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Sacagawea's Contribution to Westward Expansion

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In 1803, Thomas Jefferson and the United States government purchased land from France, which during this time was led by Napoleon Bonaparte, for $15 million dollars. This was a plot of land on the western side of the Mississippi River in America that was a total of 827,000 square miles. Thomas Jefferson focused largely on exploration and expansion for the country, so he needed a group of men that would go out and explore this newly acquired land to map it out, make geological and biological discoveries, and see if people lived on the land. He hired the Corps of Discovery, a group of men made up of geographers, scientists, explorers, hunters, and interpreters that was led by two men. These two men were Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark, Virginia natives like Thomas Jefferson, and they will go down in history as the first men to go through Western America and reach the Pacific Ocean, but they did not complete this mission alone. They received large amounts of help from a sixteen-year-old Shoshone girl that they picked up along the journey, and her name was Sacagawea. Sacagawea is most known for being the sixteen-year-old Shoshone girl that helped Lewis and Clark on their expedition, but many people don’t know exactly what she did to contribute to the expedition and Westward Expansion. She was a Shoshone interpreter for Lewis and Clark, she gave them her extensive knowledge on the terrain, she kept peace and calmness between the natives and the white explorers, and ultimately led Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean.

Sacagawea and her Shoshone people were originally from the northern Idaho area near the Montana territory, but when Lewis and Clark found her she was in North Dakota. She ended up in North Dakota not by her free will, but by force. “The Shoshone were outnumbered, and Sacagawea was among those captured. She was taken to live with the Hidatsa in their Knife River village near what is now Bismarck, North Dakota” (Baker). She was pregnant with a man named Toussaint Charbonneau’s kid. Charbonneau was a wealthy fur trader that purchased her in 1802 to be his wife. The big issue with bringing Sacagawea along for the journey was that she was pregnant when they met her. The reason that she, a Native American woman, was able to go on the expedition because she was Charbonneau’s wife and she seemed of value for the journey.

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Sacagawea, having been a native of the land and having traveled across the Western United States, was very knowledgeable of the geographical layout of the land. She knew which rivers were safe to cross and which ones weren’t. There is even a story about how one of the boats flipped in a river and Sacagawea was able to save some very important tools and equipment along the riverbank. “The boat in which she was traveling with several of the men almost capsized in a gale. And it was she, according to the 1951 book Makers of the Americas (by Marion Lansing, W. Linwood Chase and Allan Nevins), who ‘caught and saved many of the valuable supplies and surveying instruments as they were washed overboard.’ Rhea Porter White also wrote about the boating episode, saying that Sacagawea (or Sacajawea, as White wrote it) ‘sat calmly in the stem and rescued most of the equipment as it floated past on the foaming water. Then, the frail Indian girl of only 110 pounds … dove into the water and brought up the few remaining pieces of vital equipment and instruments. Sacajawea’s legendary strength, wisdom and love for the white leaders was beginning to unfold'” (Nielson). She also was extremely knowledgeable about what large predators lived in the area. The Shoshone people considered themselves the “Wolf People” because where they lived was an area where a large population of wolves lived. This knowledge was important for the expedition because allowed for minimal incidents where the group ran into dangerous animals. Despite the research done and the stories told, some scholars don’t believe that Sacagawea played an important role in leading the wat to the Pacific Ocean. The author Quig Nielson wrote, “Early twentieth-century historians tended to glorify her role,’ writes Harold P. Howard in his 1971 book Sacajawea. ‘More recent writers are inclined to minimize her contribution, and even to adopt a somewhat scornful view of her assistance to the explorers.’ The truth no doubt lies somewhere in between. It certainly was not the ‘Sacagawea Expedition’; she did not guide Captains Lewis and Clark all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But she did know some of the geography they passed through.” But the scholars that agree with this statement also agree that she did play key roles in interpreting and other small tasks.

One of Sacagawea’s major accomplishments during the expedition was being able to make and keep peace between the natives and the white men she was with. Since the first European’s go there with Christopher Columbus, there has always been violence and death between Native Americans and white people. Sacagawea having traveled around the territory and having visited with other tribes was able to keep peace and calmness between the explorers and natives. Sacagawea obviously wasn’t a professional geographer, so when she didn’t know where they were or which way to go, they would ask tribes in the area peacefully. “From this point on in the westward journey Sacagawea was no doubt as unfamiliar with the geographic features as the others. She certainly was not someone who could guide them to the West coast. Still, her presence–and that of her baby–was important. Clark wrote in his journal entry for October 13, 1805, that Sacagawea ‘reconciles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions–a woman with a party of men is a token of peace'” (Nielson). It was not uncommon for white men to go searching for Native American tribes to raid them or kill them, so it wouldn’t be unusual for the tribes that the Corps of Discovery visited to assume that is why they are here. “The corps was an isolated force operating in unknown territory, facing the possibility of encountering large numbers of Indians who might regard its passage through their country as a threat. Here, Sacagawea–certainly in the minds of the expedition’s leaders–proved indispensable. War parties did not customarily travel with women, certainly not with a woman bearing her infant. Sacagawea’s presence thus sent observers a nuanced yet readily understood signal: we are not a war party (McCoy). It is safe to assume that it would have been a completely different journey of Sacagawea and her child was not with then Corps during the expedition. There would have been bloodshed, pain, and violence, and lots of it.

