USNS Sacagawea: The Story Behind the Namesake

The following blog post highlights the story of USNS Sacagawea‘s namesake and was originally posted online here.

“Through her unparalleled contributions to the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Sacagawea serves as an enduring symbol of selfless service and the unlimited potential of the human spirit.”

Sacagawea, the daughter of a Lemhi Shoshone chief, was born about 1788 in an area we now call Idaho. In 1800, she was kidnapped by Hidatsa (Minitari) Indians and taken to an area we now know as North Dakota. A short time after she was kidnapped, Sacagawea was sold to a French Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau, who later became her husband, and father of her two children (Jean Baptiste, Lisette). Jean Baptiste is the infant carried by Sacagawea in many depictions of her. Sacagawea is most famously remembered in American history as the lead interpreter and guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition.

In November 1804, the Corps of Discovery, under Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, arrived at the Hidatsa-Mandan villages. As Clark wrote in his journals, Charbonneau was hired as an interpreter through his wife. Sacagawea did not speak English but she did speak Shoshone and Hidatsa. Her husband spoke Hidatsa and French. Thus Sacagawea and Charbonneau became an interpreting team. Along with another expedition member who spoke French and English, a final translation would be made for the English speaking captains.

When the corps headed westward in April 1805, Sacagawea was the only woman to accompany the 33 members of the permanent party. Notably, she had given birth to her son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, two months before the expedition’s departure and carried him on the journey. He is often symbolized with her.

Sacagawea’s activities included digging for roots, collecting edible plants and picking berries; all of which were used as food and medicine for the expedition party. She also proved herself invaluable in other ways. Just a month in to the journey, she recovered many important tools, papers and supplies when the boat she was in nearly capsized in bad weather. Her calmness under duress earned her the compliments of the captains.

When the expedition encountered a group of Shoshones in August 1805, they were not only part of Sacagawea’s band but their leader was her brother, Cameahwait. Deeply moved by the reunion, Sacagawea might have chosen to return to her people. Instead, she helped the explorers secure the horses they needed and continued on the journey with them until they reached the Pacific coast.

On November 24, 1805, the expedition reached the place where the Columbia River emptied into the Pacific Ocean. Sacagawea’s vote was equally counted, as the explorers elected to stay near present-day Astoria, Oregon for the winter.

Sacagawea proved to be a valuable guide as the corps passed through her homeland on their return journey. She remembered Shoshone trails from her childhood and Clark praised her as his “pilot.” The expedition returned to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages on August 14, 1806 thus marking the journey’s end for Sacagawea and her family.

With no written records of Sacagawea’s life after the expedition, her later years have been left to legend. She has been portrayed in historical works, novels, paintings, sculptures, musical theater and, most recently, on the new golden dollar coin (the artist’s rendering shows her carrying her infant son on her back).

Today, USNS Sacagawea (T-AKE 2) is a Lewis and Clark class dry cargo/ammunition ship and belongs to MSC’s Prepositioning program, operating forward to support warfighters around the globe in honor of its legendary namesake.  

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