Influential Women #07: Sacagawea

The next woman in this series is one you probably have heard of before, even if you didn’t realise it at the time: Sacagawea. Doesn’t ring a bell? Been a while since you’ve last seen Night At The Museum, hasn’t it? That’s right – the native American woman (inaccurately) pictured in those movies is the infamous Sacagawea, who was born around 1788 and who died of illness at the age of 25.

But the way Sacagawea is portrayed in the movie is rather inaccurate – there’s much more to her story than just that. When Sacagawea was only twelve years old, she was kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe, the sworn enemies of her native tribe, the Shoshone. She lived there as a captive for three to four years until she was sold to the French-Canadian Toussaint Charbonneau to be his second wife. She soon became pregnant. During this time, in 1803, President Jefferson made what is now known as the Louisiana Purchase from France. He had bought nearly 830,000 square miles of unexplored land, in the hopes of finding the Northwest Passage, a river said to connect the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. He employed his secretary Meriwether Lewis to explore the land and find the passage, together with William Clark as his co-captain.

After not much longer than a year of travelling, Lewis and Clark reached the settlement of Charbonneau, and first met the then six months pregnant Sacagawea. The timing could not have been better. The explorers needed horses to continue their travels, and the only tribe that could provide them with any were the Shoshone – the same tribe Sacagawea was brutally kidnapped from at the age of twelve four years earlier, and of which she thus still fluently spoke the language. Because of Sacagawea’s pregnancy, however, the group decided to wait. She delivered her son, Jean-Baptise Charbonneau, in early February, and the group left somewhere near the end of March or the beginning of April, Sacagawea all the while taking care of her newborn son.

She proved to be much more to the group than “the wife of” and a valuable translator. She remembered many of the Shoshone trails, was able to provide edible food for the whole group and tell apart the edible from the toxic, and even managed to safe a whole lot of important documents, scientific equipment and her son all at the same time when her husband almost capsized their sailing boat. Besides that, her presence and that of her baby worked soothing on both the group and the many tribes they encountered, leaving a much softer impression than they would have had they been travelling without her, and avoiding violent conflicts more than once. When they finally reached the Shoshone, the Chief at that time happened to be her brother, which she had not seen since her kidnap by the Hidatsa. Sacagawea managed to ensure the horses for the group.

When they reached the Pacific Sacagawea and her son returned with the group to the settlement they had originally come from. The group was plagued by illness, famine, insects, flash floods and extreme temperatures, but both Sacagawea and her son managed to survive. Sacagawea received no compensation for her crucial services to the group, without which they probably would never have survived. Instead, her husband was rewarded. Three years later Charbonneau and Sacagawea left Jean-Baptiste with William Clark, his godfather, to join a trading expedition. Sacagawea never made it back: she died at the age of 25, not long after birthing her daughter, Lisette, who was then also left in the care of William Clark.

Not really the romanticised Indian Princess tale you’d imagined, eh? Sacagawea was kidnapped, sold into marriage, abused for her knowledge without any compensation, and eventually died in pain on another of her husband’s expeditions without ever seeing her children grow old. Her story has been romanticised to this day, portraying her as a bold and brave Indian princess – and there is no doubt she was, but no one ever mentions the pain she had to go through in reality. Let’s not forget that Sacagawea was much more than bold and brave – she was one of the strongest women in Native American history.

  • L. Parole

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