By Allison K. Lange, Wentworth Institute of Technology
When we learn about the colonization of North America, it seems like Native peoples and Europeans always worked in opposition to each other. However, it’s not the entire story. In some communities, Native peoples and Europeans worked with each other, like Sacagawea did, and historians refer to these examples as the ‘middle ground’.
Sacagawea’s Growing Years
Sacagawea was born around 1788 and was part of the Shoshone tribe. As a Shoshone girl, she would have learned to do many domestic tasks. She probably learned to process meat and skins, prepare food, make clothes, maintain her home space, and care for younger children. The Shoshone customarily promised girls at birth as partners to adult male members of the tribe. However, before she was officially partnered, Sacagawea was abducted by another tribe.
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. During her time with the Hidatsa, Sacagawea learned a new language and cultural practices. Hidatsa women were supposed to be hospitable to strangers and bring comfort to others, and they were supposed to work hard to support their community.
Sacagawea as Intermediary
By 1804, when she was about 16 years old, Sacagawea was once again forced to leave the community she knew. The Hidatsa gave her and another Shoshone woman to a French-Canadian trader named Toussaint Charbonneau. They became his property and his wives. Unfortunately, we know nothing about the other Shoshone woman. The Hidatsa hoped that the two women would be intermediaries between their tribe and French-Canadian traders.
This is a transcript from the video series 12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Relationship between French Canadians and Native Peoples
Since the early 17th century, French Canadians and Native peoples worked together and created extensive trade networks, often centered around the fur trade. Few French women came to North America, and, as one might guess, French men and Native women often had relationships and marriages. These marriages provided valuable connections to Native communities, and women did important labor to keep their new families housed, fed, and supplied. French men trapped animals such as beavers, while skilled Native women prepared their skins for sale.
Native women, like Sacagawea, performed practical, necessary labor, but they also provided the foundations for vital political and trading alliances.
Sacagawea didn’t know it yet, but her new role made her a crucial figure to cultivate connections between the Hidatsa, French-Canadian trade networks, and the recently founded United States.
Expedition Sponsored by the United States Government
Not long after Charbonneau became Sacagawea’s husband, an expedition sponsored by the United States government arrived in the area.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson had just finalized the Louisiana Purchase with France. The land included 828,000 square miles and covered a large swathe of what is now the middle of the United States. In theory, the land immediately became part of the new nation. But, in reality, tens of thousands of Native people in numerous different tribes already occupied and controlled the territory.
Jefferson wanted to change that. To extend the reach of his government into this area, he needed information. Maps could help him better understand the geography and create new westward routes. He wanted to learn about the local people as well as trees, plants, animals, and other resources that might be valuable.
The Corps of Discovery
Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead an expedition called the Corps of Discovery. In 1804, Clark and Lewis left St. Louis to venture West. By that fall, they set up a winter camp near Hidatsa and Mandan villages. They started to get to know them, including Charbonneau, who approached Clark and told him about his two Shoshone wives. They could help the expedition navigate the Shoshone territory.
They started working together, and on February 11, 1805, Sacagawea delivered her son at the US fort. She named her son Jean Baptiste, a French Catholic, rather than a Shoshone name. The event was important enough that Lewis recorded it in his journal.
The two men kept meticulous journals that provide important details about Sacagawea and the expedition. However, these types of documents don’t tell the whole story.
Charbonneau and Sacagawea Join the Expedition
After significant negotiations, Charbonneau and Sacagawea officially decided to join the group on their expedition. Lewis and Clark were especially interested in having Sacagawea with them. She knew several Native languages, understood different Native cultures, and had a sense of the landscape.
Though she wasn’t the only Native interpreter and guide, she was the only woman in the expedition. Other official interpreters were paid; Charbonneau was, but not Sacagawea herself. And let’s not forget that she had an infant to care for.
Lewis and Clark recognized that having a woman and child with them signaled to Native groups that they were a peaceful expedition rather than a military one. For example, Clark wrote that “The presence of Sacajawea with the expedition convinces all Indian people of the peaceful intentions of their party.”
Common Questions about Sacagawea’s Role in Cultivating Connections
As a Shoshone girl, Sacagawea would have learned to do many domestic tasks. She probably learned to process meat and skins, prepare food, make clothes, maintain her home space, and care for younger children.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson had finalized the Louisiana Purchase with France. In theory, the land immediately became part of the new nation, but, in reality, Native people in numerous different tribes already occupied and controlled the territory. Jefferson wanted to change that. To extend the reach of his government, he sponsored the expedition to learn more about the geography, the local people, and resources that might be valuable.
Lewis and Clark were interested in having Sacagawea with them as she knew several Native languages, understood different Native cultures, and had a sense of the landscape.