Obit of the Day (Historical): Sacagawea (1812)
Sacagawea, the famed Shoshone interpreter who joined Meriweather Lewis and William Clark on their exploration of the American Midwest and Pacific Coast, died on this date 200 years ago. (Coincidentally, she passed away on the 9th anniversary of the transfer of Louisiana to the United States.)
The two men, sent by President Thomas Jefferson to lay out a route to the West through the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, found Sacagawea and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, living near what is today Bismarck, South Dakota.
Kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe from the Shoshones when she was 12, Sacagawea (which translates as “bird woman”) was 16 when she met the explorers and had just given birth to a son, Jean Baptist Charbonneau. The teenager was purchased by Toussaint to be his wife - along with another woman known only as “Otter Girl” - from the Hidatsas when she was just thirteen
Sacagawea, her son, and her husband would remain with Lewis & Clark for the remainder of their journey to the Pacific and back. She is often misidentified as the guide but was, in fact, their expedition’s interpreter. More importantly, her presence with the group showed to other tribes that the explorers were not looking for conflict, since Native Americans in the region would not include women in war parties.
History also owes Sacagawea a debt of gratitude for her quick thinking when she rescued Lewis and Clark’s records and journals after their boat overturned on May 14, 1805. In return, William Clark named the Sacagawea River, in what is now Montana, in her honor.
Following the expedition, William Clark encouraged Sacagawea and Charbonneau to move to St. Louis, Missouri. Clark then convinced the couple to give him custody of Jean Baptiste and enrolled the boy in a local school.
Six years later Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter named Lizette. Not long after this on December 20, 1812 Sacagawea passed away from an unknown illness. She was only 24 years old. Clark would later adopt both of Sacagawea’s children.
The last mention of Sacagawea in any record is from Clark’s journals of 1825-1826 when he listed all the members of the western expedition and wrote, “Se car ja we au- Dead.”
Random note 1: Although most everyone agrees that Sacagawea died in 1812 there were rumors that she actually survived as a Comanche bride in Wyoming and lived until 1884. No evidence was ever discovered to support this story.
Random note 2: Sacagawea was given a river and historical recognition for her work (as well as a gold dollar coin beginning in 2000) but at the time it was her husband who received $500.33 and 320 acres of land for his work.
Random note 3: Her son, Jean Baptiste, would become a minor celebrity as the only child to travel with Lewis & Clark. At one point he was taken to Europe where he associated with royalty, learned four languages, married, and had a child. After his son died young, Jean Baptiste returned to the U.S. where he became a guide, a gold prospector, and a hotel clerk. He died in 1866 at the age of 61 looking for gold in Montana. Lizette died in childhood.
(Image of the 1994 Sacagawea stamp is courtesy of Stamp of Approval, which is a sister site of the the United States Postal Service’s tumblr. There were no images of Sacagawea created of her during her lifetime.)