The story of this young Shoshone woman is near legendary and mysterious. There is little doubt that she was born into the Indian tribe known as Snake or Shoshone about 1788. She was captured as a young girl probably age 13 years of age by the Mandan-Hidatsa people and taken into Dakota territory.
The historical facts bring her to attention when her French husband Toussaint Charbonneau was hired by Lewis and Clark to guide their expedition to explore the western territory. She is mentioned in the book by W. Dale Nelson Interpreters with Lewis and Clark, The Story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau as one of the interpreters but no mention of payment being made to her.
Before the journey began into the west, Sacajawea gave birth to her first child, Jean Baptiste. He was two months old when the journey began and Sacajawea carried him on her back over land and water. The journey was treacherous and while Charbonneau had some idea of where they were headed, his ability to speak some Indian languages, French and knew some of the tribes were more of his greatest strengths.
From the journals kept by William Clark, mention is made of Charbonneau’s woman or wife throughout the journey. She played an important role in saving documents and other supplies during a storm when their boat overturned. And the most memorable of the event for her was when they met up with the Lemhi Shoshone which was the band she had been taken from years ago. Her brother or cousin, Cameahwait, it is not fully clear, was the Chief of the Shoshone at the time.
Because of her influence, Lewis & Clark were able to purchase or trade for much needed horses from the tribe who had been reluctant to give up any of their precious horses. Some members of the tribe also gave further directions over mountains toward the Pacific Ocean.
During this long journey, Sacajawea was able to tend to her child, cook for the men and hunt for vegetables on the land that she was familiar with. When the ocean was sighted, her place in history was assured more so than many other members of the expedition.
After their party’s return to the present day area of Bismarck, North Dakota Sacajawea gave birth to a girl she named Lizette. There is some mystery about whether she had another boy born between Jean Baptiste and Lizette but it is not fully known if that is true or not. In some documents there is mention of a second boy but there is speculation by some historians that she had taken care of her sister’s son for awhile.
A trader named John C. Luttig wrote of the death of “the wife of Charbonneau a Snake Squaw died of putrid fever.” While he did not mention the name the description fit the age that Sacajawea would have been. Luttig did mention that she left “a fine infant girl”. Later Luttig attempted to have himself appointed guardian of Toussaint’s children, a boy aged 10 he claims named Toussaint and a girl named Lisette.
William Clark apparently took matters into his own hands and had himself appointed their guardian with their father’s agreement. So the mystery is whether the boy listed as Toussaint and two years older than Jean Baptiste would have been was another boy or Sacajawea’s son Jean Baptiste whose age was mistaken.
In any case Clark made himself responsible for the care and education of the children. Jean Baptiste grew up with some education, traveled to Europe, learned several languages and when he returned to the United States he went back to the West and remained so until his death in Oregon.
Toussaint Charbonneau was known to have had several wives at various times and some historians have wondered if Sacajawea was the one who died from “putrid fever” as Luttig says, as quoted in W. Dale Nelson’s book. Or was this another one of Charbonneau’s wives.
On the Wind River Reservation, there is a proported grave site of a woman some say is the grave of Sacajawea. That in fact, she went to that Reservation where she was attempting to locate her son Jean Baptiste and remained until her death on April 9, 1884. The legend says she was identified by a Rev. John Roberts who officiated at her burial. On the other side of her grave site is a marker that is dedicated to the memory of her son, but the Indians say that Bat-tez as they called him, was buried in a gorge in the Wind River Mountains.
There is an obituary listing a J.B. Charbonneau death in 1885 in Auburn, Oregon. So it is not known for sure what happened to Sacajawea’s son and little is mentioned of her daughter.
The mystery is only a side tale to her involvement in the role she played in being part of the Lewis & Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean. She faced an unknown road ahead with courage and rightfully so deserves a place in the history books.
This lesson can be used with the same Utah Standard 6250-0103 that was used for Chief Ouray and Chipeta.
The substitute Stage 2 Assessment could be further reading and forming an opinion based on research whether Sacajawea died at age 24 or lived to an older age and died on the Wind River Reservation.
Stage 2 assessment. What opinion of Sacajawea’s role in the Expedition of Lewis & Clark does the student have?
Resource Reading: Interpreters with Lewis and Clark. The Story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau by W. Dale Nelson, Universitiy of North Texas Press
The Lewis and Clark Journals. An American Epic of Discovery. 2003 by the Board of Regents, University of Nebraska. Library of Congress – catalog in publications
Through Indian Eyes. The untold Story of Native American Peoples. Readers Digest. ppg. 280-281
Sacajawea - Captive, Indian Interpreter, Great American Legend: Her Life and Death By Bonnie "Spirit Wind-Walker" Butterfield (Cherokee/Mohawk/Dutch)