We’re talking about a lot more than just the name of a hotel here—when it comes to icons of American history, Sacajawea ranks near the top. Most people familiar with the history of the western states know the name well, aware of her for her contribution to the flowing river of exploration and expansion in this country. The checkered past between European invaders and native peoples finds a brief moment of peace in the chapter of her story that involved working with the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
But who was Sacajawea, really? And how did she help shape the Missouri Headwaters Region that we know today? Her story goes far deeper than just her role as an interpreter and guide for the Corps of Discovery. Read on to find out more about the woman who helped shape the country’s history.
A turbulent girlhood would help shape a nation
Sacajawea was born a member of the Shoshone tribe in Idaho around 1788. At the age of 11 or 12, she was captured by enemy Hidatsa raiders. At the time when the Lewis & Clark Expedition passed through what is now North Dakota, she was living with the Mandan and Hidatsa, and married to French trader Toussaint Charbonneau. Charbonneau joined the expedition as an interpreter, but his young pregnant wife proved to be even more valuable.
The only woman to travel with the Corps of Discovery
As the only woman along on the expedition, Sacajawea brought an essential asset to the Corps. Having a woman with a baby traveling with the group set tribes living in the area at ease. Her presence reassured them that the strangers passing through their land were not a war party, but a potentially less dangerous group. Without her along, it’s possible that Lewis and Clark never would have met the Shoshone, who had the horses they desperately needed to make it over the Continental Divide.
Valuable aid in a challenging landscape
When the Corps finally did meet up with the Shoshone, Sacajawea translated along with her husband, providing another vital asset to the expedition. During that interaction, Sacajawea made a startling discovery—the leader of the group was her brother Cameahwait, who she would not have seen since her capture years before. This realization led to Lewis and Clark being able to purchase horses for the continuing journey westward.
How do you say her name?
In his journal, Clark first refers to her as Sah-kah-gar-wea. East of Montana, you’ll most often see the spelling commonly used in the journals, Sacagawea. But the story goes beyond that. Sakakawea means “Bird Woman” in Hidatsa (the language of her captors) which should sound like Tsi-ki-ka-wi-as. It’s a fitting name for someone who traveled as far as she did. Sacajawea’s own people, the Shoshone, spell her name the way we do, meaning “boat launcher.” The debate over her name is far-reaching, but there is only agreement when it comes to her massive contribution to the expedition.
There is much more to learn about the history of this powerful woman and the culture she came from. A visit to the headwaters of the Missouri near Three Forks, Montana, makes a perfect stop, beginning your journey into the heartland of US history.
If you enjoyed this blog, take a look at some of our other related articles:
- Sacajawea Hotel History
- The 4 Best Historic Hotels Of Montana
- Uncovering the Lewis & Clark Caverns: Exploring Beneath the Earth
- Headwaters Adventure Guide