During 1803, in dire need of funds to fill his war-strapped coffers, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte sold the area referred to as the Louisiana Purchase to the United States for ₣60,000,000 ($11,250,000 US), in addition to securing the cancellation of outstanding debts amounting to ₣18,000,000 ($3,750,000 US). Encompassing an area approximately 800,000 square miles, the purchase literally doubled the size of the young country and stretched its western boundary closer to the Pacific Ocean. The land gained would later include all of the states of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota; in addition to a portion of Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. A small section of what later became the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan was also included.
President Thomas Jefferson, possessing a mind filled with geopolitical and scientific terms, wanted to learn about the topography of the new acquisition. In an effort to do so, he turned to his personal secretary, Meriweather Lewis, to acquire the information which would satisfy his curiosity. Joining with his friend, William Clark, Lewis and a group dubbed the Corps of Discovery would travel through the mysterious new land. Over the course of the next two years, this daring assemblage journeyed 8,000 miles and gazed upon breath-taking beauties; while encountering unknown dangers, both from nature and mankind. Though successfully earning its place in the history books of America, the Lewis & Clark Expedition would have likely surrendered its distinction to another had it not been for one special young lady.
Thought to have been born around 1788, Sacagawea (sa-cog-ah-we-ah – or – sa-ka-ja-we-ah) was a member of the Shoshone Indian tribe. Due to the fact Native Americans at this time had no written language, little is known of her early years. The village of her birth was located in the northern Rocky Mountains, in the area of eastern Idaho and western Montana. Sacagawea’s people were hunters and fine horsemen. They hunted buffalo on the plains, but made their home in the mountains in an effort to seek refuge from other tribes who were their enemies.
Around the age of 11, Sacagawea went out to gather food with some of her tribe members. Suddenly a band of Hidatsa Indians attacked and carried her off to their village where she became their prisoner. At the age of 12, she was married to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader. It is unknown if he paid for her outright or if he won her through gambling. Though she likely felt there was little value to her life, in the not-too-distant future, she would play one of the greatest roles in all of American history.
In the fall of 1804, Lewis & Clark reached the Mandan Indian settlement in the area now known as North Dakota. Here they spent the winter and met Sacagawea and her husband. Sacagawea was 16 and heavy with child. On February 11, 1805, her son, Jean Baptiste (‘Pomp’) was born. The Corps of Discovery hired Charbonneau as a guide, but only so that Sacagawea would accompany them.
As the Corps headed up the Missouri River, Sacagawea’s value began to be revealed. When a sudden blast of wind caused the boat to tip over, Charbonneau began to scream in fear, but Sacagawea remained calm. She quickly began to gather up the various items floating in the water and as a result, saved valuable instruments, maps and supplies.
One of Sacagawea’s greatest benefits to the band was the fact she was Shoshone. Her people were known to have horses, something the expedition was in dire need of if they hoped to cross the Rocky Mountains before winter arrived. Having learned the landmarks of her native territory before her capture; when Sacagawea spotted Beaverhead Rock, she knew she was not far from home. When the group finally located a band of Shoshone, the leader turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother, Cameahwait.
The only person in the group to know the Shoshone tongue, Sacagawea played an important part in helping Lewis & Clark purchase the horses they needed from her brother’s band. Now the Corps of Discovery was able to cross the Rockies and they reached the Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1805.
As the Corps began the trip home, they returned to the Mandan villages on August 14, 1806. Here they said goodbye to Sacagawea and her family. Captain Clark had developed a fondness for Sacagawea and Pomp. He named a large rock “Pompey’s Pillar” and carved his name (Wm. Clark) and the date – July 25, 1806, into it.
The Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. Little of Sacagawea’s life is known after they parted. She and Charbonneau later traveled to St. Louis and while there, Captain Clark adopted Pomp, assuring his parents the boy would receive the finest education. Shortly before she died, Sacagawea bore a daughter, Lizette; who was also adopted by Captain Clark.
On December 20, 1812, a journal entry written by a clerk at Fort Manuel (located in present day South Dakota) stated, “This evening, the wife of Charbonneau . . . died of [a] fever. She was a good and best woman in the fort, age about 25.” Though her name was not mentioned, she was most certainly Sacagawea.
Unlike his mother, Jean Baptiste lived a long life. Traveling with a German prince, he explored much of Europe. He later returned to the western United States where he traveled extensively with his father, Charbonneau, and became a well-known explorer and guide. His various journeys played a part in Pomp becoming fluent in many languages. It is thought he died around 1866 in Oregon.
The legacy of the brave young Indian guide is kept alive today throughout the United States. In 2000, the US Mint struck a new $1 coin with her likeness and that of Pomp on the obverse. Statues, paintings, mountains, rivers and lakes throughout the nation now bear the name ‘Sacagawea’.
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