Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Sacagawea

Episode Summary

Sacagawea (c. 1790-c. 1812 or c. 1884) famously traveled from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast, carrying her son on her back. Her presence as a young mother, her skills as an interpreter, and her ability as a guide gave protection to the white men she accompanied, despite their goal of controlling her own people’s land.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s explorer famously traveled from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast, carrying her son on her back. Her presence as a young mother, her skills as an interpreter, and her ability as a guide gave protection to the white men she accompanied, despite their goal of controlling her own people’s land. 

Let’s talk about Sacagawea. 

Sacagawea was born around 1790, on Lemhi Shoshone land, in what is now called the state of Idaho. 

When she was 10 years old, Sacagawea was kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe, and brought to their village, in what we now call North Dakota. Just a few years later, she was married off to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trader. 

Though sometimes called “Saca-JA-wea,” Sacagawea is believed to be the correct pronunciation, as there is no soft “g” in the Hidatsa language. “Sacaga” means bird. “Wea” means woman. 

In 1803, the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase from France. Overnight, the country’s territory literally doubled. But France had controlled very little of those 828 thousand miles. Most of it remained indigenous land, inhabited by a number of tribes. What the United States really paid for was the so-called “right” to take the land away, by treaty or by conquest.

To determine the actual boundaries of their new territory, President Thomas Jefferson hired Meriwether Lewis, a former captain in the army, to investigate. Lewis, in turn, brought on frontiersman William Clark. Accompanied by 40 men and three boats, Lewis and Clark set out with three goals: explore the land, establish trade with and sovereignty over indigenous tribes, and claim the Pacific coast before Europeans could. They were called the Corps of Discovery. 

In the winter of 1804, Lewis and Clark set sail down the Missouri River, landing in present-day Bismark, North Dakota. The corps decided to winter there, near the Hidatsa villages where Sacagawea and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau lived. 

When news of the corps reached the Hidatsa, Toussaint proposed that Lewis and Clark hire him as a guide. Toussaint knew Hidatsa and the sign language common among river tribes. And then there was his wife, Sacagawea. She was Shoshone, a status that would be useful as the group travelled west. 

Lewis and Clark agreed to hire both Toussaint and Sacagawea, despite Sacagawea being pregnant. 

On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to her son, named Jean-Baptise Charbonneau. She nicknamed him “Pomp,” Shoshone for “first born.”

On April 7, the Corps of Discovery set off for the West, with Sacagawea carrying her infant son on her back. She was no older than 18.

It was soon clear how essential Sacagawea was to the expedition. Over the course of their 8,000 mile journey, the corps encountered over 50 tribes. As a woman, a young mother, and a Shoshone, Sacagawea lent the otherwise all-male, all-white corps an air of peace. Of curiosity rather than conquering.

Sacagawea often translated for the corps, and was skilled at identifying and using native plants. She also kept a clear head, at one point saving a boat loaded with supplies from capsizing. 

In July 1805, as the corps paddled up the Missouri, Sacagawea recognized several familiar landmarks. It was Shoshone land. She arranged for Lewis and Clark to meet with the chief in August. As she translated, Sacagawea realized the chief was her brother. She threw her arms around him, crying tears of joy. 

Despite the reunion, Sacagawea remained with Lewis and Clark as an interpreter. She convinced the Shoshone to provide horses and additional guides, and the corps travelled onward. 

On November 8,1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean. They had faced starvation, dehydration, dangerous weather and treacherous water. Sacagawea had survived it all, too, while caring for her baby. When they decided on where to stay the winter, Sacagawea’s vote was counted along with the rest of the expedition’s members.

On the trip back east, Lewis and Clark split up. Sacagawea and her family went with Clark. She guided the group south along the Yellowstone River and through the Bozeman Pass. Clark, in his diary, called Sacagawea his pilot. 

In August 1806, Sacagawea and her family left the expedition, having made their way back to Hidatsa land. William Clark offered to take Sacagawea’s son, Pomp, to Saint Louis, and raise him as his own. 

Though Sacagawea initially refused, she and her husband, Toussaint, visited Clark in 1810. Pomp, at age 5, came, too, to live with Clark permanently. 

The last few years of Sacagawea’s life are somewhat controversial. She gave birth to a second child, named Lizette, in 1812. Records from Fort Manuel, where she was living, indicate that she died from typhus a few months after Lizette’s birth. She would have been, at most, just 24 years old.

But according to some Native American oral histories, there is a more hopeful ending, that Sacagawea died much later, in 1884, finally back on Shoshone land. 

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!