Sacajawea (1787-1812) – a three-cent stamp issued in 1954, and a second 29-cent stamp issued in 1994

Sacajawea was a member of the Shoshoni tribe that centered itself in modern Idaho.  She first encountered whites when she was separated from her people by warfare with an enemy tribe, the Hidatsa; taken captive about 1800, her fate became tied to that of a French Canadian, Toussaint Charbonneau, who lived among the natives.  By 1804, she was pregnant with Charbonneau’s child.

Sacajawea met the men of the Lewis & Clark expedition when both the natives and the newcomers camped along the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota during the winter of 1804-1805.  Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sought out the white Charbonneau, and the link to Sacajawea naturally followed.  They were pleased to have a native escort them into the unknown; she doubtless was grateful for the opportunity to return to her family.

Thus Sacajawea, Charbonneau, and their infant Jean Baptiste accompanied Lewis & Clark when they set off in April of 1805.  Departing when her postpartum period was barely over, Sacajawea was alone amid the party of men.  While breastfeeding her child, she not only acted as a guide into the unmapped wilderness, but also interpreted the languages of other tribes, crafted moccasins and other items from animal skins and introduced the men to native plants for food and medicine.  The pitfalls that she helped them avoid were eased by the presence of her baby, which indicated to natives that these white men considered themselves peaceful scientists, not an invading army.

The group saw their first Shoshoni on August 17, after traveling hundreds of miles over the prairies and into the Rockies.  During Sacajawea’s long exile, her brother had become chief of the Lemhi band of the Shoshonis; this proved of tremendous assistance, as Lemhis then escorted the whites over the treacherous Continental Divide.  Sacajawea spent the winter of 1805-1806 with her people, while more experienced scouts helped the Lewis & Clark party accomplish its aim of reaching the Pacific.  When the expedition returned in the spring of 1806, she traveled with them again, showing them through the Big Hole and Bozeman Passes of the Bitterroot Mountain Range, where elevations top seven thousand feet.  A portion of southwestern Montana near the Idaho border is now named the Sacajawea Historical Area.

Clearly affected by her experience with the whites, Sacajawea settled with Charbonneau in St. Louis in 1810, where she adopted the dress of white women.  Presumably this urban situation did not prove as satisfactory as either had hoped, and Sacajawea was described as “sickly” when they returned to the Dakota country the next year.  Most historians believe that she was “Charbonneau’s Snake Squaw” who is recorded as dying at the Army’s encampment of Fort Manuel Lisa near modern Omaha on December 20, 1812.

Click here to read Sacajawea's full biography.

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