While one may have not heard of all the women who have shaped America, most would definitely have heard of Sacagawea. The US has a gold dollar coin that depicts her, and, according to the National Park Service, “There are more statues [in the United States] dedicated to Sacagawea than to any other American woman.”
Childhood of Sacagawea
Sacagawea was born around 1788 in a valley of the Lemhi River that is now part of Idaho. She was part of the Shoshone tribe, possibly a northern band of the tribe called the Agaiduka. At birth, and for the first decade or so of her life, her name was Boo-wy-ee-puh, which means ‘Grass Woman’.
Around 1800, when Sacagawea was about 12 years old, members of the Hidatsa tribe captured her while her tribe was on an expedition outside of their usual territory. The Hidatsa gave her the name we know her by today: Sacagawea.
Myths and Facts about Sacagawea
Sacagawea has become part of American mythology about the nation’s founding, westward expansion, and place of Native peoples in the United States. Over the centuries, Americans have portrayed her as a Native woman—sometimes even as Indian princess—who was eager to help the white explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their mission to map and help expand the United States. Some suggest she singlehandedly ensured the success of the mission. But she was a real person. She had her own motives, culture, experiences, and limitations.
First, it’s important to note that there are few historical sources that tell us about her life. And that’s true for many Native people from that era. In the oral tradition, they passed down their histories from generation to generation, rather than writing texts.
Most of what we know about Sacagawea and many Native peoples, we learn from documents written by the white European men who encountered them. These explorers rarely took the time to understand Native cultures. The journals they wrote and the letters they sent often represent them as ‘savages’ that they need to convert to Christianity and civilize. They viewed Native people as an obstacle to their plan to secure land and resources.
This is a transcript from the video series 12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Rich Culture of Natives
In reality, Native tribes had complex languages, religions, cultures, histories, and ever-changing political alliances. Some tribes, like the Pueblos, built adobe homes into cliffs. Others like the Mandan settled along rivers with rich soil and farmed. In contrast, the Great Plains Indians were more mobile and followed herds of bison, their source of food and other necessities. These varied lifestyles created the foundations for vastly different communities. Sometimes they competed with each other for territory and resources, while other times they were allies.
When European colonizers arrived, they didn’t grasp the rich cultures they encountered. And it’s fair to say they didn’t care to understand them because they viewed Native peoples as inferior.
Powerful Native Women
The European colonizers also did not realize that women often had far more power in Native communities than in European ones. The historical documents written by Europeans at this time rarely name individual Native women.
The lack of names is one reason that women who are named, like Sacagawea—and Pocahontas before her—stand out in our histories of early America. These two women did quite similar work as diplomats between their tribal communities and colonizers. By the time Lewis and Clark set out on their expedition in 1804, they likely already knew about the important role that Pocahontas had played in connecting the Powhatan Confederacy with British settlers.
Role Played by Pocahontas
In 1614, Pocahontas’ father, the chief, wanted to create an alliance between his tribe and the European inhabitants. He probably hoped a stronger bond would lead to peaceful relations and better trading opportunities. So, the chief allowed his daughter, Pocahontas, to marry the Virginia colonist John Rolfe. Essentially, she acted as an ambassador for her Native community.
Pocahontas converted to Christianity, had a child with Rolfe, and even traveled to England. Perhaps she really did all of this because she loved Rolfe, but she certainly did this work to strengthen the relationship between these two communities.
We only have one portrait of Pocahontas made during her lifetime. The artist, Simon van de Passe, created this engraving during her visit to England in 1616. The portrait represents Pocahontas in fairly traditional clothing worn by the British elite, which symbolized the idea that Native people could assimilate into European culture. The caption emphasizes this message by noting that she converted to Christianity and married an Englishman.
Similarly, Sacagawea was one of the many Native women who acted as emissaries for relationships between colonizers and tribes. Later generations of Native women followed in her path as intermediaries between the government and their tribes.
Sacagawea gradually emerged as a symbol to become part of the fight for women’s rights.
Common Questions about Sacagawea
Around 1800, when she was about 12 years old, members of the Hidatsa tribe captured Sacagawea while her tribe was on an expedition outside of their usual territory. The Hidatsa gave her the name we know her by today: Sacagawea.
There are few historical sources that tell us about Sacagawea‘s life. Native people passed down their histories from generation to generation, rather than writing texts. Most of what we know about Sacagawea and many Native peoples, we learn from documents written by the white European men who encountered them.
In 1614, Pocahontas’ father, the chief, wanted to create an alliance between his tribe and the European inhabitants. He probably hoped a stronger bond would lead to peaceful relations and better trading opportunities. So, he allowed his daughter, Pocahontas, to marry the Virginia colonist John Rolfe. Essentially, she acted as an ambassador for her Native community.