Sacajawea and the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Detail of Lewis & Clark at Three Forks
Detail of Lewis & Clark at Three Forks

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was the first group of Americans to cross the western part of what is now the United States. President Thomas Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to make the dangerous trip. The expedition traveled from near St. Louis, Missouri, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It returned to St. Louis between 1804 and 1806.

Jefferson wanted the expedition to find a route to provide better trade routes. He also wanted to stake claim to lands in the Northwest that were then occupied by Native American tribes. Finally, he wanted the expedition to identify the resources of the lands in the recent Louisiana Purchase.

The expedition achieved all these goals and more. Its success can be credited in part to a young Native American woman who joined Lewis and Clark.

Sacajawea (1788-1812) was a Shoshone Indian. She and her French-Canadian husband traveled much of the way with the group. Sacajawea had married Toussaint Charbonneau, an animal trapper, when she was about 13 years old. Charbonneau either won Sacajawea while gambling or purchased her from a tribe that had kidnapped her.

In the winter of 1804-1805, the expedition arrived near the village where Sacajawea and her husband lived. By then, the group had been traveling for six months. They needed to make camp for the winter. They established Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota.

The travelers needed an interpreter to help them in their journey. Lewis and Clark thought Sacajawea would help them gain the trust of tribes they would meet, because she would be able to communicate with them. She and Charbonneau moved into Fort Mandan, and Sacajawea gave birth to her first child there. Shortly thereafter, with the spring thaw, the group set off again toward the west.

Sacajawea’s role in the expedition has been misunderstood and fictionalized. She is often described as a guide, but that was not her role. She primarily served as a diplomat for the group with the tribes they encountered. Her Indian background and her baby made the group seem less fearful to the numerous tribes they met.

After more than two years, the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean. They drew maps of their route and the surrounding area, including mountain ranges, rivers, and the Continental Divide. They mapped the locations of about two dozen Native American tribes. They communicated and traded with the tribes, learning valuable information about their languages and customs. And they brought back many specimens of native plants and animals.

Much of the credit for the success of the expedition can be given to their interpreter, Sacajawea. Her presence helped gain the trust of the Native Americans. With her young son, she enabled mostly peaceful travels. Without her, the expedition might have had a very different outcome.

Source: Sacajawea and the Lewis and Clark Expedition
By Exploros, CC BY-SA 4.0; Lewis & Clark at Three Forks photographed by Edgar Samuel Paxson, mural at Montana State Capitol, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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