In 1800, a 12 year old Shoshone girl by the name of Sacajawea was
abducted by the Hidatsa Indians, later to be sold as a slave to
Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trapper, who then married
her. When the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition hired Charbonneau
as a steersman, Sacajawea joined the team as guide and interpreter. In
1805, while traveling with the expedition, Sacagawea gave birth to her
son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau.
The following excerpts from
First Across the Continent: The Story of The Exploring Expedition of
Lewis and Clark in 1804-5-6 by Noah Brooks are representative of
the importance of Sacajawea to the expedition, and the respect and
admiration she earned for her courage and intelligence.
This man's wife, Sacajawea, whose Indian name was translated "Bird
Woman," had been captured from the Snake Indians and sold to
Charbonneau, who married her. She was "a good creature, of a mild and
gentle disposition, greatly attached to the whites." In the expedition
she proved herself more valuable to the explorers than her husband,
and Lewis and Clark always speak of her in terms of respect and
The following entry is a good example of Sacajawea's importance to
the survival of the expedition. The journals of Lewis and
Clark contain several entries describing events and situations in
which Sacajawea prevented the explorers from getting lost, or making
other mistakes which would have surely brought the expedition to an
This was the narrow escape of one of our canoes, containing all our
papers, instruments, medicine, and almost every article indispensable
for the success of our enterprise. The canoe being under sail, a
sudden squall of wind struck her obliquely and turned her
considerably. The man at the helm, who was unluckily the worst
steersman of the party, became alarmed, and, instead of putting her
before the wind, luffed her up into it. The wind was so high that it
forced the brace of the square-sail out of the hand of the man who was
attending it, and instantly upset the canoe, which would have been
turned bottom upward but for the resistance made by the awning. Such
was the confusion on board, and the waves ran so high, that it was
half a minute before she righted, and then nearly full of water, but
by bailing her out she was kept from sinking until they rowed ashore.
Besides the loss of the lives of three men, who, not being able to
swim, would probably have perished, we should have been deprived of
nearly everything necessary for our purposes, at a distance of between
two and three thousand miles from any place where we could supply the
Fortunately, there was no great loss from this accident, which was
caused by the clumsiness and timidity of the steersman, Charbonneau.
Captain Lewis's account of the incident records that the conduct of
Charbonneau's wife, Sacajawea, was better than that of her cowardly
husband. He says:--
"The Indian woman, to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution
with any person on board at the time of the accident, caught and
preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard."
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