Sacagawea's Role and Importance in the Journey with Lewis and Clark
Travel with the CorpsSacagawea's travel route is marked on the journey map above. Although she played an important role in the Corps of Discovery, as Lewis and Clark's journey was called, she is mentioned only a few times in the captain's journals.
The dates listed next to the map indicate when Sacagawea was mentioned in the captain's journals. Learn about these rare insights into her life by clicking on the dates.
Most people have heard about Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who traveled with Lewis and Clark on their famous journey of discovery of the American West. Contrary to her romanticised image, however, Sacagawea was not the expedition's "girl guide." On a few occasions in Shoshone country she recognized features of the landscape and was able to reassure the captains that they were heading in the right direction. But most of the territory they passed through was as unfamiliar to her as it was to Lewis and Clark.
Sacagawea's main role on the journey was as an interpreter. The Shoshones possessed horses that the expedition needed to cross the Bitterroot Mountains. The captains felt that because of her Shoshone heritage, Sacagawea could be important in trading for horses when the Corps reached the western mountains and the Shoshones. While Sacagawea did not speak English, she spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. Her husband Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French. In effect, Sacagawea and Charbonneau would become an intepreter team. As Clark explained in his journals, Charbonneau was hired "as an interpreter through his wife." If and when the expedition met the Shoshones, Sacagawea would talk with them, then translate to Hidatsa for Charbonneau, who would translate to French. The Corps' Francois Labiche spoke French and English, and would make the final translation so that the two English-speaking captains would understand.
One of Sacagawea's greatest contributions was her mere presence, which seems to have disarmed potentially hostile tribes along the way. Some of these Indians, prepared to defend their lands, had never seen white men before. As Clark noted on October 19, 1805, the Indians were inclined to believe the whites were friendly when they saw Sacagawea. A war party never traveled with a woman especially a woman with a baby. As Clarke wrote, "The wife of Shabono our interpreter we find reconsiles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions a woman with a party of men is a token of peace."