On May 14, 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition was pushing up the Missouri River when a sudden squall hit the sail of one of their boats and swamped it. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, ashore at the time, looked on in horror as “our papers, instruments, books, medicine, a great part of our merchandise, and in short almost every article indispensably necessary to . . . insure the success of the enterprise” threatened to float away.
While the men struggled to get the boat to land, the expedition’s only female member quickly and calmly plucked the supplies from the icy river. “The Indian woman, to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution with any person on board at the time of accident, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard,” Lewis wrote in his journal. Six days later, the grateful captains named “a handsome river of about fifty yards in width” in Montana after Sacagawea, the young Shoshone woman.
Sacagawea (whose name means “bird woman”), the wife of a French trader, was hired by Lewis and Clark as an interpreter. Strapping her baby son on her back, she trekked west with the explorers on their famous “Voyage of Discovery” to the Pacific. Along the way she helped communicate with some of the Indians they encountered. In the Rockies, the Corps of Discovery met a band of Shoshone whose chief turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother. She helped persuade them to provide horses needed to cross the mountains.
Sacagawea’s fortitude and perseverance have made her a favorite American heroine. In 2000, the U.S. Mint began issuing dollar coins bearing the image of the young explorer carrying herson, Jean Baptiste.