raiding party of Sioux and later sold to a French trapper named Charbanneau, an interpreter, who would accompany the expedition. She was pregnant with his child when the party set off on their epic journey.
Sacajawea, though not a guide, was familiar with the some of the country through which they traveled and was instrumental in their peaceful trading with the native tribes as they crossed the continent. If she were alive and the same age today, she’d be too young for middle school. When she was born, the United States was 12 years old and ended at the Mississippi River. Sacajawea didn’t know it existed. None of the members of her band had ever seen a white person.
They traveled up the Missouri River in six canoes and two larger, flat-bottomed pirogues. Sacajawea set up a warm tepee the first night, a skill learned as part of her Agaidika education. Most of the men slept outside. The tepee was reserved for Lewis and Clark, Charbonneau and another civilian interpreter, and Sacajawea and her baby. It was used until it fell apart.
On the third day, Sacajawea dug Jerusalem artichokes for the men to eat. It was the first of many times she added variety to a diet that relied heavily on meat. One of her most important contributions, however, was her mere presence. Though Lewis and Clark thought of themselves as traveling through unexplored territory, the continent west of the Mississippi was actually well known. It was home to dozens of Indian tribes who knew the land intimately and vigorously defended their turf. Intruders ran the risk of paying with their lives. Without Sacajawea, the Corps of Discovery could have been mistaken for a war party and annihilated. The presence of a woman and a child assured potential enemies that its intentions were peaceful.
You can learn more at the Sacajawea Interpretive Cultural and Education Center, 200 Main St., Salmon, Idaho. firstname.lastname@example.org