Sacagawea’s part in the expedition began with the party’s hope to acquire horses. She was to help guide the expedition to the headwaters of the Columbia River. However, her role evolved greatly during the voyage.
She served as an interpreter, and expedition members hoped she would speak kindly of them to American Indians they met along the way. She was also valued as a woman. As expedition co-leader William Clark noted in his journal, “one woman with a party of men is a token of peace.”
Sally McBeth, professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado, frequently teaches seminars on Sacagawea and her role as one of America’s first heroines.
“Sacagawea has been described by many as the guide and pilot of the Lewis and Clark expedition,” McBeth said.
Sacagawea’s knowledge of the land helped her identify edible and medicinal plants to help feed and treat members of the expedition. Expedition co-captain Meriwether Lewis wrote that Sacagawea was a young woman of superior character who showed as much resolution and fortitude as any of his 30 men.
In his journal, Clark wrote of Sacagawea, “Indeed she has borne with patience truly admirable, the fatigues of so long a route, encumbered with an infant, who is even now, only 19 months old”; “In trouble she was full of resources, plucky and determined”; and “Intelligent, cheerful, tireless, faithful, she inspired us all.”
Sacagawea remains a symbol of strength for women nationwide, McBeth said.
“In the eyes of today’s American woman, this Indian woman integrates many of the ambiguities of what ‘being a woman’ means,” McBeth said. “She shows signs of being respected by the men in her group and bravery, two things women strive for today.”
Sacagawea received no pay for her help. Clark wrote a letter to Sacagawea’s husband in which he expressed his regret that the expedition was unable to compensate Sacagawea for her assistance. “Your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific (Ocean) and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her.”
Sacagawea’s own thoughts were unrecorded. She died during an epidemic of “putrid fever” in 1812.