The Native American woman who showed Lewis and Clark the way

Sacagawea was not afraid. Although she was only 16 years old and the only female in an exploration group of more than 45 people, she was ready to courageously make her mark in American history.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson bought more than 825,000 square miles of land from France in what was called the Louisiana Purchase. To explore this new part of the country, Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a two-year journey to report on what they found. They needed local guides to help them through this unknown territory. Sacagawea, a young Native American, joined them.

Born to a Shoshone chief around 1788, Sacagawea had been kidnapped by an enemy tribe when she was about 12, then sold to a French-Canadian trapper. When he was hired as a guide for Lewis and Clark’s expedition in 1804, Sacagawea also joined as an interpreter to talk to Native-American people on their 8,000-mile journey.

Sacagawea soon became a respected member of the group. She was skilled at finding plants for food and medicine to help keep the explorers alive. When a boat capsized on the Missouri River as they were crossing into what is now Montana, Sacagawea saved important books and much-needed supplies. When they needed horses to cross rough terrain, she convinced a Shoshone tribe—led by her long-lost brother—to give them some. She was so respected by Lewis and Clark that when they reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1805, Sacagawea was asked to cast her vote for where they should build a fort.

Sacagawea proved herself again after the group took a different route home through what is now Idaho. As they passed through her homeland, Sacagawea remembered Shoshone trails from her childhood and helped the expedition find their way through. Clark even praised her as his “pilot.”

Sacagawea left the group to return to what is now Bismarck, North Dakota, before the triumphant return of Lewis and Clark to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1806. She received no pay for her services and died on December 20, 1812. But Sacagawea’s bravery and skill live on in the expedition’s journals, which are full of praise for the 16-year-old Shoshone girl who guided the most famous American expedition of all time.