Sacagawea's legacy

We broke camp early and headed south, following the Yellowstone River. Then, taking a quick jaunt through western Wyoming we tacked our ship, pointed it west and followed the Pacific sun.

This is my last write chronicling this Montana adventure, a class about Lewis and Clark and surviving on the land. I hoped to report back numerous findings and I had scribbled copious notes — all of which were inadvertently burned while starting a campfire.

I told my students that a sense of history does not come solely from knowledge. Sometimes one is guided by intuition. The land has its own mythology; visions come to me by something felt in the wind and something seen in a starlit night.

Subsequently I've been haunted by Sacagawea. Her life is a mystery. In 1800 she was kidnapped by a war party of Hidatsa Indians, enemies of her people, the Shoshone, and taken from the Rocky Mountains to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages in North Dakota.

Historians cite that she was a remarkably beautiful woman. Later she was sold as a slave to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trader. Her only role in life was to bear children, and be an obedient servant to her man. However, she was about to enter a grander stage.

In November 1804, the Corps of Discovery arrived at the Hidatsa-Mandan village. The captains Lewis and Clark, learning that Charbonneau's woman spoke Shoshone, agreed to hire him. In February 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to her son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who became America's youngest explorer.

This 17-year-old girl carrying her baby was unaware of the role she'd play in the making of American history. She quietly accepted her fate. By happenstance and a succession of unwarranted interventions, Sacagawea moved the journey westward.

Sacagawea and Jean Baptiste signaled peace and protected the expedition from attacks from indigenous peoples. She taught the men how to find edible plants, giving them needed vitamins and nourishment. She rescued the captains' journals that fell overboard from a capsized canoe. She brought a sense of calm to the Corps of Discovery as she nursed her baby amid the men.

She knew many languages and customs, and interpreted at important Indian councils. While negotiating for horses with the Shoshone Indians, the party learned the chief was her brother. She pointed out landmarks, which gave assurances that they were on the right trail. She was given the opportunity to vote, thus helping the captains determine where to camp in the winter of 1805. It would be more than 100 years before women were given this right.

Sacagawea died of putrid fever in 1812. She was 24. Captain Clark raised her children, Jean Baptiste and daughter Lizette. They would attend the finest schools in Europe.

Most of the corps disappeared into obscurity. John Colter became a mountain man, along with Jean Baptiste; Joseph Whitehouse and Patrick Gass joined the Army; John Ordway became a farmer; York eventually got his freedom; George Shannon became a state legislator; the Blackfoot killed George Drouillard; Alexander Willard became a gold prospector, and Charbonneau an interpreter.

Captain Clark lived an esteem life and died an old man; Meriwether Lewis, suffering from manic depression, took his own life in 1809.

On the way home I thought of Jefferson's words "…the work of Lewis and Clark was done for posterity…those who come after us will fill up the canvas we began."

Sacagawea was the miracle that promoted the deeds of worthy men. The captains found the Passage to India through her. There are more schools and parks named after Sacagawea than anyone in American history. But she lies somewhere in an unmarked grave, and mystery still defines her. All I know is that we are better because she passed this way with the captains.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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