by Irving W. Anderson

This article first appeared in the Summer, 1975 issue of We Proceeded On

History has accorded the Shoshoni Indian woman member of the Lewis and
Clark Expedition a most novel place in the hearts and minds of generations of
Americans. That her fame is deserving is evident from historical records.
However, early in the twentieth century she was elevated by romanticists to a
legendary status far beyond her mortal achievements, and placed at the very
pinnacle of renown as America’s most famous Indian heroine.

The deeds of Sacagawea are well known to students of the Lewis and Clark
Expedition. But a curious mystique completely envelopes two dimensions of her
life’s story: 1) A disparity persists among her admirers concerning the derivation,
spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of her name; and 2) A dispute has raged
for nearly a century, concerning her fate following the expedition, especially
events relating to the time and place of her final hours. With respect to the
latter, a popular theory that evolved through a circumstance of mistaken
identity purports that she died April 9, 1884, and was buried at Fort Washakie,
Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming. Contravening that theory is decisive
documentary evidence that traces a complete chronology of her life, conclusively
placing her at Fort Manuel (South Dakota), at the time of her death, December
20, 1812.

Lewis and Clark identified Sacagawea as a woman of the "Snake" (Shoshoni)
nation who had been captured and enslaved by the Hidatsa Indians of Knife
River (North Dakota) five years prior to first meeting her in November 1804, at
their Fort Mandan winter headquarters. She then was about 17 years old, and
pregnant. Her "husband" was French-Canadian fur trader, Toussaint
Charbonneau, who resided among the Hidatsa and Mandan Indians. Toussaint
had purchased Sacagawea from the Hidatsa, and claimed her as his "wife" a la
facon du pays (after the fashion of the country).

Toussaint, who was conversant in French and Hidatsa was hired as an
interpreter by the captains. Sacagawea, who spoke both Shoshoni and Hidatsa,
was recruited as an "interpreter through Toussaint." The Shoshoni woman’s
pregnancy resulted in the birth of a son (Jean Baptiste Charbonneau) at Fort
Mandan, February 11, 1805. The boy, whom Clark nicknamed "Pomp" or
"Pompy", accompanied his parents to the Pacific and back to Mandan during

The commanders recognized that Sacagawea could make a significant
contribution to the party if it encountered the Shoshonis when it reached her
homeland in the "Rock Mountains." This foresight would later be borne out when
she proved vital as an interpreter among her own people, negotiating for horses
needed by the explorers to cross the "tremendous mountains" that lay before

With respect to her name, it is found spelled fourteen times total, by Lewis and
Clark, and once by Sergeant John Ordway in the explorer’s original manuscript
journals, primary documentary sources. Although their flair for inspired spelling
created some interesting variations, in every instance, including three
additional spellings on Clark’s maps, all three of the journalists who attempted
to write it were consistent in the use of a "g" in the third syllable. Lewis gave not
only his rendition of the spelling of her name but also its meaning. His journal
entry for May 20, 1805, reads: "a handsome river of about fifty yards in width
discharged itself into the shell [Mussellshell] river...this stream we called
Sah-ca-gah-we-ah or bird woman’s River, after our interpreter the Snake

Lewis and Clark history scholars, together with the U. S. Geographic Names
Board, the U. S. National Park Service, the National Geographic Society,
Encyclopedia Americana, and World Book Encyclopedia, among others, have
adopted the Sacagawea form. The Bureau of American Ethnology, as early as
1910 had standardized the Sacagawea spelling in its publications. Although
Sacagawea was a Shoshoni by birth, her name traces its etymology to the
Hidatsa Indian tribe, among whom she lived most of her adult life. The name
derives from two Hidatsa Indian words: sacaga, meaning bird, and wea, meaning
woman. It is pronounced sä-cä´gä-we-ä, with a hard "g". Clark would later
explain that in taking Indian vocabularies "great object was to make every letter

Over the years, a number of linguistic attempts to decipher the mystery of her
name have been published. Shoshoni advocates claim her as "Sacajawea"
(pronounced sak´ä-jä-we-ä), a form of her name which has become widely
popularized both in spelling and pronunciation, especially in the Far West. This
leads to complications however, because her name never was spelled "Sacajawea"
by her contemporaries during her lifetime. Moreover, "Sacajawea" allegedly
means the equivalent of "boat launcher" or "boat pusher" in Shoshoni, which
contradicts Lewis and Clark’s primary documentation, "bird woman".

The "Sacajawea" spelling derives from the 1814 narrative of the journey, a
secondary source published two years after Sacagawea’s death. The narrative
was edited by Nicholas Biddle, a classical scholar who never met Sacagawea, so
never heard how she pronounced her own name. Biddle worked from the
captains’ original longhand journal entries, correcting spelling and grammar,
and substantially abridging many daily entries. Biddle gave no clue as to why he
decided upon the "Sacajawea" spelling, when all of the primary documents
available to him spelled the name with a "g". Apparently, the only basis for his
spelling the name with a "j" was editorial prerogative.

In addition, certain North Dakota Hidatsa advocates vigorously promote a
"Sakakawea" (pronounced sä-kä´kä-we-ä) spelling and pronunciation form of her
name. Similarly, the "Sakakawea" spelling is not found in the Lewis and Clark
journals. To the contrary, this spelling traces its origin neither through a
personal connection with her, nor in any primary literature of the expedition. It
has been independently constructed from two Hidatsa Indian words found in a
dictionary titled: Ethnography and Philoloqy of the Hidatsa Indians, published
by the Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1877. Compiled by U. S.
Army Surgeon, Dr. Washington Matthews, sixty-five years following
Sacagawea’s death, the words appear verbatim in the dictionary as "tsa-ka-ka,
noun; a bird," and "mia [wia, bia], noun; a woman." Dr. Matthews would later
explain: "In my dictionary I give the Hidatsa word for bird as ‘Tsakáka.’ Ts is
often changed to S, and K to G, in this and other Indian Languages, so ‘Sacága’
would not be a bad spelling...but never ‘Sacaja’ [for bird]." On page 90 of Dr.
Matthews dictionary it is explained that there is no j included in the Hidatsa
alphabet, and that g is pronounced as a "hard g."

This researcher agrees with the sources cited above, that the matter has been
decisively treated by the disciplines of orthography, ethnology, and philology,
with the effect of formally establishing the Sacagawea spelling and
pronunciation. Hopefully, over time, the American "editorial ethic" will edge
toward uniform adoption of the Sacagawea form. We owe it to America’s most
famous Indian heroine at least to correctly spell and pronounce her name!