There aren’t many tour guides as famous as Sacagawea, but in truth, she wasn’t a guide at all. She had no idea where she was going, and she didn’t even speak English.
Meriwether Lewis, a soldier, and William Clark, a naturalist, were recruited by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the upper reaches of the Missouri River. Their job was to find the most direct route to the Pacific Ocean, the legendary Northwest Passage. Setting out in 1803, they worked their way up the Missouri River and then stopped for the winter to build a fort near a trading post in present-day North Dakota. This is where they met the pregnant Shoshone teenager known as Sacagawea.
Actually, they met her through her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau. He was a French fur trader who lived with the Shoshone. He is said to have purchased Sacagawea from members of another group who had captured her, so it may be inaccurate to call her his wife. Although Sacagawea is credited with guiding Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific, the only reason she, and her newborn baby, went along at all was that her husband had been hired as a translator.
The myth of Sacagawea as the Native American princess who pointed the way to the Pacific was created and perpetuated by the many books and movies that romanticized her story. For example, the 1955 movie, The Far Horizons, which starred Donna Reed, introduced the fictional plotline of a romance between Sacagawea and William Clark. Over time, she has evolved to serve as a symbol of friendly relations between the US government and Native Americans. In 2000, she was given the U.S. Mint’s ultimate honor when it released the Sacagawea Golden Dollar. At the same time, though, the Mint’s website incorrectly states that she “guided the adventurers from the Northern Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean and back”.
The only facts known about Sacagawea come from the journals of Lewis and Clark’s expedition team. According to these we know that she did not translate for the group, with the exception of a few occasions when they encountered other Shoshone. But because she did not speak English, she served as more of a go-between for her husband, the explorers, and members of other tribes they encountered in their travels. Concerning her knowledge of a route to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark knew far more about the land than she did. Only when they reached the area occupied by her own people was she able to point out a few landmarks, but they were not of any great help.
This isn’t to say that she did not make important contributions to the journey’s success. Journals note that Sacagawea was a great help to the team when she took it upon herself to rescue essential medicines and supplies that had been washed into a river. Her knowledge of edible roots and plants was invaluable when game and other sources of food were hard to come by. Most important, Sacagawea served as a sort of human peace symbol. Her presence reassured the various Native American groups who encountered Lewis and Clark that the explorers’ intentions were peaceful. No Native American woman, especially one with a baby on her back, would have been part of a war party.
There are two very different accounts of Sacagawea’s death. Although some historical documents say she died in South Dakota in 1812, Shoshone oral tradition claims she lived until 1884 and died in Wyoming. Regardless of differing interpretations of her life and death, Sacagawea will always be a heroine of American history.
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