Sacagawea, sometimes spelled Sacajawea or Sakakawea, was born in 1788 or 1789, into the Shoshone tribe in the western part of the Rocky Mountains. When she was about 10 or 11 years old, her tribe was attacked by the Hidatsa tribe, who killed many Shoshone, including Sacagawea's mother. Sacagawea tried to escape but was captured by the Hidatsa and taken hundreds of miles away to their village.
Sacagawea spent the next few years living with the Hidatsa near the Missouri River. She was either sold by the tribe to Toussaint Charbonneu, a French trapper and trader, or else Charbnneu won her gambling. He already had one Shoshone wife and took Sacajawea to be his second.
Around the same time, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and further explored the Missouri River. Along with their "Corps of Discovery," which consisted of about 40 soldiers, boatmen, and frontiersmen, they were asked to learn about the plants, animals, and Native Americans who lived in the West. In 1804, the Corps met Native American tribes including the Sioux and the Arikaras and arrived in the Hidatsa village where Sacagawea lived.
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Lewis and Clark decided to build a fort near the Hidatsa tribe and spend the winter there. Charbonneau offered to help the explorers, as he could communicate with the nearby tribes more easily than Lewis and Clark could. He was hired as an interpreter, bringing Sacagawea along to speak to the people in the Shoshone territory.
Sacagawea did not completely guide Lewis and Clark in their entire journey. She offered guidance on their route when they were in the areas familiar to her from her childhood. She also helped Lewis and Clark tell which plants could be used for food or medicine and translated with the Shoshone. Sacagawea's unofficial role was that of goodwill ambassador, as any tribes fearing for their safety would understand that the party was peaceful, once they saw a Native America woman with a small child.
After she rescued the records that Lewis and Clark had been carrying from a capsized boat, the explorers named the Sacagawea River in her honor. In late summer, 1805, the expedition found a Shoshone tribe with whom they were trying to trade with. When Sacagawea came to translate, she found that the chief of the tribe was her long-lost brother.
Sacagawea was gradually accepted as more of an equal in the expedition, even getting a vote in where they would spend the winter. When returning eastward, she advised that the expedition cross the Rocky Mountains at what is now known as Bozeman Pass, in the Yellowstone River basin. This is where the Northern Pacific Railway would later cross the continental divide.
After the expedition, Sacagawea and her husband spent three years with the Hidatsa. Finally, in 1809, they accepted Clark's invitation to live in St. Louis, Missouri. Their son went to a boarding school and they had a daughter soon afterward. Sacagawea is thought to have died three years later, in 1812, although some oral traditions hold that instead of dying, she left her husband in 1812 and married into a Comanche tribe.
May stories and traditions have sprung up around Sacagawea, partly because very few reliable sources about her life exist, and these do not go into great detail. As a woman and a Native American, she would not have been thought of as important enough to have detailed records of her life. Many ideas and traditions have been expressed in literature or oral history, attempting to fill in the blanks of her life.