American icon Sacagawea was instrumental in the Lewis and Clark expedition. However, the circumstances surrounding her death and even when and where she died are murky and hotly contested.
Sacagawea has inspired countless girls to have greater strength and courage in their lives. Around age 16, this Lemhi Shoshone young woman joined Lewis and Clark on their journey across the American West, acting as an interpreter and occasional guide. She did this while carrying her baby Jean Baptiste upon her back. What the Lewis and Clark Expedition achieved was impressive, but what Sacagawea achieved seems heroic and unimaginable.
Despite the important place Sacagawea holds in American history, the stories regarding her death remain contested. Some insist she died in December 1812 in South Dakota at the age of 24. Others contend she lived to age 96 and died on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming Territory in 1884, reunited with her Shoshone kinsmen. The Hidatsa use Sacagawea (meaning Bird Woman or Eagle Woman). Shoshones used Sacajawea (meaning boat-pusher).
Between 1825 and 1828, William Clark created a list of the expedition members of the Corps of Discovery and identified where each of them were. Next to Sacagawea’s name he wrote, “dead.” This matches other primary accounts that record one of Toussaint Charbonneau’s wives died at Fort Manuel in December 1812. Additional primary sources indicate that Clark adopted her two children, Jean Baptiste and Lisette, the following year in 1813, offering additional credence to the notion that she likely died in December 1812.
Clark’s record conflicts with Shoshone oral histories about Bird Woman’s life and death recorded by University of Wyoming historian Grace Hebard in the early twentieth century. She interviewed several Shoshones and recorded their traditions. They described Sacagawea having left her abusive husband Charbonneau and traveled to Colorado territory to live with her cousins, the Comanches. She purportedly married a warrior named Jerk Meat, raised a family, and eventually returned home to live out her twilight years with the Eastern Shoshone on the Wind River Reservation. There she lived out her last days with her son Jean Baptiste and eventually died in peace. Her son is also reported by some to have died there and to be buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Wind River Mountain range. Other accounts clearly identify Jean Baptiste Charbonneau as dying in Danner, Oregon in 1866.
It is conceivable that these oral accounts attributed to the Bird Woman may also refer to another Shoshone woman who had life experiences similar to Sacagawea. No matter where her final resting place is, the grave in the Ethete cemetery marked with Sacajawea’s name stands as an important historical landmark because of how it honors this great Shoshone woman, pays tribute to her memory, and recognizes her contributions to history. While the spot marked here at the Sacajawea Cemetery near Fort Washakie, Wyoming may not be her actual resting place, it is still a remarkable place to visit for any American who wants to celebrate the life of this great explorer, or for any woman who wants to connect with a true heroine.