One of the reasons Thomas Jefferson wanted this long expedition was for scientific discovery and research. “In 1803, before he even knew the outcome of the Monroe-Livingston negotiations for New Orleans that he had authorized, he asked Congress to support a ‘scientific expedition’ to study the people, lands, and animal and plant species of the North American continent across the Louisiana territory and on to the Pacific Ocean” (Fraser 241). Sacagawea, having been native to the land purchased by the United States, was much more knowledgeable about the different plant and animal species of the area. There is a story about how there were some berries and other plants that were poisonous and if Sacagawea didn’t inform the men about them, they would have most likely have eaten them. One of the biggest struggles for the men in the Corps of Discovery was starvation, but Sacagawea was able to scavenge food for them because she knew where certain fruits and vegetables were grown and this kept them from starving to death. Fraser on page 242 of By the People: A History of the United States wrote about how Sacagawea started off as just a laundress and cook for the men but later in the expedition became a key member of the team because of her ability to find food for them to eat. One of the species that the Americans have not seen yet is the grizzly bear. Some Native Americans and fur traders tried to warn the group about traveling farther West because of the large grizzly bear population, but they continued anyway. Their first encounter with a grizzly bear was in Montana in 1805, and some of the hunters in the Corps were able to kill it. The information that was collected by studying the dead bear was brought by to the other side of the Mississippi and was used in scientific research and to warn people of the dangers of the western wilderness.

The skill that Sacagawea is mostly known for during the Lewis and Clark expedition was her ability to interpret and translate. The two languages that Sacagawea spoke fluently were Shoshone and English, but she also spoke some Hidatsa. When the group would encounter native tribes, she would be able to tell them that they were harmless and just on a journey. Also when they were lacking food or other resources, Sacagawea would be able to negotiate for the Corps of Discovery. In one article, the author wrote, “Acting as interpreter, Sacagawea helped Lewis and Clark convince the Shoshones of the expedition’s urgent need for horses” (Behan). Also, Ron McCoy wrote about this saying, “The corps already had a French-English interpreter in its retinue. With a trio of linguists in tow, it possessed an English-French-Hidatsa-Shoshone linguistic chain. This would allow Lewis and Clark to converse with the Shoshones when they reached the tribe’s territory. That far into the journey, somewhere around the Continental Divide, horses would be needed. It was known from trappers’ reports that the Shoshones possessed plenty of horses, but would they sell their animals to these outsiders? Or might they annihilate the invaders? Nobody seems to have known it then, but the answer to that question lay, to a large degree, in Sacagawea’s hands.” It was a common occurrence that the group would have to negotiate for some food and Sacagawea would help trade or purchase the food for them. Since the territory was filled with mainly Shoshone or Hidatsa, Sacagawea did most of the interpreting and played a huge role in the expedition, but she wasn’t the only interpreter. Her husband, Charbonneau, was also an interpreter but for French and Spanish and he was on the expedition because there were some French and Spanish military powers in North America. All in all, the majority of the people they would encounter were natives and fur traders, so Sacagawea would have done most of the interpreting.

Sacagawea could have possibly been the most important person on that expedition. Even though some scholars don’t believe she played a major role int eh Lewis and Clark Expedition, her contributions were not forgotten by America. In recent history, she is still remembered such as in the year 2000 when her face replaced Susan B, Anthony’s face on the 1 dollar coin. This brought pride to Native Americans, especially Native American women, in the United States. The expedition and Westward Expansion as a whole would have been completely different if it wasn’t for her. She helped navigate the first complete journey to the Pacific Ocean through America and if she and the Corps would have failed the expedition, who knows how long it would’ve been before someone else completed the expedition. An expedition like this was unheard of during this time and seemed near impossible. These were some of the best explorers in the country at the time and they still had a rough journey with Sacagawea’s help so imagine the expedition without her help. Also, her job as interpreter helped create alliances and relationships between the natives and whites which was almost unseen during this time. The Americans often fought with the natives, wiping out whole tribes and burning down their homes. Or the natives would by guns from the French and be able to properly fight back against the Americans. But during the expedition, no fighting, no bloodshed, and no violence occurred between the Americans and the natives. This was a very crucial part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Sacagawea helped geographically navigate Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery through the new Louisiana territory, she helped keep peace and helped build relationships between the natives and the Americans, she interpreted for the explorers, and overall helped the United States expand westward towards the Pacific Ocean.

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