Sacagawea: A Courageous Child Changes History

By Genzoli, Melissa; Thompson, Michelle et al. | Social Studies Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Sacagawea: A Courageous Child Changes History


Genzoli, Melissa, Thompson, Michelle, Berg, Janet, Social Studies Review


The purpose of this article is to highlight the impact of the life of one of the most popular women in American history, Sacagawea. Her valuable contribution to history has been nationally recognized by the placement of her name on 23 statues. Her name is also included on landmarks; rivers; memorials; poems; parks; songs; and the Sacagawea Dollar, issued in 2000. After joining Lewis and Clark and what was called their "Corps of Volunteers on an Expedition of North Western Discovery" in the winter of 1804, this young Shoshone Indian girl's life story became one of the most popular and interesting of any woman in United States history. Yet, there are no photos, portraits, or drawings of her. A Native American woman was the model for her coin.

The information in this article can be used to introduce the expedition of Lewis and Clark, the Westward Expansion, and the lives of Native Americans at that time. Sacagawea's impact on the westward expansion movement was impressive because she was a female and only sixteen years old at the time. Still a child by today's standards, Sacagawea faced a life of traumatic abuse and hardship but with her bravery and perseverance, she secured a place in history as an interpreter, diplomat, and peace symbol for one of the most important expeditions in United States history. If not for the journals kept by Lewis and Clark throughout their journey, perhaps the contributions of Sacagawea might have gone unnoticed and unappreciated.

During this time, women still found themselves subordinated, both legally and socially, to their husbands. They were disenfranchised and expected to be content serving as wives and mothers. Sacagawea was no exception. When the journey began, she was a new wife and mother with her first infant, Pomp.

There are no official documents with the exact date of her birth, but according to the journals kept by Lewis and Clark, it is estimated that Sacagawea was sold into marriage when she was thirteen years old and was carrying her first child by the time she was sixteen years old.

There are many popular, but sometimes inaccurate, stories about Sacagawea that have added to her public image, but the best way to highlight her character traits and the importance of her contributions is reference what was recorded by the few people who actually knew her. Even her true name is not known for certain. Historians have argued over the spelling and origin of her name. The name as it is used throughout this article is the most widely agreed upon, Sacagawea (pronounced Sahca-gah-we-ah, with a hard 'g') and was referred to by Lewis as meaning "bird woman." The argument arose when one of the journals spelled her name Sacajawea, which is a Shoshone word meaning "boat launcher." Regardless of her name or how it was spelled, Lewis and Clark's journal entries (poor spelling and all) show that they had a sincere respect and admiration for their "Indian woman" that lasted throughout the remainder of the expedition and beyond.

Sacagawea was born into a band of Shoshone Indians in Idaho somewhere around 1788. Sacagawea, along with the other female children of her tribe, experienced mistreatment based on her gender. Regardless of the fact that she was the tribal chief's daughter, she and other female children were beaten and forced to do hard work that was not required of the males. This mistreatment was noted by Meriwether Lewis in his journal entry for August 19, 1805: "... They treat their women but with little respect, and compel them to perform every species of drudgery."

During her childhood, her tribe was often the target of attacks by other tribes. In 1800, her village was attacked by an enemy tribe, the Hidatsa, and Sacagawea was kidnapped and forced to live as a slave in the Hidatsa-Mandan villages. It has been said that Sacagawea was either sold to or was won while gambling by an abusive white man named Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trapper who lived among the Hidatsa.

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