Sacajawea

(1786-1811?)

One day in about 1800 (in present-day Idaho) the Minnetarees attacked a Lemhi-Shoshoni village in the Rocky Mountains. During the raid the Shoshoni chief was killed and his daughter, Sacajawea (sac-uh'juh-WE-uh), was kidnapped. The raiding party took the girl back to their camp in upper Missouri. Sacajawea missed her family, but she always hoped she'd eventually return to them.

After some time the Minatarees traded or sold her to the Mandan tribe of North Dakota. Sacajawea spent the next three years working in their fields.

Then one day a French trader named Charboneau (SHAR-bon-no) bought her and made her his wife. She was then about 17 years old.

In the fall of 1804, there were 16 U.S. states, all of them east of the Mississippi River. That year the Great White Chief, Thomas Jefferson – the third United States president – wanted to have the rest of this continent explored and maps made. He wanted to know all about the plants and animals and people who lived throughout this land. He was hoping a waterway would be found from the Missouri River to the Colorado River.

Jefferson chose two men to lead the exploring party in the West: William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. They, in turn, hired Charboneau to be their guide on the journey. Sacajawea, who had a one-and-a-half-month-old baby, went on the trip, too.

They headed up the river to try and find the Shining Mountains (the Rockies), cross those mountains, and reach the Pacific Ocean.

It was a long hard trip. They saw wolves, buffalo, wildcats, eagles, wild geese, and bear. The men brought game back to camp and Sacajawea got wild berries and roots – only she knew the ones that were good! There were many dangers: poisonous snakes, unfriendly people, floods, and roaring winds. At night Sacajawea mended the men's clothing and moccasins by the light of the fire.

Sacajawea taught Lewis some sign language and some Shoshoni to help him "speak" with the Indians.

One day they saw the white peaks of the mountains shining across the distance. Sacajawea thought, "Soon I will see my people again!" But then the river got wild. There were huge waterfalls; at one point the canoes overturned and all the notebooks and journals floated away down the river! Sacajawea swam out into the icy waters and saved the records from being lost.

Once they had reached the Shining Mountains they needed horses to continue the trip. Lewis and his men went ahead and asked the Shoshoni to sell them some horses, but the Indians refused. Then Captain Clark and Sacajawea came into the camp, and the Lemhi-Shoshoni at once recognized her. In fact, her brother Cameahwait was now their chief! Sacajawea was so happy to see her people again. She convinced her brother to sell the exploring party the needed horses.

Eventually the party hid their boats and rode their horses over the mountains. Sacajawea rode also, with her little son, Pompe, on her back. They faced snow, hunger and cold, but finally they crossed the mountains! They left their horses with friendly Indians, made boats, and took off down the river.

Whenever they met Indians, who were not always friendly, Sacajawea would speak with them and reassure them that the explorers were not dangerous.

Twice on the trip Sacajawea pointed the way through difficult passes.

Finally the group entered the Columbia River, which took them to the sea. In November of 1805, Lewis and Clark raised the U.S. flag claiming the Northwest for the United States.

Because it was now winter, they could not make their return trip at once, so Sacajawea spent a pleasant three months on the coast. She even got to see a beached whale!

After many months the group did return safely to the Mandan village in North Dakota; Charboneau, Sacajawea, and Pompe stayed there while Lewis and Clark went on to Washington to report to President Jefferson.

We are not sure what became of Sacajawea. Some say she died on December 20, 1812, but other accounts tell that she returned to the Shoshoni to live for many years – maybe to the age of 100! The real story of her death will probably always be one of history's secrets.

Excerpted from Ready-to-Use Activities and Materials on Coastal Indians.

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