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Long Journey West
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Art by David Grove   
By Margaret TalbotPhotographs by Chris Johns

What we know about her: She was a teenage mother and a valued interpreter for Lewis and Clark. What we don't know about her: Almost everything else.

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May 14, 1805, started off auspiciously for the Lewis and Clark expedition, but by evening a gusty wind was blowing along the Missouri River, threatening disaster. It was late afternoon when a sudden squall nearly capsized one of the boats, the white pirogue that carried the most vital instruments, trade goods, and papers—"in short," wrote Meriwether Lewis, "almost every article indispensibly necessary to further the views, or insure the success of the enterprize."

At the helm of the pirogue, alas, was Toussaint Charbonneau, the French-Canadian fur trader who served as an interpreter for the expedition. Charbonneau had an unfortunate tendency to panic in a crisis, which, coupled with the fact that he couldn't swim, made him, in Lewis's estimation, "perhaps the most timid waterman in the world."

Lewis and Clark themselves were stranded on shore, reduced to shooting into the air in a futile attempt to attract the crew's attention. The waves were mounting higher, the boat was filling to its gunwales, and Charbonneau, who was "crying to his god for mercy," had "not yet recollected the rudder." Lewis was about to hurl himself into the river when it occurred to him that swimming the 300 yards to the boat in freezing, turbulent water would be "madness." To convince the petrified Charbonneau to do his duty and take hold of the rudder, another man on board the pirogue finally threatened to shoot him.

Amid all the shouting and gunshots and waves, however, there was one member of the expedition who proved calm and resourceful: Charbonneau's teenage wife, Sacagawea, the only woman in the party. Though no one seems to have instructed her to, Sacagawea reached into the water and fished out the articles that were swiftly floating away from the boat. A day and a half later, with most of these precious goods dried and repacked, Lewis realized the expedition had averted disaster.

"The Indian woman," he wrote in his journal on May 16, "to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person onboard at the time of the accedent, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard."

It is one of those rare but powerful moments in the journals that make you long to know more about this woman whom we recognize mostly as a sturdy figure of American mythology—a face on a coin. The very sketchiness of our knowledge has permitted novelists, feminists, and Native American tribes with dueling claims to project what they wish upon Sacagawea, to see her as a metaphor more than a human being. But who was she, really?

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Online Extra

Learn about the life of Sacagawea's son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who was born on the expedition and traveled with his mother the entire journey.


Little is known about Sacagawea's life, and no one knows what she looked like. Still, she is remembered as a remarkable woman. Why has she caught our imagination so strongly?


Send a friend a bit of history with this vintage
e-greeting of a Hidatsa hunter.


Is this Hidatsa hunter from the early 1900s holding an eagle he caught, or is he posed with a prop? Only he—and the photographer—know for sure.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
In grade school I was taught that the young Shoshone girl who was captured by the Hidatsa Indians and then traveled with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was named Sacajawea. When I read Stephen Ambrose's book Undaunted Courage, I was surprised to see the name spelled Sacagawea. Then I really became confused when I learned that in North Dakota the teen is referred to as Sakakawea!

The debate over the spelling and pronunciation of Sacagawea has been going on for decades. The captains recorded their interpreter's name more than a dozen times in their journals, each time using phonetic spelling and each time using a hard "g" in the third syllable. For example, on June 10, 1805, Clark noted "Sah cah gah we a our Indian woman verry sick." Lewis earlier recorded that the name meant "bird woman." Many geographers and historians have now adopted a spelling that most closely follows the one found in the journals: Sacagawea (sah-KAH-guh-WEE uh). It is derived from two Hidatsa words: sacaga, meaning bird, and wea, meaning woman.

Shoshone advocates, though, proclaim that the young explorer should really be known as Sacajawea. This version of the name first appeared in the 1814 edition of the Lewis and Clark journals edited by Nicholas Biddle. Biddle never gave a reason for spelling it with a j instead of a hard g. Later researchers alleged it stemmed from the Shoshone for "boat pusher."

As for Sakakawea, that apparently originated in a 19th-century Hidatsa ethnology compiled by a U.S. Army surgeon. His work stated that the phrase "bird woman" in Hidatsa is tsakakawias, which the North Dakota Historical Society then anglicized to Sakakawea.

—Abigail Tipton

Did You Know?

Related Links

Lewis and Clark
Explore the world of Lewis and Clark through journal entries, historical photos, drawings, and more.

Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery
Follow the Corps of Discovery on its journey from St. Louis to the Pacific on this interactive, animated, and informative website. Read a history of the expedition, find lesson plans for use in the classroom, and play games with the kids.

Lewis and Clark Expedition
What if you had been the leader of the Corps of Discovery? How would you have handled the unexpected difficulties it encountered?  This website allows you to play the role of captain, make those decisions, and guide the expedition on its way west, learning of the obstacles it encountered along the way.

Hidatsa Indians
Visit this site to learn about the history and culture of the tribal group that captured Sacagawea.

Fort Lemhi Indian Community
Visit this site to learn more about Sacagawea's people, the Lemhi-Shoshone, and their efforts to restore federal tribal recognition. The site also offers articles, photographs, and their federal petition.


Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage. Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Anderson, Irving W. "A Charbonneau Family Portrait," The American West (March/April 1980), 4-13.

Duncan, Dayton. Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Kessler, Donnna J. The Making of Sacagawea. The University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Moulton, Gary E., ed. The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, vols. 2-8. University of Nebraska Press, 1986-1993.

Ronda, James P. Lewis & Clark among the Indians. University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Schmidt, Thomas, and Jeremy Schmidt. The Saga of Lewis & Clark. Tehabi Books, Inc., 1999.


NGS Resources
Salter, Cathy Riggs. "Lewis and Clark's Lost Missouri," National Geographic (April 2002), 90-97.

O'Gara, Geoffrey. "Lewis & Clark: Trouble on the Trail," National Geographic Traveler (March 2002), 54-65.

"1803-1848: The Pathfinders: Exploring the Frontiers," Map supplement. National Geographic (September 2000).

McKelway, Margaret. "Into the Unknown: The Incredible Adventures of Lewis and Clark," National Geographic World (July 1999), 14-18.

Fisher, Ron. "Lewis and Clark, Naturalist-Explorers," National Geographic (October 1998), 76-93.

Ambrose, Stephen E. "Lewis & Clark: Voyage of Discovery," National Geographic Books, 1998.

Schmidt, Thomas. "National Geographic's Guide to the Lewis & Clark Trail," National Geographic Books, 1998.

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